Earlier in the year I reviewed the Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar, a plastic controller with more than a hundred buttons that looked and felt like a real (albeit extremely cheap) guitar. And while it did an admirable job of emulating a six-string, it often felt clunky and was ultimately let down by gameplay that followed strict chord structures.
The analogue nature meant you had to play the exact chords instructed by the game, even though guitarists know that the same chords and notes can be played in various forms at numerous positions along the fretboard. It created a lack of improvisation and musical freedom that guitarists crave. It was a plastic toy for kids.
Now, thanks to Ubisoft’s Rocksmith, we can finally say ‘good riddance’ to those cheap, clackity fake instruments. Rocksmith works with a real guitar (or bass) and all that users need is a USB to quarter-inch jack (a standard amp/guitar plug) - one of which is included with the game.
Because Rocksmith isn’t tracking button configurations like Rock Band 3, users can play notes and chords in anyway they feel fit. The game detects tone and rhythm to track your progress, bringing musical technique into the picture. It’s what a lot of guitarists have always wanted - a chance to jam to our favourite tracks and be analysed and assessed to help improve our skills.
For beginners, Rocksmith can also act as a tutor and, while it’s probably not ideal for someone who has never picked up a guitar before, it can certainly help beginners with some knowledge. The game covers the basics, such as string denotation, tuning your guitar (standard and the heavier drop-D tuning), and chord structures and techniques such as string bending and hammer-ons. Playing through tracks can be done either with individual notes, where tabulature-like fret numbers will flow down the screen; with chord structures, or via a combination of the two.
The graphical interface does take a bit of getting used to, but the presentation of coloured strings and an on-screen fretboard works well after a few sessions. The ambient glow and mesmerizing stream of colour even makes Rocksmith a surprisingly watchable spectator game - apart from the terrible crowd renders, where you’ll see the same emotionless faces staring back at you. The audiences you’ll play for are so badly animated, you’ll need some serious drugs to get through the after-party.
Naturally, Rocksmith’s success comes down to the track listing and, thankfully, it is pretty damn sweet. The on-disc artists include Queens of the Stone Age, Muse, the White Stripes, the Rolling Stones, the Strokes, Incubus, the Black Keys, Pixies, Radiohead, the Animals, David Bowie, Nirvana, and plenty more. The upside to the fact that Rocksmith has been out in the States for over a year (we’re still not sure why we had a delay here in NZ) is that there is already a healthy dose of DLC available online. The recently added bass expansion pack (which is included with your purchase here) allows for our four-string musos and numerous new tracks, including heavier additions from Megadeth, Judas Priest, and Lamb of God will add to the replay value too.
However, despite the epic track listing, Rocksmith isn’t all sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. In fact there are some quirks to the game that are so infuriating, it’s difficult to comprehend why the developers’ would have them in place. In an effort to make Rocksmith accessible, there is a default learning curve that allows a complete novice to get started in the game. When first loading up the disc, players will be presented with a tutorial video that starts off tuning your axe before getting you to play basic single notes to a classic Rolling Stone song. It’s gentle and would definitely inspire newbie guitarists.
The problem is, a large part of the game treats you like a beginner guitarist even if you have the killer chops of Jimi Hendrix himself. There is no difficulty setting and instead, the game will monitor your performance and add in extra layers as you progress through a song, adding in chords or solos depending on your hit rate. It’s not a bad idea and does make the learning process more fluid, rewarding the player in accordance to their skill level.
But for already accomplished guitarists, the hand-holding is irritating and more importantly, makes learning the really complicated sections of a song a frustrating experience. As soon as you miss a couple of notes, the difficulty drops down and everything gets watered down to the basics. Which means you have to then work your way back up again.
It’s a tad ironic that, in Rocksmith’s desperate attempt to keep the attention of newcomers, it has simultaneously deterred experienced guitarists. This same ‘steady as she goes’ approach also impedes on the freeplay mode - which is a great tool for players to just jam out with effects pedals and different amp equipment. For some reason Rocksmith locks off a lot of this area and forces you to slowly collect a lot of content by playing songs over and over. What could have been a fun, experimental sand-pit mode from the get-go is instead turned into a painstakingly tedious chore. Also why force us to play tracks we have no interest in? If I hear f**king Titus Andronicus’ ‘A More Perfect Union’ again I’m going to throw my much loved Gibson through the TV screen.
But replaying tracks is something you’ll have to do in order to progress through the game’s ‘campaign’ mode in Rocksmith. You’ll even need to rehearse every song (sometimes in two different ways), before you can play it to an audience, regardless of how well you can already play it. There’s nothing more painful for a guitarist who can play a song from start to finish perfectly, than having to revert back to playing occasional notes while the game figures out you’re a pro.
Rocksmith tries to walk that fine line between a game and an educational tool, and sadly it gets confused a lot of the time. It has evolved the music rhythm genre of gaming, which is brilliant, but it has forgotten how much fun rocking out with your six-string should be. It’s still worth a visit for those looking to learn, or experienced players who want to brush up on a few techniques. But be prepared for some very tedious moments between gigs.
Reviewed on a semi-acoustic Ibanez AEG10NE and Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar