When Ubisoft launched the original Rocksmith, it came shortly after Activision and EA had released what would be the final games in the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Fatigued on an over-saturation of rhythm games and a surplus of plastic instrument controllers, consumers could be forgiven for thinking Rocksmith was just more of the same.
While Guitar Hero and Rock Band offered consumers a new and interesting way to engage music they love, or discover new tunes and bands, Rocksmith had gone with further and actually attempted the significant leap from emulation to simulation.
Making use of a custom USB audio interface and a real electric guitar, Rocksmith was better considered as tuition software than interactive entertainment, although it is debatable as to how well it succeeded at either of those labels. Rocksmith offered less than it’s rhythm game predecessors for those that couldn’t stick with it --due to issues with its progression system, lag, load times, navigation and whatever else-- but created bonafide musicians (well, guitarists at least) out of players who remained engaged enough to persevere.
With Rocksmith 2014, the developers’ intention has clearly been to address those engagement issues so that more players can reap that very tangible reward. The idea behind calling it the 2014 edition, rather than Rocksmith 2 or some arbitrary subtitle is supposedly an indication that the game is not meant to be a sequel, but rather to build over and supersede the original, and in our view it has been a great success.
As an already reasonably competent guitar player that can play a bunch of songs, and can stumble his way through the odd thrash metal solo, I found Rocksmith 2014 to be a compelling way to both learn some new songs, as well as tidy up and improve on techniques I’m already well acquainted with.
It’s difficult to speculate on the likely experience of beginners or others with various existing levels of guitar playing ability, but after around a week of playing the game, I can attest that my own proficiency was undoubtedly bolstered faster than it would have were I just playing guitar on my own.
2014 Edition features dozens of licenses songs from classic and contemporary pop, rock, metal and alternative bands spanning all eras of the electric guitar, and in addition to its own microtransaction store with new tracks being added regularly, it also grants owners of the original Rocksmith access to the tracks from the original game.
You begin playing a new song, first only having to match single notes, and as you succeed the game adds more and more notes in until you’re eventually playing every strum and full chord. When you’re feeling competent enough at a given song, you can then hit up the Guitar Hero-style score attack mode.
Outside of the songs, an assortment of mini-games offer challenges aimed at improving different techniques such as chord changing, slides and bends, and there’s also dozens of video tutorials from everything from basic instrument maintenance to advanced playing techniques, and a library of chord charts to draw on making Rocksmith a near encyclopedic resource for guitar playing.
As you progress through learning a song, the game re-evaluates your performance and refers you to tuition clips or suggests challenges to match the sections it detects you as struggling with, all of which are additionally incentivised by a points system that rewards players with cosmetic unlocks like different colours for your virtual gear and various fretboard designs.
Then there’s the riff-repeater, that with a quick mash of a button, let’s you loop and replay individual sections of a song, with a quick-access interface to slow the tempo or scale the difficulty, and auto-continue once you perfect it. Load speeds are gloriously fast once you’re in the game as well, allowing you to jump in, out and around songs at will.
As a whole, it’s a surprisingly cohesive system that works really well to keep you playing, and trying to get to that perpetual next step up.
When playing along with songs, the signal output by your own guitar is flavoured by the game’s virtual amp modelling to match the authentic tones of the original artist as closely as possible, all with the benefit of never having to change your own gear. Like most virtual amp modelling, it’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than most casual players would be able to concoct at home without a lot of messing around.
The amp modelling is extended to the game’s freeform “session mode” which allows you to take any tone and play along with a configurable band of instruments that can dynamically match your pace and intensity. Not content with the tones already in the game, you can create your own from an assortment of virtual equipment that rivals some professional recording software.
My only real gripe with the game is that this truly impressive amount of depth and customisation is hamstrung by a simplified user interface. It’s great when you’re in a song and just want to mash esc to restart a song, or space to repeat a riff, but if you’re tooling around with the game’s more complex elements, it’s a pain.
The UI is very game controller-friendly, presumably designed primarily for the console platforms the game also launched on, but creating custom tones and jam bands via sequential menus is horribly inefficient on a PC where you just want to drag and drop all the bits together. It would also benefit greatly from some manner of recording functionally (dream scenario: a vst plugin interface for professional Digital Audio Workstation software to jack into), but I imagine licensing issues with the various artists and equipment manufacturers might make that impossible.
That said, it’s very hard to fault the rest of the game as what I would not hesitate to deem as the best self-teaching guitar guide out there. Rocksmith 2014 even presents a challenge for the most accomplished guitarists, as above just playing a song note-perfect, the game awards additional points and leaderboard cred to players that nail the timing too.
By itself, as just a game for someone that has no interest in learning guitar, it’s probably no more or less engaging than past rhythm games, but for those who dream of shredding, I can’t think of a better starting point.