I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not that great a guitar player. Sure, I felt like some sort of demi-god playing the plastic button slapping guitars of Guitar Hero and Rock Band but in the back of my head I knew that playing a plastic guitar did not make me a guitar player. I’ve actually played for years, I was the bassist in a punk band to no success. I have a nice acoustic that I fiddle on from time to time (don’t we all) and a couple electrics that I almost never fiddle on. Music was never my artistic showcase of concentration. An artist can only diversify so much you know?
So when I sat down in the Rocksmith booth at PAX Prime, holding a true electric guitar in my hands I was a little intimidated. I looked around me, wondering if anyone can see how much I sucked outside the little booth that I was in. I decided that no one would notice, they all had headphones on, in their own little worlds. I doubted anyone would be watching how my fingers were incorrectly tracking over the frets, misplaying chords and clearly not understanding notes. Then I was relieved, Rocksmith doesn’t care. This game, this learning tool, just doesn’t have an emotive response as to your skill level.
When you play a game like Guitar Hero and suck, the game will let you know. You’ll get a low score and the faux crowd will be booing you to no end. That can be depressing, especially since all you are doing is slapping plastic buttons. With Rocksmith the game almost expects you to suck. Let’s put it a different way, there are no levels of difficulty. The game adapts based on your skill level. So if you are just learning, the game will recognize that and help you learn. If you are a guitar shredding master, the game will up the difficulty level to where you are at. That way, if you suck – that’s on you. Of course, in that scenario you might have to muster through some of the more simpler lessons, but it’ll adjust pretty quickly.
So when I received the game from Ubisoft to review (Xbox 360 version,) I knew that my skill level at electric would be at the lowest possible. I started out playing one note songs (even though the songs contained more than one note, that’s what I was given.) As my fingers started to remember how to move up and down the fret, the notes started to come a bit more often and with greater speed. The game was adapting to the fact that I appeared to know what I was doing. I started off with the Rolling Stones “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” and the Black Keys “Next Girl.” Play them well enough, you earn RSP points. Earn enough points and you get to play a gig. If you don’t earn enough points, then the old adage “practice makes perfect” really comes into play, because you get to keep playing the song until you do. I earned enough points. The game then gives you the option to practice some more, or go ahead and play the gig. I’m a fame whore, so I went straight for the gig. But let’s start at the obvious beginning.
The first thing you get to do in Rocksmith is what every guitarist does before they get started, I mean, save for punk rockers perhaps. You get to tune the guitar. In fact, before every gig, you get to make sure the guitar is in tune again. And if it isn’t, the on-screen guitar tuner will help you get there. Once your guitar is properly in tune, then it asks you to play each string open to make sure that it’s in tune. Rocksmith doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to tuning and keeping your guitar at a professional level. Or at least at an in tune level. With your tuned up guitar, you then roll into playing the songs, which is the fun part, right?
In Rocksmith playing the songs is the fun part. There are several factors that make it fun for all levels of play. First off, you are using an actual real guitar, not a plastic one. Second, when you make a mistake during a song, you don’t get some cheesy sound effect or a break in the music – it keeps going, mess ups and all. So when you do hit a wrong note or mess up during the song, you hear it and it affects how the song sounds through your stereo system, which is acting as your amp. The magic of this is that while you can hear all your mistakes, the game encourages you to be inventive, to be creative during songs and do your own thing. I think the kids are calling that ‘experimentation” these days. Rocksmith lets you experiment with ease. Either during the song, or if you just want to have a practice session in your basement from the 1980′s.
While there is a “journey” rather than a cartoonish story, the journey is there for you to do or not to do. The journey is of course playing more and more songs, earning points and getting to play gigs. All the while you are being tricked into learning how to play the guitar. How about that? So what’s the point of playing if not for some weird virtual trophy or accolade? You play to learn how to play. That’s the point. This “game” actually teaches you a skill. The incentive is learning how to play guitar, not an explosive reaction from a virtual crowd. Speaking about the crowd, try not to look at them. They aren’t cartoons, they appear to be real people filmed separate and inserted into the game. They also appear to have been cloned numerous times on the way in. As mentioned, they’ll react when you do well, they’ll start clapping and taking pictures with their camera phones. Perform terrible, and they’ll give you some weird clone glares and start texting on their phones.
As for the gameplay itself, if you’ve played any of those other guitar games, you should recognize the way the notes move down the screen. Each string is assigned a color, and your virtual fretboard shows up in the foreground of the screen, the strings glowing when notes on those strings are coming up to be played. The way the notes come down is beautiful though. While your virtual fretboard is kind of like your character in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out the notes ride down on a crisp and smooth path towards you.
The camera pans down the fret as the notes do, slowly zooming in and out to focus on a different section of the fretboard. Meanwhile, small rectangles appear on your fretboard on the string and get larger as they move towards being played. The dynamic camera is a nice touch, as it would be hard to fit all of the frets on the screen at the same time. It gives the game a very professional and smooth feel. It begs for the motions to become intuitive to you, as I hear my 10yr old out in the living room cursing (using PG-13 language) at the screen. He’ll get it.
Here’s what I told the boys when they sat down to play the game, kind of a warning. “Be patient, listen to the guy and follow instructions. If you keep tapping A to proceed without having some bloody patience, then you’ll never learn to play guitar and you may as well give up now.” That’s what Rocksmith presents to you, a very patient experience in playing guitar. If you are already a master, you don’t have to be patient because you can just whip through the game. Really though, how many guitar masters are going to be lining up to play this game if for nothing else than to dominate the leader boards? Between the patience, the slow & methodical narration and instruction Rocksmith is going to quickly become the definitive learning tool for guitar. A lot of guitar teachers are going to be looking for another instrument to teach once this game is in everyone’s homes.
There’s more to the game than just the journey, things that add even more bang for your buck in the way of learning. If you constantly have trouble with songs, specifically this bit or that bit, you can enter a practice mode (which you can also get into anytime you just want to practice) where you can learn at your own pace. Slowing down sections of songs, looping them and cycling through the hard parts will assist you in the learning curve. You can also set it to play one note at a time, so you can focus on proper fingering, something you’ll be forced into doing eventually anyway.
As you progress through the game you’ll unlock customizable setlists, different sounding guitars, amps & effects pedals (with all kinds of crazy dials) so you can mix and match whatever tone you want. The amplifier mode is the place to play in this rock n’ roll playground, a great distraction from your linear journey. There is also a multi-player mode, but you’ll have to buy another cable. There are also minigames (with the focus of learning of course) and online leaderboards. Aside from the leaderboards, there is no other online play.
So back to my first gig. To test the reaction of the crowd I intentionally stunk up the joint. I mean, in most respectable places I would have been pegged in the head with at least a six pack of beer bottles two minutes in. However, the clones just stared at me and Rocksmith stuck with me, playing the whole song out no matter what. That was a delightful surprise. Unless it’s a song you don’t like. There is a library of rock music in the game, and you can’t upload your own songs, but repetition is one of the keys to learning a skill, especially the guitar. So that bit can be overlooked.
The next song I played well, one simple note at a time. The clones went nuts, clapping & taking pictures with their phones. I was trying to get my roadie to pick out some possible groupies, but he was eating a sandwich. They asked for an encore, I obliged. Then afterward I went back to my basement from the 1980′s and decided to practice a little bit more. I think they were just influenced by the open bar and my bedazzled jean jacket. That’s right, bedazzled jean jacket. I said it.
WIRED Rocksmith is an amazing learning tool for the guitar. The eventual progression of rhythm games was to get to this point, where you are playing real instruments and actually learning how to play, rather than some sort of cartoonish emulation.
TIRED The game is hard for beginners. Really hard. Playing the guitar is not easy, intuitive to some sure, but certainly not easy without patience and plenty of practice. So Rocksmith is not for those not versed in patience, as would be any task that requires constant practice.
Rocksmith is available now at your friendly neighborhood retailer, there is also as a bundle that includes a nice Epiphone Les Paul Junior electric guitar. If your kid has been begging for a guitar, this is a great gift idea because you can control the volume. That’s a selling point right there.
[This article, by Curtis Silver, was originally published on Tuesday. Please leave any comments you may have on the original.]