June 24, 2012

A Week With Rocksmith

Last year about this time I recall I was joyously looking forward to the release of Rocksmith. It was touted as a game you could plug any guitar you owned in to and learn to play songs. Sure enough, that’s what it delivered when it released on the 360 and PS3 last year, delaying the PC release ’til about Christmas. Being a PC gamer first and foremost, as well as imagining the support for custom content, I decided it would simply be best to wait for the PC release. Sadly, that’s been delayed at least twice more ’til October 16th of this year, so I decided to get it for the 360 since I was tired of waiting and the price had fallen to about 3 one-hour lessons. Since then I’ve had about a week with it, and here are some impressions I’ve gathered since then.


I suppose I should mention beforehand that I play guitar, and have for several years. I make no claims to be a great player, and I certainly would never perform in public. But I also would say that I’m a competent player. This game is obviously designed for beginner or low level guitarists, so for anyone who already knows what they’re doing there’s an element of “Yeah yeah, I know, shut up.” frustration. That said, the game does feature some tools for refining your basic technique and if nothing else, it’s something to help you learn some new songs. It may not be the reason you practice, but it can certainly be a useful resource for starting or just nonchalantly practicing.


It’s often been stated that Rocksmith is far less a game than it is a practice tool, and I will definitely echo those sentiments. There’s scoring involved, often to unlock pedals and other features for the ‘amp’ feature, but in all honesty the scoring is mostly just for show, the real prize being the simple fact that you’re playing a song.


The way the game works is that it apes the Guitar Hero/Rock Band method of notes coming down a lane for you to play as they hit the bottom. The difference in this being that at the bottom of the lane is a mock guitar with six strings and frets that the notes collide with, indicating the notes you’re supposed to play on the guitar in a sort of “animated tablature” fashion. If you have a note on the third fret of the sixth string, a little box will come down the lane labeled ‘3’ colored the same as the sixth string, so on and so forth for all the other notes. There are slight variations on them for things such as slides, bends, open strings, and other techniques, but the formula doesn’t change very much, and it actually extremely easy to follow if you already know how to read tablature, and still simple to pick up and learn. Chords are done in the same pattern, a box coming down the lane containing all the notes required to fret and occasionally having the chord name to the left, as most of the time it’s easier to read what the chord is and fret it by memory than to try and work out what the diagram shows in the brief seconds before you have to play it.


Overall this system presents the music in a way that makes it easy to read and play along with, simplified still by reducing the amount of notes you play as you start and slowly doling out more the better you get at a section in the song. The game allows you to increase the notes in a few ways, one by simply playing through the song from start to finish and leveling up the sections you nail consistently, or by letting you go into a practice mode where you can pick specific sections of the song to run over and over. Playing flawlessly will achieve the next level of that section, and making a few mistakes will see you repeating it ’til you’ve mastered what’s tripping you up. This is a capable method but it would be nice to see a little refinement, such as being able to select a specific riff or run out of the section to practice. Often times a section is sixteen measures or so while the one thing that you’re missing is only one measure, meaning you have to repeat the whole thing over and over just to miss on a single measure. Also nice would have been the ability to combine the two systems of bettering a section. You can either elect to play it full speed and increase the actual riff you play, or you can choose to play it slower and work it up to full speed, but you cannot do both at the same time, a giant oversight in practice technique, mostly at fault with the game’s terrible UI. The game is also very schizophrenic in its judgement of whether or not you’ve passed a section, often times making you repeat something for missing a single note, and progressing you forward even if you know for a fact you missed a run. I fully well understand as a musician that you will NEVER have a perfect performance, but it would be nice if it held you to a higher standard in practice than when you’re playing the song for points.


The game also has various arcade games designed to help you practice various techniques like string bends, knowing the frets, chords, and others. These are fun little diversions though I haven’t spent enough time with them to really discover if they actually help or not. They seem far more geared towards a beginner, though an advanced player could probably see some use out of them.


One thing I would have loved to see come from this game would be a departure from simple tabs. If the game would try and teach how to read sheet music and then what notes on the guitar correlate with the actual sheet music I would say this warrants actual musical appraisal. Sadly it doesn’t do such, instead sticking to rudimentary tablature instead of educating what frets are what notes. Along those lines it would have been exceedingly nice if the game had teachings for theory and actual writing, allowing you to learn how to play on your own instead of with the songs the game comes with. Although, to be fair, that’s quite obviously a dream feature, especially since everyone learns differently and theory is something best taught where questions can be answered. Still, the game lacks even the slightest hint of this, a very sad oversight indeed.


Truly the biggest flaw with the game is simply the UI. It’s a chore and a pain in the ass to get from one thing to another, no matter how closely related they are. There doesn’t seem to be alternate ways to sort songs, instead always going by their title, not artist or difficulty. It’s a baffling malady considering the game is developed and published by Ubisoft, and even if it was a brand new start-up studio Ubisoft brought into the fold, help was just a phonecall away.


The dreams of new DLC every week a la Rock Band have proven to be a wash, with the game barely having any DLC after its year out. That’s hoping to change a little bit come the PC release when the bass DLC will be included with it and released for consoles to pick up, allowing you to learn new songs and the old ones on bass. One thing I was hoping for in the PC release was modding support or even straight up hacking the game to brute force it to learn new songs. Since the game doesn’t require master tracks, instead playing the track in the background while having your guitar put over it, it would be incredibly wonderful to allow custom content, perhaps support for Power Tab or TabPro.


As an aside, if you look at Rocksmith and expect to get another Rock Band/Guitar Hero out of it where people can either watch you play or you can play together as a party game, cast those notions aside at once. It’s most definitely a practice tool and rarely a game. I’ve had a few friends come over while I was in the middle of rehearsing a song and they were bored to tears waiting for me to finish, even if I was actually playing the song as an in-game performance. This is not a social game in the least, barely even constituting a game.


But regardless of its flaws, Rocksmith is currently a handy practice tool and jumping point for anyone just starting guitar. If you own a 360 or a PS3 and you’ve thought to yourself, “Man, I’d like to learn some basic guitar stuff.” than this is certainly an opportunity you can look in to. The price is currently $60, the same as any brand new game, and assuming $15-20 for a one hour lesson, you’ll get a much longer use out of Rocksmith than personal lessons until you’re ready for them. There are plenty of tracks the game comes with it can teach you, and once you’ve exhausted those you can either go impress your friends by playing a few of them or jump into lessons with a some previous knowledge and experience under your belt.


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