Adding a keyboard to Rock Band 3 was the most logical move for Harmonix. This may be the last remaining instrument with mass appeal. (Somehow, I don't see Theremin Hero on the horizon.) So, yes, now you can tickle the ivories along with piano-heavy songs like the Doors' "Break On Through" and Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule the World." If you have to ask whether it works, you obviously haven't been paying attention these past few years.
Briefly: five keys on the keyboard correspond to colored gems that scroll down your TV screen in time to the song. Hit the keys at the right time and the song plays as intended. Miss and be greeted with an embarrassing clunking noise. For anyone steeped in virtual-guitar playing, picking up keyboards is second nature. Not the most skilled Rock Band guitarist in the world, I nevertheless zoomed to expert difficulty on some songs in just a couple of days.
But Harmonix also took Rock Band 3 in an unexpected direction. The keyboard isn't abstracted, as past guitar peripherals have been. It's a fully-functioning, two-octave MIDI keyboard, black keys and all. And all those keys are used in the new "pro mode," which is nothing less than an attempt to turn Rock Band into an honest-to-God music trainer.
In pro mode, the standard five-button Rock Band interface is replaced with something far more intricate, in which the notes that stream toward you actually correspond to the song's sheet music. Pro mode has its own difficulty settings, ranging from easy to expert, but it's an order of magnitude more complex than standard play. When you get it right, it feels as if you were shooting lightning out of your fingertips. (Rock Band 3 also supports pro modes for guitars and drums, but it doesn't work with existing hardware, so I was unable to test it.)
The logistics of Rock Band are starting to get a little dicy. If you already have two plastic guitars and a rubberized drum set taking up space in your living room, you'll be happy to know that the new keyboard peripheral is small and easy to store. But you'll need a flat surface to put it on. Even though it comes with a strap so you can wear it like a guitar, it's impossible to feel cool when you're holding a keytar. That's just a scientific fact.
Furthermore, with sales of music games flatlining, it seems that the new business model is to soak loyal fans for every last cent. Want to play pro-guitar mode? The special pro guitar, with 102 buttons, goes on sale November 15 for $150. Pro drums are a relative bargain, at $130. Or you could wait till next March, when you'll be able to buy a working six-string Stratocaster that can interface with Rock Band 3, all for the low, low price of $280.
It's a testament to Harmonix's skill that this doesn't sound completely insane. Rock Band 3 is the company's best offering yet. Minor but necessary tweaks include allowing players to drop in and out during songs, and even to change difficulty on the fly. Unlike the closed-off Beatles edition, Rock Band 3 lets you import all your previous downloaded content, as well as most tracks from the first two games. We've reached the mountaintop of music games. Where is there left to go?