Review: Rocksmith looks to take rhythm-action gaming to its logical conclusion as an interactive guitar tutor. But does it actually work?
“I’d rather just play a real guitar” sneers your musically-adept friend as you quickly click between the green button and the red button. “What’s the point?” they’d probably ask you. Valid concerns, of course, and it’s still pertinent now, even long after the peripheral-fuelled rhythm action genre has passed on. So where’s the validity in Rocksmith, Ubisoft’s ‘real guitar’ answer to a genre whose plastic toys and worn drums have already lived past their use and remain dust-covered in a cupboard somewhere.
The problem with Rocksmith is the multiple permutations from which any one gamer could approach it: is it a videogame? Educational software? Are you a guitarist or entirely new to six-string music creation? There are simply far too many questions that need answering before you can understand how useful the game will be for you. Fortunately there is only one ultimate question: can Rocksmith teach you to play the guitar?
As a game Rocksmith is fairly typical of the tropes that Guitar Hero and Rock Band set before it all those years ago, and this is both beneficial and detrimental to Rocksmith. Watching the colour coordinated blocks fly unerringly towards the screen is an action most gamers will recognise, which makes picking up Rocksmith a fairly simple exercise – at least mechanically. But does it really need to be coloured blocks, haven’t we already done that?
Despite this familiarity, picking up Rocksmith for the first time can be a little intimidating; unless you’ve been rocking for years, it’s going to take a bit of getting used to. Even then, the colour-coded strings replacing the EBGDAE method might throw off even the most professional of guitarists, as they then have to relearn the way they’ve been reading tablature for years. This is especially true since it actually inverts the fretboard, so the thickest string is at the top and the thinnest is at the bottom – confusing for anyone who is used to the opposite with tablature.
There is a reason for Rocksmith’s madness, however. Newcomers will find this a much more preferable method, since this setup mirrors how the guitar looks in your hand – making that coloured block recognition all that more simple to understand. This isn’t enough to prevent the harsh learning curve, however, as a newbie will need constant glances away from the on-screen notes to find the correct finger placement on the strings.
Mercifully the software powering Rocksmith is really quite impressive. It’s ability to detect individual notes and pitches – even during a particularly quick sequence – is outstanding, and really helps force players into ensuring they’re picking the notes correctly. Get it wrong and arrows will point you up or down the fretboard as required, though admittedly some of this is lost with chord play, which is generally a little too forgiving.
The adaptable difficulty always seems to offer the right level of challenge too, though it’s not without its issues. Quickly and unexpectedly throwing an unknown chord into the mix during a song should not be a reward for mastering a section, and often the system doesn’t seem to recognise the right areas to increase the difficulty and ignore the sections it should. We hate to say it, but a more traditional preset difficulty selection would be preferable than this great, but hugely flawed, system.
There are aides in this, however, and it’s with these that newcomers to playing the guitar will really see the benefit of Rocksmith. Individual events are selected for you as you play, and Rocksmith does a fine job of picking out sections you’re not handling too well. If you’re introduced to a new chord, it’ll take you string by string to get the right sound. If you struggle with a particular phase, you can practice until you master it or try and match the original’s speed. And if you come across a new technique – from tremolos to slides – it’ll offer a set of challenges to practise with until you get it right.
There’s more, too. A series of mini-games – which Rocksmith calls ‘Guitarcade’ – provide an entertaining distraction from the endless coloured blocks. Dawn of the Chordead, for example, sees you matching chords to halt a zombie horde; Quick Pick Dash tasks you with using the tremolo technique in a Canabalt style running game; or Super Ducks, which is a Duck Hunt mini-game that requires you to pluck a specific note on a certain string. There’s eight in total, and these actually do better for improving your technique than any of the songs do.
And this is the problem with Rocksmith. As impressive and innovative the technology is, it simply won’t teach you to play the guitar. Not confidently, anyway. It requires as much self-determination as self-teaching does, and even then it’ll only act as a base to improve upon. The fault is not with the technology, but the software. More customisation options are needed to better tailor it for all levels of players.
But again, it is down to what you want from Rocksmith. If you’re hoping for an entertaining rhythm action game, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Yet if you’re a beginner or middling guitarist looking for a way to improve, Rocksmith definitely offers enough for you. Admittedly it does have issues, and this is the biggest shame because with something this innovative it needs to excel to succeed. No, Rocksmith isn’t always fun – sometimes it’s downright frustrating – but the biggest criticism is its very niche audience: a selection of people who want to play the guitar but don’t have the resolve to put in the hours without some kind of continuous feedback. Rock Band and Guitar Hero already have the party attitude, but Rocksmith needs to try harder to master this untapped school music teacher approach.