I can’t be the only guitarist who has watched YouTube videos of Guitar Hero players showing astonishing levels of skill and dexterity and wondered why these people aren’t playing a real instrument. Why devote so much time to developing skills that are essentially the same needed to master my youngest son’s toy guitar? Not that we should confuse speed and dexterity with musical ability, again YouTube is full of teens who can play guitar at speeds that would frighten the greats such as Page, Beck and Hendrix (peace be upon them) but show no knowledge of how to write a good melody, let alone a song.
Rocksmith sets out to teach beginners how to play guitar via the tropes of the rhythm game genre and while it does have some success in that area the result will be players who have plenty of manual finger skills yet still really aren’t creative musicians. But what is Rocksmith? Is it a videogame, or is it a tool for teaching guitar? Well it’s a bit of both, and therein lies some of its problems.
The game comes complete with a USB to 6.5mm jack cable to allow you to connect your real guitar to your console or PC, in this case I was testing the Xbox 360 version. Connecting guitars to computers is something many of us musicians have been doing for years using audio interfaces to record via digital audio workstations and computer-based amplifier modelling. While the issues of latency – the time taken from playing a note to hearing it – has become less of a problem in modern computer systems it does rear its ugly head on console. Ubisoft suggests using component cables rather than HDMI, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to rewire my surround system to play one game. My experience was there wasn’t too much latency on my system – using a Panasonic plasma and Sony surround amp, but the official forums show folks having plenty of problems with audio syncing and latency.
Let’s assume you’ve no problems and can move on. The game will be very familiar to you if you’ve played any other recent rhythm games. There’s a career mode where you can rehearse and play gigs, the ability to practise songs and mini-games which help you learn skills. The career mode offers choices of exercises to work on based on your performance and there are plenty of songs to get your teeth into. Latency issues aside I didn’t run into any issues with the game tracking my guitar playing.
Making the grade
The way difficulty is handled really is excellent and is Rocksmith’s best feature. When beginning a song for the first time you’ll be offered simple single notes – perhaps just one per bar of music. Hit the note at the right time and the game will play the rest of the notes needed. Continued success means that more and more notes are added. If you are any good you’ll be playing all the notes by the end of the song. Fail and the game will dynamically reduce the number of notes to get you back into your comfort zone. It’s a triumph of game design.
If only the rest of the game was this good. Alas the method for displaying the notes is really confusing. So bad in fact that despite me playing guitar for 20 years and knowing many of the songs on offer I actually played them worse trying to follow the in-game notation. Granted creating a simple yet powerful way of showing forthcoming notes and timing is difficult, but the solution presented here needs some serious work. Closest to the player is a translucent fretboard, notes roll towards it from a distance. Guitar strings are colour coded and we’re supposed to learn which colour represents which string. This takes quite some learning – yet we’re spending time learning something that has no application outside of the game. A better approach would be to actually show the name of the string E A D G B E instead of using colours. But these guys are making a video game, so actually learning to play is seen as less important than playing a pretty game. And therein lies the problem, is it a game or teaching tool? Why should players spend hours learning a notation method they’ll never meet elsewhere?
The other major problem with the notation system is the way the fretboard moves up and down. This changes the angle at which the notes approach and it can become difficult to see when a riff has moved from being anchored on one string, to changing a semi-tone down. Simple songs for dullards like In Bloom by Nirvana actually become quite a battle due to the inability of the game to give clear note guidance and finger anchoring information.
There are other minor niggles too. New concepts are often introduced into songs then explained after the song, rather than before. The game’s narrator sounds stoned and takes an age to finish sentences, making you wish for the ability to skip some of his ramblings and the videos are ultra-low resolution poop. While there are plenty of songs on offer there’s a real lack of heavy metal – a strange omission given this is the genre that many new guitarists wish to perform in. Ah, you might say, Queens of the Stone Age are in there. And I say yes, but they aren’t metal either.
I can play this with my eyes closed…
The game isn’t all bad. The exercise system for teaching song elements away from the full songs works pretty well. But the practical upshot of this is that you’ll be using this system to learn the songs and when performing them normally you’ll be relying on memories of the exercises. Again showing the in-game notation to be pretty poor. I actually got a better score playing Lenny Kravitz’ Are You Gonna Go My Way by shutting my eyes and playing it as I learned years ago, rather than trying to follow the in-game notes.
I was glad to see the game featured a section where you can play freely – choosing amps and effects and using your console as an amp modeller. Alas this section is slightly blighted by the game convention of having to unlock items, but is still a neat way to practice if you haven’t saved up for your first uber-stack yet.
We did have some fun moving out of my comfort zone and trying bass. My wife has been learning to play for a while and the simpler nature of the bass lanes on offer made problems with the notation less of a problem. If you are thinking of using Rocksmith to learn bass you’ll probably get more out of the game than guitarists. There are plenty of guitarists learning to play via this game, but reading many a forum I’m getting the impression learning the on-screen notation is harder than learning to play the instrument itself.
Look, I like what Rocksmith is trying to achieve. It’s a noble aim, to cross the divide between simulating and actually doing. But more thought needs to be put into the way the music is conveyed to the player in any future game in the series. Give us some metal, make the notation useful in the real world and work harder at latency issues. Oh and for those of us who can play already, let us skip the beginner stuff and introductory guff. As it stands Rocksmith is an interesting concept that’s not sure what it wants to be and fails to be great as a teaching tool or a game.