From the beginning of the music-based video games (Rockband, Guitar Hero et al) I’ve wanted a game like Rocksmith. It always seemed to me that if you were going to spend time learning how to “play” songs by following the prompting of a video game, that you should actually gain some musical skills in the process. The toy guitars don’t feel or play anything like real guitars and chicks are noticeably less impressed by button mashing than some sweet licks on a real six string. I already owned an actual, playable (albeit cheap), electric guitar, so I didn’t see any reason to fork over money for a digital air guitar kit.
Then I saw a TV commercial for Rocksmith. FINALLY! I could play video games and practice my guitar at the same time! I was still skeptical, so I checked out some of the early reviews, which were somewhat mixed. There seemed to be enough positive comments to give it a shot. Plus, I wanted to believe so badly that the game I always wanted had now arrived.
I’ve had it for awhile now and put a lot of hours into it, so I figured I’d share my thoughts.
First, a note about me as a guitar player: I’ve played guitar for many years, but after the first couple, I haven’t been very dedicated to practicing. I’m very mediocre. Since I generally lack the patience to sit and work through new, challenging songs, my interaction with my instrument usually involves playing a bunch of stuff that I learned a long time ago, or bashing out some simple rhythm parts to rock songs easily learned by ear (two words: “power chords”). I don’t practice scales, and I don’t play lead outside of a few very simple solos. The comments in the early reviews that sold me on the game were the ones that said it motivated them to practice. That’s really what I needed.
That has actually worked out beautifully. I’ve probably put more hours into my guitar since buying Rocksmith than I did in the last couple of years combined leading up to it. Not only am I playing more, but I’m actually practicing. I am repeating sections over and over and mastering parts that were initially beyond my level.
It isn’t all good though. There are some EXTREMELY annoying aspects to the game that damage it as a learning tool. The first awkward part is the delivery of the notes. It’s pretty similar to Rockband or Guitar Hero I suppose, but that doesn’t do much for me, the guitar player. Guitar tablature is a pretty standard format that everyone understands, it would have been great if they would have incorporated that. I can see how they’re trying to make it accessible to the music gamers, which is probably a bigger crowd than guitar players who want to control video games with their real guitar, so I forgive them for that. They format is still wonky though. It displays the fretboard as though you’re staring through the transparent neck of your guitar. Again, I guess this might help someone who’s never picked up an actual guitar, but for me, having the low notes displayed at the top was confusing and weird. Thankfully, I’m allowed to invert the display so that I can have the low strings at the bottom and the high strings at the top. Things are still weird, but more tolerably so. I think the biggest, least excusable hurdle is using blocks for each note as the float down to the fretboard. There are MANY times where I struggle to see which frets it’s telling me to play on. They should really make the note markers include the numbers to make it more readable. I’ve been thwarted by guitar parts well within my playing ability, simply because I struggled to tell what the game was telling me to play. Sometimes I just close my eyes and go back to playing by ear.
The biggest problem, and I am praying to Jimi Hendrix that the developers note this and do something about it, is the way they handle difficulty. You cannot set it yourself. This means that the game will frequently force you to play a part many times over until it will actually reveal all of the notes to you. I don’t want to practice the incomplete version of of riff over and over. I want to practice the full, actual riff. If it’s challenging, I’d like to practice it like any actual musician practices a challenging piece, by playing it at a slower tempo and building up to full speed. There are a couple of practice modes which are based on altering the speed, but they are TERRIBLE. The first, “Free Speed” means that it plays at full speed until it detects a missed note. It then awkwardly crashes to a dead stop, killing any sense of timing and waits for you to hit the correct note before moving on. Hendrix help you if that happens in the middle of a slide or a bend. That’s painful. It’s an extremely non musical way to practice. The other timing mode approximates what I want, but ultimately screws it up. The mode is made to have you play through the section at increasing tempos until you complete it at full speed… That sounds good, right? Nah, in order to set the speed, you don’t get to dial in a percentage or set a metronome. You have to play through it in the previously mentioned “Free Speed” mode. As you mess up, screech to a halt, and repeat a few times over, it calculates your starting speed. Even as a stumble brutally through a tough solo, it never puts my starting speed below 90%. Also, if you succeed one time, it automatically speeds up! NOT HELPFUL! I want to slow it down SIGNIFICANTLY slower. I want ALL of the notes displayed, and I want to nail the section at least a few times before I start ramping the speed up. There are many parts that I’ve struggled to get past, and I am completely convinced that if the game itself weren’t such an obstacle, I would’ve mastered them much faster.
So, what’s good about it:
- Getting points, achievements, and unlocking things for playing my guitar encourages me to play my guitar. That might just be a big stupid character flaw on my part, but it works for me. I’ve been so motivated, that I even went and bought a new Les Paul Studio to play with. It’s beautiful and fun and I’ve been playing the heck out of it.
- Variety. My listening tastes are mostly centered on the harder end of the rock spectrum. My normal playing repertoire is an even more limited subset of that. Rocksmith contains a bunch of songs that I wouldn’t normally listen to and certainly wouldn’t have spent the time to learn. Rather than being bummed that it’s not all of my favorites, I’ve enjoyed the fact that it’s gotten me to play different styles.
- DLC. The included songs make for a decent starting collection. Adding Megadeth, Boston, Deep Purple, and the free holiday tunes made it even more fun.
- The automatic difficulty thing is VERY annoying when you’re towards the end stages of mastering a song and you’re trying to figure out the tricky part. Prior to that, the game actually makes it pretty easy to dive right in. I was unlocking things, leveling up, jamming on tons of songs and got totally addicted before the flaws started slapping me in the head.
- I’ve read complaints about lag, but I haven’t had any issues with that. My xbox 360 is connected to a monitor via SVGA and my stereo’s RCA input.
- SHOW ME ALL OF THE NOTES! I don’t want to practice every other note of the song and have to unlock the rest by playing it over and over.
- SLOW DOWN! Don’t make me play the stupid free speed section and then dictate to me how slow I need it. Let me set a tempo and move it up when I’ve nailed it.
- Confusing concepts of difficulty. In some songs, leveling a section up reveals slides, hammer ons, pull offs, power chords etc that aren’t actually harder to play than the lower level version. Sometimes the slide or hammer on is a more natural, comfortable way to play it (especially when you’re hearing it in the music the whole time). I’ve leveled up many sections and thought “This didn’t just get harder, it actually makes more sense, feels more appropriate. Why did the game deny me this?” This wouldn’t matter if the first problem didn’t exist, but it still seems like it’s own quirk to me.
I’m rooting for this game. I really am. I hope people buy it and I hope they make another one. I hope that round 2 cleans up a lot of mistakes that they made in the first attempt. It’s in some ways awesome, and it feels close to great, but it’s also brutally frustrating sometimes. I’m finally here, holding my guitar, willing to play the same difficult sequence over and over again (that’s a big breakthrough for me) and I’m mad that once here, Rocksmith is putting these strange obstacles in the way. If you have a guitar and you don’t show it enough love, consider buying the game. It’s been amazing at getting me to put the in time and practice. If you have a guitar and you’re very good, or have solid practice habits, avoid it. It will only annoy you.