Rocksmith 2014 is where music video games were inevitably heading since the first Guitar Hero was released in 2005 — plugging and playing real instruments. It's no longer a simulation, but rather an interactive and genuinely fun learning tool.
The game allows you to plug in any electric or bass guitar with an input jack and learn the lead, rhythm and bass sections from a range of songs. You can even plug in any combination of guitar and bass for some two player rocking out. Much like its predecessors notes rain down from the top of the screen that you need to strum at the right time. Except now you're developing calluses, learning chord shapes, and dealing with six strings that you need to tune from time to time.
Standard packs are available for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. You can purchase a guitar, Rocksmith guitar cable and game pack for AU$249. Alternatively, if you already have an electric guitar, you can purchase a game and cable. In any case, you must have the guitar cable that plugs into your quarter-inch input jack to USB.
You must have the cable as well as the game to play. (Credit: Ubisoft)
The bundled guitar is an Epiphone Les Paul Junior, very much a budget affair. But for the money you pay, you're getting a functional electric guitar that's much better than it should be. If you know you're going to get serious about playing, you could put the money saved just buying the game towards getting the axe you'd rather have. I'm happier with my AU$900 guitar, but my wallet's much lighter for it.
I set myself up rather unconventionally. As a Mac user, I purchased the game via Steam, as there are no retail guitar and game packs available for the Mac platform. I ordered the guitar cable online through JB Hi-Fi, and then sourced my own guitar.
Setting up was almost a plug-and-play affair with only one issue. The guitar sounds out of the speaker were completely garbled at first. A quick look at a forum thread indicated that the Rocksmith cable inputs a 48kHz signal, while my Mac's speakers output at 44kHz by default. Switching the speaker output to 48kHz did the trick and we were on our way.
Getting up and running on a Mac compared much more favourably to my efforts to get the PS3 version working properly. Issues with lag between playing a note and the sound coming through the speakers weren't resolved by outputting audio through an analogue AV cable. They also weren't solved by switching television settings, switching to another television, or using the visual calibrator. The fix would be to use an external speaker system — which we didn't have, so my efforts were in vain and I powered down the PS3.
To be fair, having a decent sound system with your television should be how you play a music game. But if you're hoping for a plug-and-play console experience, you're likely to run into a little trouble.
The game assumes you're a complete novice with each song and guides you through the most basic fingering. With each play-through, the game assesses your skill level — how many notes you've missed, what you're breezing through — and then starts adding additional notes to the fretboard display on screen. With incremental increases in difficulty the more you play, it's assumed you'll eventually be playing the full song.
The basic display shows the notes you need to play scrolling down towards the neck. (Screenshot: CBSi)
There are three features about this game that absolutely rock and my favourite is the "riff repeater". This function lets you adjust parameters including the speed and difficulty of any phrase in a song. Having played some guitar before, I wasn't going to play through each song at a level below my ability, so diving straight into riff repeater and learning parts of songs allowed me to fast-track my progress. My usual strategy has been to ramp up the difficulty to 100 but slow playback to 50 per cent or 20 per cent of normal speed to understand how the fingering works, and then gradually increase it back to 100 per cent. The game also does a very good job of not making you feel inadequate. It's been an instructor with infinite patience and zero expectation.
The second feature, and what Rocksmith 2014 does exceptionally well, is give you access to the tones from each song. One of those annoying things for anyone learning to play guitar is that, while you can learn to play a song without much issue, it still sounds nothing like the original. You just don't have the amp, pedals and setup of the original artist, so everything ends up sounding like an acoustic cover — and that's not nearly half as cool as that indie or metal riff. Along with the visual elements of the game, having what you play sound authentic offers encouragement because you just "sound" cooler. There's even a tone library where you can load tones from any songs in your library, as well as design your own unique sound.
The third feature, "Guitarcade", is useful for anyone needing to practice the basics and improve the dexterity of those sometimes clumsy fingers. Ubisoft has put a considerable amount of effort into creating a set of exercises that gamify the often-boring parts of learning to play guitar. Things like familiarising yourself with the fretboard, techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs, and learning scales have all had various game animations and scoring mechanics implemented to provide that extra motivator. I've found myself sometimes stepping back and trying to treat it less like a game and more like a lesson — making sure to try and remember the chords and scales I've just played.
Guitarcade hones your skills in mini-games that wouldn't look out of place in an old arcade. (Screenshot: CBSi)
The layout of the game's exercises and tutorials offer a lot of freedom with what you choose to learn. There is a whole section of the game dedicated to the absolute basics, such as putting on a guitar strap, how to hold a guitar or plucking a string. Being able to skip these and any component of the game allows people of varying skill levels to start at a level they're comfortable with. If something's too easy, skip ahead; if its too hard, then slow it down. Not being forced to go through a guitar strap tutorial before learning a song is a good thing.
In one weekend I found myself playing Arctic Monkeys' "R U Mine" at 94 per cent completion, Jack White's "Sixteen Saltines" at 96 per cent, and Deftones' "My Own Summer (Shove It)" at 99 per cent. That's not a bad effort from a guy who would ordinarily take weeks to learn one song. Anyone who picks up this game with some guitar playing experience will progress faster than someone who's never plucked a string, but the pacing is flexible enough for anyone's skill level and pace. I'm willing to bet there are plenty of little Yngwie Malmsteens out there who would do far better much faster.
It's a product that has managed to do something many teachers have failed to do — it makes me want to learn. I'm excited to go home and put in an hour or two of practice, and it seems disingenuous to think of it merely as a game or as a piece of tutoring software. Got a young one who's looking to emulate their rock idol or want to revisit your own shelved dreams? This is one of the better ways to do it.