Rock Band 3 at Eurogamer Expo 2010

When Guitar Hero first dropped onto the scene I was a hater. Not because I hate guitar music. Far from it, I was a complete metal nugget as a youth and a living testament to the adage once a metaller always a metaller. No, what I hated about it was that being able to play a real guitar, Guitar Hero totally threw me. Especially when confronted by a song I knew by heart. The game’s telling me to press the blue button but my fingers are telling me to power chord G and then shred like a demon.

Since my metal nugget past is no secret here at the Critical Complex, it’s me that gets the job of checking this latest pretend-to-be-a-rockstar game out. I’m not looking forward to it. I had a blast with the first one, though, because it had drums and I like a good air drumming session as much as the next Keith Moon wannabe. That and I’m far too much of a show off to shy away from standing in front of the mic and singing out of key at full volume.

When I get there, first thing on Friday morning, the game is being baby sat by MTV and Harmonix staff and they’re guiding journos through some of the features. They have all the individual instruments set up and a whole band spot too, but the peripheral that catches my eye is the new guitar. Instead of the coloured buttons at the end of the neck, this one has six string like buttons on each and every fret, with a set of six strings on the body, making it look like the closest thing these games have got to a real guitar. Now I’m interested. Funnily enough, not many people want to try it out. When there’s around 120 buttons involved things get a little scary. Unless you can play a guitar. For us guitarists this is just the thing we’ve been waiting for.

So I dive right in, pick it up, ask if there’s a lefty setting for it (damn my mirror image brain) and let go a huge sigh of relief when I find there is. Now here’s the thing. Even with a controller that’s as close to a real guitar can get, playing this game on easy or even normal is still nigh on impossible. I select Primus’ Jerry Was A Race Car Driver, a track I know well, one that’s also way beyond my fretboard skills, but it’s the first tune I spot that I like so I give it a whirl. Three minutes later I’m still not liking these games. Pressing the button and strumming the string once when the riff you’re following is running up and down the fretboard and asking for your picking fingers to make like a blur does not compute. And then I decide to change the difficulty setting to pro and switch tracks to the White Stripes’ The Hardest Button To Button. And finally, after years of bitching about these games, it all falls into place. Now it’s asking me to play the proper chords and strum the guitar like you’re playing the song for real. All of a sudden I am having a good time and I am racking up a serious score.

You can add a million songs to Rock Band’s roster, or Guitar Hero’s for that matter, and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the gameplay. But with this new guitar Harmonix and MTV have truly pushed the genre forwards. I’ve heard countless people talk about how these games will inspire people to go out and learn to play musical instruments for real, but I’ve always thought that to be well off the mark. It’s one thing to be able to follow on screen instructions and hit the buttons when told to, it’s another thing entirely to be able to play a real guitar, to do the correct fingering, to be able to change chords effortlessly. In my eyes, what happens is people love the game, go out and buy a guitar, start trying to learn, find that it’s much harder in reality and give up after a few months of making the thing screech like an angry parent.

With this new guitar I do believe it really will encourage players to go and get the real thing. In fact, there’s only one thing missing from this pretend guitar playing you get with real guitar playing here, and that’s the resistance of steel strings on the fret. Those things that give you calluses on the tips of your fingers and can snap and catch you in the eye when you’re acting like you’re in Manowar.

Just as I’m thinking about this, Emeen from Harmonix’s audio team appears and opens the special Fender case that’s tucked under all the TVs. Opening it, he reveals the icing on the cake. Fender and Harmonix have teamed up to make a Fender Squire strat, complete with real strings, real body, real neck, real damn everything. You can plug it into your console via a midi socket or you can plug it straight into an amp and use it like any other real guitar. With one unidentifiable pick up and a dampener in place of the other, the potential for this peripheral alone is huge. I have no idea what the price of the guitar will be, but if they can keep it below £150 then I would prompt any guitarists in waiting to consider this piece of kit. It might not teach you how to learn a song through listening alone, but it will definitely teach you to play some particularly complex rock songs and I can finally agree with all those who foresaw these kinds of games giving birth to a whole new wave of guitar gods.

Hats off to Harmonix and MTV, the learning curve on the new almost-real guitar will be steep but for anyone that keeps it up, the transition from game to real guitar will be much, much smoother. There, and I didn’t even mention the new cymbals and keyboard. Keyboards, though. Pff.

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Written by Neil

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