Rocksmith can be looked at in one of two ways. It’s a tool designed to teach you - or at least help you learn - guitar, or, it’s a game with the biggest and most complex controller you have ever wielded. The small development team at Ubisoft - of which at least the creative director and producer had never played guitar before - have done wonders in taking Gametank’s technology seen in the never-released Guitar Rising and producing an absolutely fabulous piece of educational paraphernalia and a very enjoyable game in its own right.
When you first load up Rocksmith you get some headless video with a very American voiceover, like some mid-west DJ or some Country and Western singer. You’re then asked to sort everything out with your guitar, making sure you have plugged in the (included) quarter-inch output jack which connects your guitar to your chosen console (or PC). Once that’s all sorted you get to tune up your axe. It’s all like setting up for real in someone’s garage to have your first jamming session, or in your local pub for that first gig (depending on ability level). It’s a nice way to start the game, and it gets you going on your Journey which is where you’ll spend the majority of your time.
Your Journey is where you’re taken along for a ride by the game. You practice your first song, and second, eventually racking up enough Rocksmith points to qualify for a live performance of that song. Qualify for a whole setlist and you can make your first live appearance where you’re asked to play each song in succession and, if good enough, an encore song which you’ll not have seen before (unless you’ve peeked at the other game modes and the on-disc song selection). What’s jarring about the songs you play is that a new concept will be introduced unknowingly - suddenly there’ll be a hammer-on, pull-off that appears, or some random collection of notes played at the same time which one might guess is a chord. Afterwards you get a technique unlocked in your Journey which explains via video and animations what the current new topic is. Why this doesn’t come before the first appearance in song is probably to make the game surprising and interesting but here it can get irritating.
The songs themselves and the actual musical engine are amazingly well realised. What you see is basically a series of lines extending into the depths of the television, with numbers alongside many to indicate which fret it is. This set of lines will not be the whole neck of the guitar, just the selection of frets needed for a particular part of the song. When the notes required shift significantly your view zooms out, highlights new numbers and slowly settles back in. The series of lines are joined by greyed out strings across the screen which light up when that string is involved in the forthcoming notes. It might be a bit odd for someone who knows how to play to suddenly have to play Red six, but for beginners it does help them get their memory up to speed as notes fly faster and faster at them. As the song progresses each sub-section (defined by the game) has a certain number of notes to hit, and when success is obtained the gauge fills upping that section’s level and introducing more notes until you get the actual full song. What’s utterly fantastic about the game here, and what is also the single most brilliant innovation in this, is the adaptive difficulty that just works. Hit all the notes, move up to more. Hit those and maybe the chords or open notes or bends will be introduced. Fail these - and you will if you’re new to guitar - and the game will drop things down again until you’re ready. It is very dynamic as you move from song to song (obviously not all are equal when it comes to hardness) and means you always complete a song, always enjoy, always learn and always have something more to do to make that song different next time. Rock Band 3 introduced real guitar to gaming and was rightly lauded for doing so. Rocksmith means that beginners can sustain their attempts to learn without hitting the brick wall that is the old school jump from single notes to chords and no in-between.
If you were to step out of your Journey to go and play that favourite track of yours over and over again, you’ll find out there are multiple arrangements of each song. You can choose to go the single note route, the chords route or a combination of the two. Outside of the Journey you can access pretty much everything else the game offers up too, from practice to performance, techniques to the guitarcade (a series of fun games like Ducks, effectively Duck Hunt on rails where you play a note to shoot at a duck). These are all unlocked within the Journey and the aim is to get a ridiculously high score to unlock a trophy. They do help you to improve your skills in given areas, too.
Excitingly the game has a bass component (available recently to those with the US edition via DLC) which is exactly the same as the guitar version but with the bass parts of the tracklist. Bass can be played even with a guitar if you’re happy to do some in-game retuning back and forth as you change careers. Again the implementation of everything is excellent and for many bass may be more enjoyable. The emphasis is more on single notes here meaning it’s pretty easy to be good early on in some tracks too, as opposed to just passing the level, as the guitar mode tends to feel like. Also in terms of difficulty (guitar or bass), although you have the adaptive intelligence things are still biased towards the player given the exceedingly large hit windows for a particular note. This might in part be to compensate for those who are using HDMI to pass their audio through - it’s not recommended by the game at many stages due to the inherent, and significant, lag.
The Journey is the best way to play the game. It means you’re always pitching up at a level you’re set for, you’re learning new tracks and parts of said tracks, as well as obtaining those Rocksmith points to level-up from amateur all the way to expert if you ever manage it. This all helps to build the fun aspect of the title up. It could have been all too easy for Ubisoft to deliver an educational tool which allowed you to practice guitar by playing a song over and over with the sheet music included on screen. It’s not like that though - the presentation, the variety, the changes in track type and incremental upping of the challenge and skills is handled exceedingly well. It all looks very nice too, if somewhat brown and dour, but keeping things clear and uncluttered is a key reason why this game is playable as the gigantic numbers of possible notes is more than enough to keep anyone occupied anyway. Long sessions can lead to some kind of sensory overload thanks to what’s happening, combined with the intensity of concentration required. But that in itself means that yes, the game done good.
Rocksmith and its development team have done (a) very good (job). As a beginner who had only ever held a guitar and played a note within the aforementioned Rock Band 3 this teaches you so much more, at a better pace and in as fun a way (unless you have anything against the less obvious but equally strong setlist - which is being significantly added to as we head towards Christmas with songs such as Freebird on their way). It mixes things up, introduces components to the guitarist’s toolbox in series rather than parallel and provides encouragement along the way with the simple things like giving you an encore because you’ve done well enough. Most importantly it manages your ability successfully, encouraging you to persist and improve and you know what you need to tackle to do so, as well, thanks to the techniques available outside of songs. It won’t teach you how to play guitar on its own. You’re not learning in the classical way, i.e. a lesson on chords, a lesson on shifting and so on, and there are some aspects of the way the game needs to be played that mean it’s a little more awkward than the usual way - having to look at the screen, at the guitar and back again, well, it’s hard work. What this means though is that in conjunction with lessons, scales and whatever else you will learn. This will help you, it will teach you things and you can get feedback without forking out for tens of lessons, maybe just a few. If you’re familiar with the guitar or bass, this could still be a fantastic investment given the skills you’ll get to practice and songs you’ll get to learn and simply because it’s a great game which will allow you to combine two excellent pastimes into one. Think of it as your own personal trainer, providing feedback all the way and helping you along with everything else to become that rock star you’ve always dreamed of.