“Tis a fine barn, but sure 'tis no pool, English
”. This probably best (metaphorically) sums up Ubisoft’s newly released, in Australia, Rocksmith. While it’s a great learning product with the right setup, I’m not convinced it’s enough of a game
. If you’ve ever dreamt of being a guitar, or bass, virtuoso, or been blown away by that guy or girl in the band at a show you went to and thought you’d like to do that (except I’d be less of a wanker about it), Rocksmith could still be your ticket though.
Being a failed amateur musician myself, and somewhat of a gamer, I’ve struggled a bit over the years with videogames involving some kind of musical instrument style controller. There always seems to be two sides to the story. The musician within saying it’s not realistic enough, where’s the feeling? You’re just playing the rhythm of it. And then the gamer, pointing out the obvious – it’s just a game, man, have some fun!
Both have good points though, I mean what are you trying to achieve with a musical instrument-based videogame? When you look at the expanse of games on the market today there are obviously the numerous simulations, each trying to progress the intuitive feel -- mainly sports games here -- but that have to be played as a videogame no matter what. The difference with music is you can put an instrument, or instrument-style controller, in someone’s hands and plug into your console or PC. It’s not like kicking or passing a ball, or ollieing a skate deck in your lounge room.
It took some time and the right songs to get me into Guitar Hero, and by the time I did, I think the franchise had been fatigued. Lag and breakability with Rock Band didn’t do anything for me. But now we have Rocksmith, with an actual guitar (or bass), a string-note tablature style animation and a decent array of catchy and progressive tunes.
The first point that comes up with this genre of game is hardware. If you opt for a package of the game, which includes your instrument of choice, then you’re all set to go on your career to being rock superstar, right? Unfortunately wrong. You see, you know those guys in music stores who are there because they live for the music and are likely only there to fund their passion for it? Besides that, selling you stuff and wailing on their instruments of choice, they’re actually really good at setting up instruments, amps and gear.
An out of the box 22 fret Epiphone Junior is a great “controller” to come with a game, but factory issue, shipping, temperature and perhaps humidity all change things on a guitar. So a neck that bows back and high action (distance of strings above the fretboard), don’t make for a great start, especially if you’ve never used a guitar before and have no idea how to adjust these. If you do, then perhaps only the time needed to fix these issues is the annoying part.
There is an in game option that sheds light on what “action” is and how it should look, but if it doesn’t look the same, the polite tutorial voice recommends going to see one of those guys in a music store to get it sorted. I couldn’t find anything about adjusting the neck to guide those not familiar with it.
Next on the list is lag. When attempting to play in time with a moving visual animation of notes, or tablature to be more accurate, calibration is crucial and quickly becomes frustrating when not in time. And while Rocksmith has done a bang up job with most of the elements involved, they still recommend playing the game with a separate stereo setup for optimal timing. This in a way detracts from the idea of the game being played through a console and TV setup which then becomes your amp and music book in one. Playing through the recommended separate stereo setup was fine but playing directly through a TV/console connection was not possible, the lag was just too much. Adjusting the visual timing of notes is a possibility in the settings, but this still had no impact on guitar timing calibration.
Ok, so assuming you’ve set up the instrument and are playing through a stereo setup, you’re now good to go. Rocksmith has a built-in tuner that pops up not only at the beginning of the game, but before each rehearsal session and performance to ensure optimum sounds is achieved consistently. It works really well and adjusts for different song tunings, such as dropped D.
Journey mode starts a player off with rehearsing two songs, The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” followed by The Black Keys’ “New Girl”. Both great songs to start with and can be broken down for Rocksmith’s dynamic progression. Once the songs can be played at a qualifying level, the next step is playing a performance of these two songs and an encore song.
Doing all this earns a player Rocksmith Points (RP), which is automatically used to unlock venues, guitars and pedals to customise tones, which can be explored in the Amp section.
The progression of each song in rehearsal starts off with the song being broken down to simple single notes. Once these notes are consistently played in time, the dynamic progression adds more notes and even chords, depending on the song. Not hitting these notes and chords will drop it back to the simple single notes until it’s time to progress again. Playing enough of the notes and chords in time earns points and the percentage of notes hit in time will either qualify you for the song or require you to practice it even more.
Each song can also be accessed in the Songs section where either single notes, chords or a combination of both, again depending on the song, can be practiced. The Riff Repeater option lets a player practice Intros, Verses, Choruses, Solos and Outros by breaking the song into those sections and allowing them to be played in Free Play, Leveler or Accelerator modes, allowing for different progression styles.
Once a set of songs, usually two or three, have been practiced, they need to be performed to progress to the next stage of songs. This means playing all the required notes and chords without the dynamic difficulty adjusting. A performance also includes an encore, a song that hasn’t been practiced and must be learnt on-the-fly. This is fine for songs with simple notation, chords or ones that are familiar, but once they got harder I was lost. This is where practicing the songs, and riffs that make them up, out of Journey mode comes in handy.
The techniques section also offers the option to practice techniques unlocked along the way, such as sustain, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends and more. More importantly though it offers a chord book for each song, showing what the chords are and also providing a dynamic tutorial for each chord, demonstrating and requiring single finger placement to build up the chord. For a beginner, or even someone not familiar with a lot of chords, this is a great feature.
Guitarcade mode offers mini-games to help players improve their skills. Single string, fret placement, scales, tremolo technique, slide and chords games all help to progress a player’s accuracy and speed.
If a player has unlocked enough guitars and pedals Amp mode virtually converts your setup to an amp with customisable tones and effects. In this section a player can experiment with different sound combinations and play their instrument in what is essentially a free roam mode. Playing any songs known or just jamming on sounds is possible.
With all of these options available there is a lot to dabble in. Unfortunately my Journey mode and any kind of practice session was cut short by the lag in my setup. Assuming you are able to sort out or avoid any hardware issues and lag, then Rocksmith offers a lot of great options for learning and practicing guitar.
I couldn’t get past the lag issues and was also disappointed with the lack of metal included in the setlist. I also question how rewarding, in a game sense, it actually is. While playing some of the songs would be fun for some time, I don’t feel there is enough in it that would keep me wanting to progress. I’m sure we’ll start seeing this or something similar in music stores very soon, perhaps with some updated games modes, but for now I think it’s only really for those wanting to use it as a learning device.