I picked up Rocksmith this weekend, and I didn’t even have the game running for a minute before I got several messages from friends asking how it was. So apparently there’s interest in this game, but also a lot of doubt. Which is understandable, considering what it claims to do. I’ve played it for only three or four hours so far, but think I’ve got the gist of it enough to comment on it.
According to the official website, Rocksmith is the “first and only game where you can plug ANY real guitar into your Xbox 360® or PlayStation®3 system, and actually learn while you play.” It requires a real guitar, and a guitar-to-USB cable. The game comes bundled with the cable for $80 (I’ve seen it on sale online at $70). There’s also a bundle that comes with a guitar for over $200. So it’s comparable to Rock Band pricing. While you’re getting a real guitar, and not a plastic miniature, I’m sure it’s not the best guitar money can buy. That said, my first guitar cost roughly the same and was a perfectly serviceable axe for me to get started with, so it may not be a bad deal. Those Chinese are getting pretty good at making guitars these days.
I’ve been playing guitar for seven years. I’m by no means a great player, I’ve come a long way since that first instrument. I take lessons every other week, switching between guitar and bass. I own several instruments, and have even assembled and finished my own “partscaster.” So it’s safe to say I’m familiar with the theory and technique for playing rock guitar.
There are some technical issues that one has to deal with to play Rocksmith. Ubisoft recommends connecting the audio directly from your Xbox to your sound device– go straight to the receiver, and avoid routing through any other devices. They also recommend you use an analog signal– this means no optical line. They recommend this because digital audio has to be processed, and the nanoseconds it takes for the game to process the guitar signal, added to the nanoseconds taken to digitally encode, transmit and decode the audio signal at your receiver result in a delay of milliseconds in gameplay, which makes the game feel decidedly awkward. I tried out the game with my original setup just to see if there would be a problem. There was. So I rerouted the audio per the game’s recommendation and reduced the lag to a negligible amount– barely noticeable if you are listening for it, but with no real impact on gameplay.
There’s a setting in the game’s options menus that allows you to tweak the display to match the lag in audio as you play. This is crucial, as an improper setting makes playing the game a confounding mess. Unfortunately, there’s no immediate feedback with this setting. You have to change it, then load a song, then play the song to see if you’ve set it correctly. If not, you have to quit the song, exit to the menu, and try again. An annoying hassle, and it took me a good half hour of fine tuning to get a comfortable setting.
Once the technical issues are ironed out, the game works well. Notes you’re required to play advance from a vanishing point, much like Guitar Hero. The way the notes are visualized takes a bit getting used to. It’s not as intuitive as Guitar Hero, but then we’re not just talking about 5 buttons anymore, are we? The layout is logical, but as songs move around the neck, it’s easy to get lost at first. The game starts out very basic, asking you to play perhaps 1 in 10 notes, with your guitar tone blended in with the original recording. Songs are divided into sections; verse, chorus, bridge, solo, etc. As your accuracy improves over any given section, the number of notes you’re asked to play in that section increases. The change is seamless and gradual, until there’s no guitar but your own played over the backing tracks. The game doesn’t judge you as harshly as Guitar Hero. There’s no horrible string noise when you hit a wrong note (aside from the horrible noise of your wrong note), the crowd doesn’t heckle you, and the song doesn’t end prematurely if you miss too many notes. The game doesn’t punish, but subtly rewards you with more difficulty until you’re playing the song all by yourself, which is a wonderful feeling.
The tracklist is large, but all pretty much verse-chorus riff-based rock music. The repetitiveness of this music works quite well with the teaching style the game takes.
So what’ll I tell those friends who asked me how the game is?
I’ll tell them it’s good. I’ll also tell them it’s not really a game, but really more of a practice tool, and an easy way to learn new songs.
But it’s no substitute for a teacher, and it’s no substitute for playing with real people. There’s no theory imparted in the game. If you’re completely new to the guitar, you’ll come away knowing how to play “Satisfaction” note for note. But you won’t know what those notes are, nor what key the song is in (or why that’s important). If Rocksmith was your only source of instruction, you’d only be getting half of what you need to know to play with other people. But that in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s a good start; it’s just not the whole story.
We’re in the middle of a very crowded video game season, but with all the different titles vying for my attention right now, the game I want to play the most is Rocksmith. Because I love playing the guitar, and Rocksmith creates a great space to play within. For me, this game is a blast. If you have experience with guitars, the game is good fun and I recommend it. If you’re looking to start, this game could be a good start, but keep in mind that this game is really just a supplement to learning to play, not a replacement for proper instruction.