Knowing how to play an instrument is a joy. As someone who is pretty reticent in talking about how I feel, music is an alternative avenue of expression that’s been a boon to my life the last decade or so that I’ve been playing guitar. It’s for these reasons that I’m a happy advocate of people learning an instrument and was excited to see that Rocksmith was using the popular conventions of rhythm games to teach people a complex instrument. After spending around twenty hours with the recently released PC version of the software, I can say that it works well as a supplemental, but can’t stand on its own as a teaching product. And while there are a few easily solved technical issues that hinder the experience, design choices that prefer its gaming roots over a teaching tool are what really hurt the experience.
If you’ve played either Guitar Hero or Rock Band, the setup is nearly identical. Notes come down a highway that are meant to be played once they reach the bottom of the screen. The notes are colored to correspond to a particular string on the guitar or bass and lanes within the highway are numbered to indicate what fret they should be played on. While there’s a valid complaint to be made about how this notation system is useless anywhere beyond the software, the software’s aim is to teach guitar and bass playing, not note reading. Most importantly though, it’s a familiar system that eases players who have played rhythm games, making it fairly easy to learn. If you’re colorblind, it may be worth looking up pictures of the highway in action, as color identification is vital to the system.
One of the software’s unique advantages is that it’s quarter-inch to USB connection works with most any six string and bass. Instead of having to buy some midi capable guitar like in Rock Band 3, users can instead invest the instrument they want and use that. For those who know a little about pickups, know that I did use a single coil and the game was good about cancelling out the hum that I initially expected to get from standing in front of two monitors and a PC. The downside is that you do have to use the Rocksmith branded cable.
Having taught a few of people, I would never have given a beginner a piece of music, a recording, and have told them to immediately start playing along with the piece and just hit a few notes along the way. Since pop music (which I’m using in reference to the broad style of vocal-centered, non-orchestral music as opposed to a genre) is just three or four short sections, it’s much easier to break down the piece into consumable bites. While Rocksmith does offer this latter methodology with its Riff Repeater options, it presents the first one on the front end to users. I can understand the desire to throw players immediately into the game to have fun with it, but I imagine that if someone has already made the investment into buying the game and an actual guitar, a slower introduction isn’t a big hurdle. Perhaps it’s just a pedagogical difference where I prefer teaching small parts thoroughly instead of the whole at once, but I will say that using the Riff Repeater to learn songs I’ve never played before in styles I don’t usually play garnered better and faster results.
The actual way Rocksmith teaches though is pretty great. The software doesn’t intimidate people by throwing lots of notes to users at once, but rather having them play a fraction of the notes, then slowly increasing the number of them until all the notes in a section are being played. It’s an ingenious method of “walk before you run” that was really effective. It’s easily the software’s greatest strength. That being said, Rocksmith has a tendency to sometimes have weird camera choices. The perspective usually focuses on the part of the fretboard the section of the song being played uses, but there were some occurrences where the camera would back up and move around as if going to another part of the fretboard, only to not. It was distracting and confusing, but rare. While the guitar remains a difficult instrument to learn, once a player gets a grasp of the game’s notation system, the slow building up of learning seems like an excellent approach.
In addition to learning with songs, Rocksmith offers a variety of technique challenges and the Guitarcade. Technique challenges focus on a particular guitar skill- like tremolo or bends- by opening up with a short instructional video demonstrating the skill and then going into the highway to have payers execute it. Guitarcade takes those skills and frames them within a mini-game. For instance, Dawn of the Chordead has users playing chords that decimate zombies slowly approaching the bottom of the screen. Like the use of the highway and colored notes, it’s a game convention that’s effective in teaching basic guitar skills by making them enjoyable.
In merging game conventions with the aim of teaching though, Rocksmith both stumbles and succeeds. As I noted, the note highway is a good stepping stone to real guitar playing. In addition, having the songs scored was was surprisingly satisfying. Some odd game tropes get dragged along for the ride, though. For instance, the game has “events” where users can pick songs to play in front of a weird, cardboard crowd in different venues. While I can understand their use in Rock Band and Guitar Hero- which are meant to be fantasy fulfillment experiences and have players build in-game characters- their inclusion here sticks out. There’s also a leveling system which seems to serve no purpose other than to open up new venues for events. Another weird quirk is that much of the audio modelling options are locked out, only available once the songs they’re attached to have been completed at a certain score. It’s unfortunate as the game’s Amp Mode, which lets players play the guitar and build rigs without the pressure of completing a song, are a nice break that would benefit from being wide open from the start.
A couple of technical problems popped up during my playthrough, both centered around note and chord recognition. After years of playing a guitar, I know how to play a power chord, yet the game was consistently not recognizing the chords during songs or technique challenges. I went to the internet, and it turns out that this was a problem on all platforms that can be solved from lowering the volume knobs on the actual guitar (which I had at their maximum). While the game does suggest to turn the volume knobs down if distortion happens, it doesn’t suggest that often or for any other problem.
It’s not a huge issue, but one that caused me more trouble than it should have. The chord recognition problem then reared its head again though when I was attempting to play the song “Gobbledigook” by Sigur Ros. It uses some neat chord formations involving the top four strings and I had no problem with the introduction. Once I got to the verse though, the game was having trouble noting that I was playing the chords. Returning to the internet, it seemed like a lot of people were bringing up this same issue. Someone gave the odd suggestion of just playing the top and bottom strings of the chords for that section, and it turned out to work. While I’ve yet to encounter bigger problems during the 24 hours that I’ve logged with the product,the fact that the software is terrible at conveying solution for them is worrisome.
Lastly, much of one’s enjoyment will come from the available song types. While all the choices have a good guitar emphasis to them, 39 out of the 57 songs have come out of the last dozen years. Perhaps this is a deliberate move meant to target an assumed younger audience, but the end result is that the soundtrack doesn’t have quite the subtle variety I’d like. Users will also end up listening to a lot of droney, male voices, as the soundtrack includes only three songs with female lead vocalists. Why no love for St. Vincent, Screaming Females, Kaki King, Sleater Kinney, or Heart? Seems like a missed opportunity. Genre-wise, the game skews to rock with some modern blues. I would’ve liked to have seem some jazz and hard metal songs, giving up the soundtrack’s cohesion for diversity on all fronts.
Rocksmith isn’t a quality substitute for a real teacher. As someone who was self-taught and then took lessons far into my playing experience, I didn’t realize how many bad habits I had picked up that needed to be corrected. Picking technique, hand orientation, guitar positioning, finger placement, and muscle exercises are best taught with someone there to make sure one is not inadvertently harming themselves. And while I’ve leveled more criticisms than complements at the software, let’s not lose the forest for the trees- it works. For those who want to learn guitar or bass, Rocksmith is a great starter and hand-holder to learning new songs. Hopefully the many problems get adjusted in iterations, as its potential as a teaching tool is fantastic.
Here’s the Rundown:
- Clever implementation of guitar skills with mini-games
- Teaching method of increasing difficulty well executed
- Combination of familiar rhythm game tropes with real guitar layout well done
- Soundtrack lacking in variety
- Unlockables, leveling, and event performances are odd carry-overs from rhythm games
- Notation system isn’t useful anywhere else
- Couple of technical problems that the software doesn’t provide solutions for
7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.
Rocksmith was developed by Ubisoft San Francisco and published by Ubisoft. It’s available on Steam for $49.99, but doesn’t come with the necessary Real Tone cable. A boxed version is available for $79.99. A copy of the game was provided to RipTen for the purposes of review.