When Guitar Hero came out in 2005, millions of gamers saw their chance to live out their rock star fantasies. Sure, the controller felt more like a Playskool toy than a beast capable of unleashing Yngwie Malmsteen-style tremolo runs and melting faces, but even in its primitive shape Guitar Hero was the game that really let the music game genre take off. Then came Guitar Hero II, and Guitar Hero III, and then Rock Band came in and introduced more instruments, and then Guitar Hero IV made sure to include more instruments to keep up with Rock Band, and then they came out with DJ Hero, and then…well, you get the idea: different names, but the song remains the same. Considering how oversaturated and dull the genre has become, I was about to put my plastic toys in the attic…until I got my hands on Rocksmith.
If you’ve ever played any other guitar games, you’ll find the gameplay to be pretty familiar; colored notes scroll down from the screen, and your job is to hit the correct note at the right time. The difference is, instead of having your fingers between the buttons, you now have six strings and twenty-odd frets to work with. This might seem like a tall order, and it is, even for a seasoned ramblin’ man, but the game makes up for it with a dynamic difficulty system that scales to the player’s performance. Nail a phrase several times in a row, and you’ll eventually find yourself playing the song note for note. It’s an exhilarating experience when you pick up your guitar and realize that you don’t need to stare at a bunch of squares and dots to play the in-game songs; in this respect, Rocksmith is just as much an educational tool as it is a game.
While beginners might find it fun to play simple riffs before moving on, more experienced guitarists might find themselves frustrated at how long it takes to unlock advanced riffs. To play a song at an “event”, which is basically just a setlist at a given venue, players must first beat a certain score on that song. Sometimes, the game gives you ridiculously high scores to beat before you’ve even unlocked the more advanced versions of the riffs, which means that you’ll have to play the song over and over again before even coming close to the goal. It would have been nice if they gave an option to change the difficulty on the fly in addition to scaling it to player skill.
The fifty-plus song list draws from a variety of eras, so you’ll get classic songs by Cream as well as feel good hits of the summer like Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”. Playing well and getting a double encore also allows you to unlock hidden songs from the developer. While most of the songs are fun to play, a few of them are decidedly dull, like Blur’s “Song 2” which has you playing an octave for almost the entire song, and “Use Somebody” from Kings of Leon. The only thing more irritating than playing a single interval over and over again is listening to the grating voice of the lead singer, and then having to play the song five or six times in a row to get the required qualification score is clearly just what I needed.
One of the better things about the dynamic difficulty is that the game doesn’t throw a bunch of terms at you right off the bat; as you progress through the game, you’ll be presented with new techniques such as slides and tremolo picking, along with assorted minigames to help you build up your skills. It’s kind of silly to find the correct fret to shoot ducks, but the more you play, the better your actual guitar playing becomes. Practicing scales is definitely much more interesting when hitting the wrong notes causes your avatar to fall off the tracks and die, and yes, there is a minigame which involves killing zombies. You’re welcome.
The coolest feature of Rocksmith is that the sound coming out of your speakers is exactly what you are playing on guitar. By using a cool little dongle, you can plug any standard guitar directly into your console. The game has a slew of effects that it applies to your guitar signal, so you can sound just like the greats. The virtual in-game amp is another great feature that lets you tweak your sound, so if you haven’t got the money to blow on cabinet amps and pedals, the TV is your next best bet.
The technology in Rocksmith is amazing, but as circles go, this one certainly isn’t perfect. While the sound design is amazing, I ran into a problem with significant lag between what I was playing and when it came through the TV speakers, an issue that’s just inherent to the hardware and one that Ubisoft is well aware of. Despite switching my output cables and spending some time trawling forums, I was never able to eliminate that lag completely. The effect is something like a really bad delay pedal, and trust me, even the Edge wouldn’t approve of it. While the game tracks the notes you play fairly well, there are going to be times where a correct note is construed as being a bit too sharp or flat. These are both more annoyances than gamebreaking problems, and some people might not encounter them at all, but they’re enough to keep you from really just enjoying the experience.
Anyone who’s ever done significant touring at all knows that the life of a rock star isn’t as glamorous as it’s cut out to be; sleeping in vans, occasionally fighting with your ungrateful “fans”, and in general, livin’ on a prayer. Rocksmith cuts out the groupies and honky tonk women, but the road to superstardom is still pretty drudgy. You earn points for performing well on songs, and eventually unlock new venues to perform at, but there’s no sense of real progress within the game. All the songs are already available to play from the start, and most of the venues are so dark that it looks like you’re playing to a bunch of 2D cardboard cutouts in the same dank hole-in-the-wall club. You do unlock new effects pedals, amps and guitars to play with, but considering you don’t even see any of them while you’re playing a song, switching between an Epiphone and a Gibson Les Paul is mostly a pedantic distinction.
Rocking a wood-and-metal axe is definitely a step up from pushing buttons on a plastic toy, but there’s still room for improvement. Don’t get me wrong though, Rocksmith is an amazing technological achievement that could very well be a defining work for the next generation of music games. It’d probably be helpful if you consider it more as a teaching tool than as a straight-up video game; it won’t replace a guitar teacher, but you can definitely brush up your skills by plugging in. Regardless of why you play it, Rocksmith is a lot of fun. It doesn’t have the party game multiplayer appeal of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but if you’re going to play real guitar you might as well get some mates and play an actual gig. So plug in baby, because if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a rock star without leaving your living room, Rocksmith’s got your ticket to ride.