Version tested: Xbox 360
I'm just back from the cinema where I watched Somewhere, Sofia Coppola's latest it's-a-bit-like-Lost-In-Translation-again-isn't-it take on the spiritually and often literally empty existence of a Hollywood star.
In the middle of the movie, a pivotal scene of bonding between the protagonist, Johnny Marco, and his 11-year-old daughter, whom he has long-neglected through his louche, bed-hopping ways, plays out over a session of Guitar Hero (briefly glimpsed in the trailer).
The daughter and her father's best (only) friend are then seen carefully customising a guitar controller with paint while Marco clumsily fails in his attempt to play 20th Century Boy on Hard difficulty. Lightweight.
Aside from the neatness of seeing Guitar Hero on the big screen before coming home to write about the latest work from its original creator, it served as a vivid reminder of just how deeply embedded this silly pretend instrument and the genre it spawned have become in popular culture.
Yet despite billions of dollars spent on music games and 40 million guitar controllers sold in just five years, sales have collapsed. The perfectly decent Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock did not, to say the least, reverse this trend at launch, while the superb DJ Hero 2 fared even worse.
This is the tough crowd Rock Band 3 must face when it arrives this Friday - not simply as a game, but alongside new instruments costing up to £120 a pop. Can it win them over?
That's really up to you. But I can at least say with confidence that Rock Band 3 is the greatest music game ever made. Here's why.
Let's start with the thing most people are banging on about: the keyboard (£110 with the game, £70 separately). Which, technically, is a keytar - and Harmonix's decision to go with the hybrid design is its first master-stroke.
You see, Guitar Hero was – and always will be – a performance both on-screen and off. Boinging around with the guitar or falling to your knees during an absurd solo is never less than fun – whether you're doing the watching or the writhing.
A standard keyboard, perched on lap or stand, would have still worked fine, but the keytar, with its neck-handle and strap, becomes gaming's next must-have shame-maker.
The single most euphoric, almost-literally-balls-out amazing experience I've had with the game was jumping around in my underpants with the keyboard, jabbing away at the chords of The Power Of Love. It doesn't get much better than that, readers.
Before I get on to the Pro features, you may have read elsewhere that, while the keytar supports traditional Rock Band gameplay using five adjacent keys, this is 'a bit rubbish' and not worth bothering with. Nonsense. On the contrary, it performs the same classic trick as the guitar.
The original genius of Guitar Hero was in making the player lose himself in the fantasy of being an axe-god, effortlessly performing insane solos without actually needing to learn how to do it properly.
The same is true of the keys. Five-key button-matching is an engaging and distinct rhythm-action experience in its own right – different enough that, even if you nailed the guitar long ago, your brain will need some rewiring to cope with the harder tracks.
Add that to the fact you're prodding away on a proper keyboard and the illusion is complete. And since your hand stays in one position for basic keys, sight-reading is eminently possible, so it's ideal party fodder.
A lesser developer might have settled for this as the key innovation. For Harmonix it's almost incidental. The peripheral is not, of course, just five keys – switch to Pro Mode and you have a two-octave range at your finger-tips.
Of the 83 songs on-disc, not all feature a keyboard part, nor are those included all terrifically interesting to play. But there are some wonderful highlights: the frenzy of Elton's Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting; the simple beauty of Imagine; the shameless cheese of Dire Strait's Walk of Life; and, as mentioned, 'the one off of Back to the Future'.
Sadly, if unsurprisingly, keyboard parts are not automatically added to existing songs in the Rock Band Store and your collection. On the flipside, the range of music available should widen considerably over time to embrace keyboard/piano-led tracks.
Joining the keys in the new range is the Pro Guitar, which weighs in at an eye-watering £130, only available separately. Two versions of this are coming, one an actual guitar with strings, the other – which I've been playing with – a bewildering creation that replicates every available note on the fretboard with a discrete button. Which means a mesmerising 102 in total. It is the Anti-Wii.
The buttoned version is a remarkable piece of kit. It feels much more realistic than it looks like it should, and if you know your way around the instrument it's a doddle to play chords, slide up and down the neck and pick out – via the satisfyingly realistic string box - individual notes.
Proof of concept: the first time I tried Pro guitar was a disaster. I couldn't keep up with let alone decipher the visual cues (effectively a new language to learn).
So I paused it. Cranked up the difficulty, out of morbid curiosity, from Medium to Expert and restarted. It was a strummy song and I recognised the chord names scrolling down the side of the note highway, if nothing else. I stopped attempting to follow the symbols and started playing the chords as I knew them. It worked!
Pro Mode – available for drums, guitar and keys – is Rock Band 3's real 'big idea'. Evolving the basic drum training of earlier versions and taking the concept implied by the series' title to its logical conclusion, Harmonix is claiming nothing less than to have created a game that will teach you to play the instruments of a real rock band. And you know what? It has.
The Pro instruments at once dramatically expand the potential of the game and fundamentally change the approach required to play and enjoy it. Make no mistake, the learning curve is cliff-steep. And even if you eventually scramble up the cliff, you'll still feel like throwing yourself off it from time to time.
But the pay-off for investing the time required is massive: what you learn in the game will work outside of it.
At school I was taught over many years to play loads of instruments: piano, trumpet, trombone, euphonium. And yet the only one I still play with any regularity is the only one I learned off my own back: guitar. (Why guitar? You try impressing girls with a small tuba.)
Yes, I had a solid musical grounding, which obviously helped. But the main way I learned, and which Rock Band 3 understands by design, was simply to play along to music I liked, over and over and over until, little by little, it started to fall into place.
Using a Pro instrument, you can learn any song on the disc. Training Mode breaks tracks up into manageable sections, providing visual and text descriptions of what and how you need to play.
Moreover, the game features a massive array of instrument-specific tutorials, offering up scores of exercises designed to teach you the relevant basics of music theory and challenge you to improve your technique. While not exhaustive, the range of lessons is impressive.
If you've ever had lessons, you'll know the excruciating pain of scales practice – the waterboarding of musical tuition. Shrewdly, Harmonix has encouraged learning by tying it into the overall Goal structure. You'll unlock Achievements, boost your band's fame and climb leaderboards just as you would anywhere else in the game. If only life was like that.
One more thing to note: your virtual teacher is an unforgiving bastard. Mistakes in training are not tolerated. You cannot complete an exercise until you have played each section flawlessly.
It's similarly demanding in the main game, where small mistakes are punished, and lazy flaws in technique that may have developed over the years are ruthlessly exposed.
It's a million miles from the generous input windows of the latest Guitar Hero. But if you want to learn, it makes good sense that sloppy technique is not rewarded. And if you're a hardcore player looking for the ultimate challenge, look no further.
If you already play guitar and have the cash, you'll get on just fine with 102-button incarnation. If you're keen to learn from scratch, there's a sound argument that says, at 130 smackers, you'd be bloody stupid not to buy a real one instead.
This is why I'd suggest waiting for the stringed controller. For starters, well, it's a real guitar. Moreover, two of the biggest problems beginners wrestle with - forming chord shapes without muting adjacent strings, and applying the right amount of pressure when holding strings to the fret board - the 102-button peripheral cannot teach.
For the budding Ringos among you, Pro Drums add three attachable cymbals to the kit (the full Pro Drums kit retails for £120), which are cued on-screen by a new round symbol. Pleasingly, due to the way parts have been programmed, Pro Drums work with all 2000 songs produced for Rock Band.
As for vocals, the most important change to note is that the game now supports the three-part harmonies that debuted in Beatles: Rock Band. Well hello there, Bohemian Rhapsody.
Away from Pro Mode and the new instruments, the career structure has been overhauled. Rather than progress across a world map section by section, the game revolves around the growing fame of your band, measured in fans.
Fans – and unlockables - are gained through pretty much everything you do, whether it's Training, Quick Play, Multiplayer or one of the many Road Challenges, which link relevant songs together in various scenarios.
Elsewhere, menu navigation is a breeze; profiles and instruments can be switched with a few button presses; you can easily drop in and out of songs and change difficulty on the fly without restarting – and in multiplayer each player has their own menu window in what Harmonix calls the 'Overshell', so if one pauses others continue playing. Simple, elegant, slick.
The soundtrack is strong and varied – its poppier leanings offer a clear contrast to Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock's heavier rock focus. If you're considering Rock Band 3 as a standalone game without the new instruments, then it's an excellent, polished addition to the series, but not a ground-breaking one.
Pro, meanwhile, is not without its issues. Extreme difficulty aside, the lack of a free practice mode for keys and guitar (there's one for drums) is a baffling omission. Why can't I jam on the guitar at my leisure? Why can't I play synth chopsticks?
An indication of basic chords in Pro keyboard parts would make sight-reading a lot easier, just as it does with guitar. And for guitarists, a simple page for each song listing chord structure would be a great reference tool for real practice.
But none of this dampens my enthusiasm and admiration for a game that, taken as a whole, utterly eclipses everything that has come before it. The leap from Rock Band 2 is vast – and a salutary lesson to Activision, which has milked Guitar Hero dry, of what is possible when a gifted developer is given the breathing space to innovate.
The biggest problem is one over which Harmonix has no control: price. Current trends suggest that MTV and EA face a tough challenge in persuading consumers to cough up for yet more toys.
The Pro Guitar will be a bridge too far for many. But while it's also not exactly something you'd find in Poundland, I can't urge you enough to pick up the game with the keyboard if you can – it feels as fresh and exciting as anything you'll play in 2010.
And the real joy of the game is in the countless ways it can be enjoyed. It has months, possibly years of enjoyment built in that can be harnessed at the player's own pace and budget.
Breathtaking in ambition and crafted with the skill of a studio that's been making music games for 15 years, Rock Band 3 is Harmonix's masterpiece – a towering achievement not just for the genre, but for the medium itself.
10 / 10