Friday, October 29, 2010

Review: Rock Band 3 (DS)

Platform: Nintendo DS/DSi

Developer: Backbone Games/Harmonix

Publisher: EA/MTV Games

# of Players: 1 (2-4 via Wi-Fi)

Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)

Official Site

Score: B+

You'd have to be crazy to even think of making a direct comparison of any portable game to a console version these days, but that's probably what's going to happen with the console and portable versions of Rock Band 3. I'm not (that) crazy, so I'll tell it to you straight - the DS version is a solid, challenging and fun music game with some excellent songs, plenty of unlockable gear and a peripheral-free control system that's pretty much perfect once you get the hang of it. The game could have used a few more songs, but such are the limitations of the DS hardware. What's here, however sounds great and combined with the overall polish, the game makes for a great on the go RB3 experience.

RB3 DS manages to hook you in right from the start when you select and customize your band from its name to how your band mates look. The random name that popped up (They Might Be Scrapple) cracked me up, so that ended up as my in-game band name. I changed the lineup to an all-girl group a la Joan Jett and the Runaways just because all-gal bands are pretty darn cool. The unlockables start dropping (Achievement or Trophy style) as you tweak each band member, so expect to see new instruments and clothing after fiddling around with your own fab four. It would have been nice to have a few more faces to play with, but the name of the game is Rock Band 3, not The Sims Rock Band (Uh oh... I think I just gave EA an idea... make that check out to me at...)

As to the game itself, again, don't go in expecting the exact same RB3 experience as you're getting on consoles and you'll be fine. If anything, gameplay resembles that of Hamonix's classic Frequency and Amplitude games on the PS2, two of the most fun music games from the genre's "formative" years. As a song plays with the familiar instrument "highway" on screen, you need to switch between each band member's instrument by tapping the L and R triggers while using the D-pad and buttons to hit notes. Songs play out so that each instrument gets your attention, yet you need to be quick about hitting notes and tapping triggers in order to keep that audience cheering. Your guitarist doubles as the band's keyboard player, but as the game doesn't use any extra peripherals and concentrates on your timing, nothing feels clumsy or wasted.

Granted, it's going to get really tricky if you just dive in and flail (and fail) your way through, but the excellent Tutorials and Practice modes come absolutely recommended (especially if you haven't played a portable RB game previously). The game has a Pro Mode that's really a mental test as you're not clued into when to switch instruments and indicators aren't as well indicated. It's definitely not for the faint of fingers, as you'll need to be tapping triggers and buttons perfectly if you want to score big. I'm not quite there yet, but give me time and I'll be out in front of Carnegie Hall with my DS and a tin cup.

By the way, your DS or DSi had better be in tip-top working order for best results. If you've got a well-worn system with wonky trigger or button that sometimes gets stuck, you may find yourself not having much fun when things go awry. Not that MY own DS is in that sorry shape. I'd dropped by a friend's for an assist in reviewing the PS3 version of RB3 (since he's got a near complete instrument setup) with the DS version to show off. While he tried it out on his ailing original model DS (I've been trying to convince him to replace for some time), one of the triggers got stuck and a hinge on the right side of his DS broke, causing the top to snap down on his fingers like a cheap mousetrap. I almost keeled over from laughing so hard, but I guess he learned that nothing lasts forever.

Anyway, song selection is, of course a HUGE key in any music game and RB3 doesn't disappoint - initially. The lineup of 25 hits (with a few bonus tracks for good measure) all sound fantastic with or without headphones and you'll definitely want to PLAY IT LOUD (anyone remember that old Nintendo slogan?) whenever possible. Yes, you can sing into the DS microphone to bust out a band-saving Overdrive, but for those who have awfully froggy "radio" voices (no, not voices like Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio), you may want to hit the corresponding buttons if you're in a public place.

The overall presentation is solid with stylized characters similar to those found in the home versions, clean menus and nice-looking backgrounds. Again, the experience here isn't close to the HD or Wii versions, but who compares portable games to console games in that way these days (he noted, with a slight eye roll)? Oh yeah - watch the game credits at least once, as they're probably the most fun one you'll see on the DS this year. Want to know who made the game and what they look like? Well, you'll see (and get a chuckle or two in the process).

I didn't get to try out the multiplayer modes, but I'll edit this review sometime over the next week after I get the chance to play some co-op action with and against my soon to be buying a new DS buddy. The game allows up four players to be virtual bandmates via Wi-Fi in co-op or competitive play modes. I like the idea of each person having to carry his or her own "instrument" in their DS and it's here that the experience should more closely resemble the home versions of the game. Check back here in a few to see what the consensus is.

As cool as RB3 is on the DS, I'd say that where the franchise needs to go from here is some sort of cartridge/download format combo (on the DSi or 3DS) OR perhaps expansion carts can be released with nothing but as many tracks as possible. Maybe a more radical shift is in order along the lines of simplifying the 3D elements into 2D to save memory space and a bigger concentration on enhancing the music library while keeping the fun and fast as possible. So far, Harmonix is on the right track, that's for sure...

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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