Release Date: October 28, 2011
Developed & Published by: Ubisoft
Genre: Music video game.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
So, one of the most popular genres in gaming for the past decade has been rhythm games, like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and one of our very favorites, Guitar Praise. While these have been huge hits with most gamers, especially as party games, the crotchety musician contingent has had complaints. Namely that, no matter what your friends tell you on LIVE, flipping a strum bar and pressing 5 color-coded buttons will never make you the next Al Di Meola (crotchety-musician-types LOVE Al Di Meola). Strides have been made in this field, using midi instruments or controllers with upwards of 100 buttons, but so far they haven't been of much better quality than the plastic instruments we started with in the beginning, if you can find and afford them at all.
The main game itself is fairly similar to the Rock Band set up. Colored squares fly at you in a grid (very similar to guitar tablature), and you play the notes when they get to the end of the track. The strings are color-coded, and the track slides up and down based on where your hand should be at the time. To progress, you're given a customizable set list, per game level. You practice these songs until the game decides you're qualified to play them at the "event," when you play all the songs in a row. Ace this, and you move onto the next set, unlocking new ranks, gear, and game modes as you go.
Rocksmith has no traditional difficulty setting. You can't go at 100% Medium, and move on to try Hard. Instead the game starts you out at rock bottom on a song. "Play this note. Good, now....here it comes around again. Good..." Then it adds another note. Then, if you're still with it, a few more. If the game gets too far ahead of you, it dials itself back a step, tailoring it all to your skill level. Soon you learn techniques; bends, slides, hammer-ons, double stops, chords. If you get completely lost, you can stop the song and practice individual sections at a slower speed. This floating difficulty is great for learning, and keeps you from getting too comfortable with a simplified riff before you have to learn the real thing.
Speaking of game modes there are also some mini-games designed to teach you essential skills like fret finding, scales, and chords. Some of these are quite fun (Dawn of The Chordead) while others seem to be based on luck more than playing (Big Swing Baseball). A bit of instruction would have been lovely here. There's naturally a built-in tuner that comes up at the beginning of every song, but is also available at any time through the main menu. The tuner is certainly good enough as far as sensitivity, but will only tune to Standard and Drop D at this point. There's also an Amp Mode, where you can craft a tone to your heart's content using dozens of modeled guitars, amps, pedals, cabinets, and mics. You can start with a preset tone based on the game's songs, or start with a completely clean tone and work up. This is possibly the most successful feature of the game, but requires you to "rank up" (read: level up) to unlock equipment (unless you care to pay the $10 to unlock them all right away).
As an instruction game, you need an instructor; a narrator to actually tell you what to do once in a while. Ubisoft had a chance to blow the whole thing by adding a terribly cliche "rawker" coach. Instead they opted for a mellow, almost smooth jazz FM DJ voice to help you out; one that doesn't call your guitar an "axe", or use "metal" as an adjective even once. It seems a bit out of place, but far better than the alternative. The real problem is where he is used. He gives you a brief description of techniques, things you've unlocked, and a tour of the game modes. We don't hear from him much otherwise.
But, the worth of a rhythm game, even one that calls itself an instruction tool, comes down to its soundtrack. To this end, Rocksmith falters a smidge. RS includes a bit over fifty songs, in comparison to the eighty-three included with Rock Band 3 (not including the well-over 1,000 available on the Rock Band Network). The mix breakdowns to about half "classic" hits, and half songs from newer bands. The classic range in time from Cream and The Animals to Lenny Kravitz and Stone Temple Pilots. The new songs range from arena-filling acts like Muse and Incubus, to...well, songs the developers themselves wrote. Bands that should be more famous like Sigur Ros, and bands that wish they weren't as famous, like Black Keys. It's a good mix, if a little shy of straying too far into one genre or the other. To Ubisoft's credit, they have been releasing DLC songs for the game at a steady pace; eighteen songs having been added already, including three free holiday tracks. Additional amp mode equipment and support for electric bass is also planned.
So, bottom line, will playing this game enough make you the next Robert Fripp? Hardly. The game lacks a few basic elements, the most important of which is telling you what you're doing wrong. Oh, it'll tell you that you're wrong, and make it easier, but not why. It can't say "No, use the other finger. Don't press so hard. Eww, no, that was, like, a Q minor; THIS is the D chord". For that, you need the human element, whether it be a friend who knows what they're doing, or some stoner you pay $60 per lesson. It also won't teach you music theory. No circle of fifths, triads, consonance vs dissonance, major vs minor, diminished vs augmented. It'll show you a Cmaj7sus2/G, but not WHY it's a Cmaj7sus2/G. It's a rhythm game, one that can be used as a remarkable tool for practice and learning, but can't replace someone showing you what to do and why.
So, I'm giving Rocksmith a hearty 3 cups. It's an impressive first step, and I'm anxious to see what they can do with updates and future releases. For me, it scratches my "I want to play but can't find (time for) a band" itch in a way Rock Band never could. If you like rhythm games and can play a bit of guitar, this is a worthy investment. If you are learning to play guitar, and maybe want something to cut down on the expensive lessons, this might just be for you. If you want to learn to play guitar from this package, and only this you might want to wait for Rocksmith 2, or at least pick up some music theory books. That's what I feel anyway, maybe I should just go back to my Jan Akkerman records. (Crotchety-musician-types LOVE Jan Akkerman...and calling them "records".)