When I first previewed the game, I saw "the overshell" in action -- across the bottom of every screen hides a persistent options menu, through which players can jump in, jump out and set up their profiles and characters as they see fit. You can also change difficulty in the middle of any song, on a per-person basis, and I often found myself tweaking the difficulty up or down mid-song as I got more or less used to the drums or keyboard setup. Whenever you change difficulty, the song rewinds by a few seconds to give everyone playing a chance to get back into place.
This time, the biggest change to the gameplay that I saw was in how Rock Band 3 handles failure. Let's say you've got friends over, you're playing the game, and then suddenly you all fail out because you've taken on a song that's too hard. Bummer, right? In Rock Band 2, you have to go back to the main screen, change the difficulty option and start everything over again. In Rock Band 3, there's an option to turn on No Fail mode right on the Fail screen -- plus, there's an option to immediately resume the song. So if you fail out of a song, you've got the option to quickly turn on No Fail mode and jump right back in where you left off.
The Overdrive note sequences have also been tweaked. While the white glowing notes are still in there, Rock Band 3 highlights sequences designed for Unison bonuses with glowing lines outside of the note track, making them easier to play (since you can still see the note colors!). Additionally, I got a closer look at the filtering system, which Harmonix has added to the song selection menu. Using filters, the on-screen catalog can be temporarily downsized to select songs based on key criteria: only songs with keyboard parts; or just stuff from the RB3 disc with hard guitar parts. It's a powerful tool, and one that Harmonix itself really relies on now.
The sum total of all of these seemingly minor updates and additions is a much smoother, much more solid Rock Band experience. "I fired up Rock Band 2 last week just to see what it was like," Sussman said, "and it felt completely old fashioned. It felt like a game from another age." In the coming weeks, we'll be covering the new Pro mode and other big features in depth, but even putting those aside for now, I'm incredibly impressed with how polished the new Rock Band is at its core level.
Update: A previous version of the post wrongly stated that Overdrive notes were no longer white. They still are, Harmonix tells us, but Overdrive sequences that line up for a unison bonus are now highlighted on the sides of each note track.