OXCGN’s Rocksmith Review
For those to (realistically) rock
by Gav Ross
©2012 Gav Ross
It’s a line that has been haunting Guitar Hero and Rock Band tragics for years.
Being able to five-star hundreds of songs in either game’s Expert mode or nail a Dragonforce solo close to perfection is an admirable feat, to be sure, but even the most ardent defenders of the rhythm genre would have, at some point, had that nagging feeling deep in the recesses of their mind that maybe, just maybe, the naysayers are right.
The skill of being able to proficiently flex your digits across a few coloured buttons on a Fisher Price-like neck to match corresponding notes on a TV screen – what use does that serve in the real world, especially when there’s a realistic alternative?
Ubisoft’s entry to the rhythm game race is somewhat late, since the peripheral-based market effectively bottomed out almost three years ago, leaving sets of dusty, battery-draining drums and guitars hidden under beds and destined for landfill.
Rocksmith is a game-changer; the evolution of the genre we all imagined might one day be possible.
It’s just a shame it’s a tad tardy; if it dropped sometime between the second and third Guitar Hero releases in 2007/8 it would have changed the landscape completely.
Secret is in the strings
Harmonix’s Rock Band reached this apex first, of course, after they successfully introduced the concept of using an actual guitar (with strings and everything!) when the third iteration of the franchise hit shelves in 2010.
The optional ‘Pro’ mode was a revolutionary leap, but it was limited by the fact gamers had to buy a specific Fender Squire to enjoy the full experience; one that was, maddeningly, only available in limited quantities outside the US.
There was also the alternative Mad Catz controller, with individual buttons on each fret replacing strings, but even that wasn’t a cheap investment.
Rocksmith goes one better, allowing any beaten-up old guitar or bass, acoustic or electric, to be used, as long as it has a standard input jack.
Ubisoft’s trademarked ‘Realtone’ cable, which is supplied with all copies of the game and connects the guitar to console via USB, is an impressive little piece of tech that reads individual notes and chords with remarkable accuracy.
Tuning your guitar before each and every song in the game is only a minor inconvenience and it’s usually over in a few seconds, unless the track requires an alternate D-tuning.
The downside of using a cable that only reads tones, however, is that a standard console controller has to be used in tandem.
Bending down to pick up the controller, wherever you left it, in between songs gets old fast, especially since it’s required before and after every rehearsal of a song.
Highway To Hell
After years of staring at coloured gems cruising down highways in Guitar Hero and Rock Band (and let’s not forget Rock Revolution and Power Gig: Rise of the Six String, whoever played those), the initial sight of seeing Rocksmith’s unique notes scrolling towards the bottom of the screen, surrounded by fret numbers, is slightly jarring.
It only takes a handful of songs, however, before the intuitiveness of the note highway becomes apparent, and it becomes similar to reading tablature on the fly.
Each string is colour-coded and constantly displayed on the horizontal guitar neck at the bottom of the note lane.
Constantly looking down at your fingers and looking back at the screen in between single notes and chords is something most new Rocksmith dabblers will go through unless they’re already more than semi-proficient guitar players.
A subtle flub-correction indicator flashes on screen whenever a note is played on the wrong fret.
Start playing the A string on the sixth fret at the beginning of Interpol’s ‘Slow Hands’, for example, and the game won’t automatically fail you – an arrow will pop up next to the fret on screen to show you should move your index finger just to the left.
For beginners at any level (even those who’ve only plucked at an open string like a curious infant), Rocksmith is incredibly forgiving.
It has to be, really, since failing back to the menu after a certain amount of bung notes would only cause learners to throw down their axes in frustration.
It’s Getting Better All The Time
Rather than serve up the traditional easy-through-to-expert option before a tune begins, the game makes its own adjustment based on your level of skill, which increases in complexity during rehearsals, gigging and technique exercises.
Most of the time, the increased difficulty mid-song consists of the addition of one or two notes to an already well-practiced riff.
Other times there might be a tougher lick thrown into the mix; if you can’t quite get most of it down pat after a few attempts the game will revert back to easier notes before your eyes.
Experienced guitarists will probably be irked by Rocksmith‘s constant hand-holding, especially during the first few hours of the game.
Songs that aren’t unlocked in Rocksmith‘s linear career mode can be found buried in the menus, but they also remain restricted in difficulty to whatever level the player is at.
So, basically, you cannot start up the game and smash through Muse’s ‘Plug-In Baby’ note for note, even if you think you can pull it off.
Study those strums
Rocksmith makes you earn your stripes unlike any other game of its ilk, and the sense of achievement when you finally nail that small section you’d had trouble with for days previous is very satisfying indeed.
That feeling that you’ve mastered something tangible, something that can be repeated far away from a TV or computer screen, is strangely liberating.
Budding guitarists shouldn’t expect to be able to pick up Rocksmith and sound like Yngwie Malmstein six months on.
While it’s a competent teaching aid, the game requires the same as its real-life counterpart: practice, and lots of it.
And even though Rocksmith contains a plethora of how-to videos – covering everything from barre chords to harmonics – it should be used by guitarists as a learning tool that complements other training.
Rocksmith isn’t a human teacher; it’s not going to free you from bad habits every beginner picks up.
With a reasonably varied tracklist, most of which you haven’t already played to death in other guitar games, Rocksmith is off to a good start, but it has a long way to go if it’s ever going to get anywhere near Rock Band Network‘s mind-boggling selection.
Some of the DLC packs released in September and October have been promising, though, and hopefully Ubisoft delivers new material semi regularly.
Without possessing the pick-up-and-play element of fun of Guitar Hero or Rock Band, some may find it laborious.
The Guitarcade section, which offers Galaga and Dr Mario-like mini-games, does offer some relief from the practice grind, at least.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that Rocksmith is interpreting tone data on the fly through the USB cable and not reading traditional button presses, audio latency is a severe issue.
All set-ups will be different, but for most the use of a digital signal, such as HDMI, will only worsen the lag.
I found the game nigh unplayable through HDMI.
Ubisoft’s forums suggest using an analogue audio connection, so plugging the trusty old component cable back in did help.
The lag is still there – mildly perceptible, but not bad enough to ruin the experience.