Thursday, October 20, 2011


Well, this is quite a surprise.

I didn't expect much of anything from Rocksmith Ubisoft's guitar game/trainer, which lets you use your own guitar. The reviews have been downright bizarre--of the four reviews on Metacritic, there's both a 98 and a 50.

However, DQ Guitar Instructor And Advisor David Gloier has it, and he's very, very positive. He sent me detailed impressions, and here they are (I'm not italicizing for readability, so it's all David from here on):
So, after becoming thoroughly disenchanted with Rock Band's Pro Mode, I thought I was done with attempting to use a game system as a teaching and practice tool for my guitar playing. Then, a few months ago, I caught wind of "Rocksmith". I stumbled across the promotional video, saw I'd be able to plug a normal guitar, any normal guitar, directly into my 360, and decided it was worth a try.

Rocksmith hit store shelves this week, and after an admittedly small amount of time with it, I'm truly impressed. So many of the problems I had with Pro Mode and the Squier controller are non-existent in this game. Ubisoft made a game from the ground up that was meant to be played with a real guitar, and the difference is immeasurable. Having some background playing, nothing felt right with Rock Band. I was pantomiming guitar playing. I wasn't really playing. Some real guitar skills couldn't be properly performed with the Squier, and I still don't understand why they had to come up with the visual system for the note charts that they did. I was relearning everything from scratch and it was too frustrating.

With Rocksmith, playing the game requires me to plug in my guitar and play it like it was meant to be played. Maybe there is some sort of voodoo in that cable, but it's some mighty fine voodoo. The 1/4" plug fits into the jack on my guitar and the USB plug on the other end pops right into the front of my 360. I play the guitar, analog signal gets converted to digital between the guitar and the 360 and, low and behold, it's like I'm playing through one of my amps. Things I couldn't do in Rock Band are now possible with Rocksmith. Bends, vibratos, palm name it and it sounds like it should. This makes playing so much more fun.

I've played through the first two sets of songs, made it to some venues, rocked the crowds, earned encores, and best of all, I'm playing MY guitar(s).

I don't know how this game will come across to someone with no knowledge of the guitar, but I find everything much more intuitive than with Rock Band. At the bottom of the screen, you have the six strings of the guitar. The bottom string is the the high E, the one closest to you on your guitar. The top string is the low E, the one furthest from you as you play. Each string is a different color and as the notes approach you, they are color-coded to the string. When it gets to the prescribed spot at the strings, you play the note. Above the strings is a representation of the fret-board, so if that note is moving down the third fret, you play it at the third fret. Here's where I find one of the great improvements over Rock Band's method: instead of a static scrolling fret-board with the number of the fret to be played on the note moving towards you, the "fret-board" slides across the screen, just as you would slide your hand. So, say you're playing up around the 3rd and 5th frets and suddenly the song requires you to be at the 12th fret, the fret-board shifts on the screen and you realize you need to be shifting your hand, as well. It's well done, in my opinion.

Chords are much better represented in this game as they actually look like the chord shapes I'm used to seeing. Rock Band's system never became second nature. It was like learning a new language. In Rocksmith, as a chord approaches, a little 2-D box is over the board, with the chord shape inside the box showing the fretted and open strings. Open strings in both chords and single notes are solid lines that move towards you.

This probably all sounds confusing and I'm not doing it justice in my description, but trust me, it's much more natural.

The game has little tutorials on techniques you'll need to learn for upcoming songs and scores you on them. It also has little mini-games in its "Guitarcade" that make practicing those techniques much more enjoyable. The first one is learning to shift around the fret-board by shooting ducks. Silly, yes, but just fun enough to make practicing tedious things a bit more enjoyable.

A major difference from Rock Band is the lack of difficulty levels. This game doesn't really have them. It reads how well you're doing and ramps up the difficulty accordingly. If you can't keep up, it takes it back down a level. I've read complaints about this, but it works pretty well, and you don't get stuck with one level being too easy but the next one being to frustrating. Here's an example: The first song you play is the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction". Yep, you get to be Keith straight out of the gate. Anyway, I started playing it and it brings just a few notes at me on a single string while the song plays. Suddenly, the game senses that I know what I'm doing and here come more notes on different strings. I finish the song and scored 91%. I play it again and suddenly, there's even more going on and I'm playing much more of the song. I finish that and I play the chord version of the song. I finish that and I'm playing a combination of chords and single notes. I'm playing the darn song! You really need to experience it. Cool is an understatement. It also helps not to be fighting the Squier controller. I can play for hours on a real guitar and not have the pain in my left hand that the Rock Band guitar gave me in five minutes.

Another difference is when you play a venue, you are on the stage looking out at the crowd. You play well and they react positively. You play poorly and they seem disinterested. It's a neat idea. We wanted to be rock stars when we first strapped on a plastic guitar, but why were we watching ourselves play onstage? I had never thought about it that way until I played Rocksmith.

They game isn't without it's flaws. The menu system is clunky as all get-out. It's really the only thing that stands out to me at the moment, but I haven't played that far into the game and really experienced all the nuances. This is a great first effort. It's what I expected Rock Band to be, but wasn't. I really hope those of you out there that were turned off by Rock Band's Pro Mode and the Squier give this a chance. It deserves some love and I'd like to see what this development team could build the next time around. That won't happen if this doesn't sell. I've read complaints that it's too much of a niche game, but companies sell boatloads of guitars. I don't think guitar playing is a niche and this really isn't a game. This is a tool. It may not turn you into Jimmy Page, but it may make hours of usually tedious practice into something much more bearable.

I have much more I'd like to talk about with this game, but I'd like to spend more time with it before I do. But if you already have a guitar, I think $80 is a decent entry fee. You get the game for $60 and the cable for $20. It's not unreasonable and a much cheaper price point than a game, midi adapter and Squier controller. You can even get the package that comes with an Epiphone Les Paul Junior for $199. Much cheaper than Rock Band was after all was said and done, and that Les Paul is a pretty decent beginner guitar. Or buy the game and cable and pick up a Squier Bullet Strat or Tele for $99 new, or find a good used guitar on Craigslist, at a pawn shop, or Guitar Center.. Any of these will be a much better experience than the Squier Strat controller.

Anyway, I'm off to spend some more time with this thing.

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