The featured instrument of Rock Band 3 at Gamescom in Germany will be the one being added to the franchise, the keyboard. MTV Games let Kotaku try the keyboard in New York. It was mostly a good experience.
At MTV's offices in Times Square, I tried the game's keyboard trainer, which is designed to teach musicians of varying skill levels how to improve their keyboard skills. The lessons start as simple as can be: with one hand on a Rock Band 3 keyboard controller (10 white keys; seven black), play a scale.
There is no difficulty level in Rock Band 3's training mode. The lessons require precise, realistic timing. You can slow the lesson down, making the required note sequences cascade down the game's central note highway more slowly, but you can't ask the game to be more forgiving or to throw fewer notes at you.
Beyond the game's many basic keyboard lessons, you can learn to play any of the game's songs that support the keyboard (not all of them do).
The keyboard is comfortable, though it seems to play better on a stand or flat surface than on a lap. When I tried the trainer, my timing was off, but but I could still appreciate the instruction and see how the lessons built upon each other.
A Rock Band 3 representative pointed out that the developers of the game don't want to make music lessons feel lame. They don't want you to feel like you're having to settle for playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star because you are confined to some virtual music skill. So, before you are playing along to the game's licensed hits, in the training mode, you can play along to music made by the musician/game-developers at Rock Band studio Harmonix.
So the lessons seem smart and the music isn't insulting, so what's the problem? When I got on the drums and another reporter got on keyboard — with two other people on the mic and two on guitar — the other reporter and I discovered that the keyboard can be the hardest instrument to control. The complication is that, when you have a band going in Rock Band 3, your single TV screen has to show the note highways or lyrics for each performer. In our configuration, that put four note vertical note highways on the bottom half of the screen.
For guitar or drums, those highways can be only five or so lanes wide, but the keyboard highway is 10 lanes wide. The amateur keyboardist next to me legitimately complained that he was struggling to discern which notes were coming down his note highway in which lane. Add in the need to hit sharps and flats, which are denoted by black notes in the highway instead of white ones, and you've got music gaming's most eyesight-taxing feature yet.
The keyboard highway also will display arrows pointing to the left or right. These signal a shift in octave, though the truncated keyboard in Rock Band 3 can't really let you slide over more than one octave.
The squeezed note highway is less of an issue when you play the keyboard solo, which is the configuration you see in these shots.
CLARIFICATION: I should have made this clear in the original post, but you are only asked to hit potentially any of the keys on the keyboard if you are playing at the "pro keys" setting. If you play at the normal keyboard setting, you are allowed to worry about only five keys, similar to how guitar playing in Rock Band was always reduced to hitting just one of five fret buttons. The simpler keyboard scheme doesn't have the same cramped note-highway issues as the "pro keys" mode.
It appears that Harmonix has the right attitude about teaching the playing of real musical instruments while maintaining the mood of a rock-and-roll fantasy. Keyboards, though, always seemed like they'd be the biggest challenge, the instrument hardest to simplify and to squeeze into a Rock Band game. It's no surprise then, that the highway problem appears in the game. At least there's no keyboard hardware problem. Midi keyboard can be plugged in, if you want a full set of keys on which to play.
Any song in Rock Band 3 that includes a keyboard in real life is likely to have keyboard support in the game. Legacy songs from prior Rock Band games will not, but downloadable songs in the future will include keyboard support, where relevant, according to the MTV folks.
Rock Band 3 will be out in the U.S. on October 26.