Let me start this review with a disclaimer: I am a musician and guitar teacher, I've been playing for around 18 years or so. This review is from the point of view of someone with a good deal of guitar experience under their belt. I'm also left-handed, which was a major consideration on my ability to enjoy this game.
The original Rocksmith, which saw a belated European release last year, was a wonderful piece of software designed to teach anybody to play guitar or bass. A fairly incredible audio engine allowed you to plug in your own axe using a special USB cable which was bundled and the game was able to recognise what notes you were playing with a good degree of accuracy (to set the record straight, Rock Band 3's pro mode did offer something along these lines first). Rocksmith was simple, fun, and quite importantly it worked.
However, even at the time it was clear to see that the game was made with restrictions and was trying to do more than the design team were able to implement. The loading times were excessive, the menus were extremely difficult to navigate and audio lag was a problem for many. The central appeal for most people was learning to play songs and the game presented a good variety (plus ever growing DLC), but the learning process was made more difficult due to the bloated methods needed to slow parts down or to set the difficulty to something appropriate to your experience level. We're extremely happy to report that Rocksmith 2014 addresses all of these issues and also adds a ton of new features and content. In fact, Ubisoft have created something absolutely revolutionary here.
The game works through a number of avenues. If you follow the learning path which it presents you with then you will be given video demonstrations of techniques which you can then put to use while learning to play songs (arguably, the game's main selling point). Rocksmith 2014 comes with around fifty new songs from artists such as Queen, The Rolling Stones, The Smashing Pumpkins, Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters. There is a lot of variety in the set list with styles ranging from acoustic to heavy metal and the choice of songs should work for most people. It's impossible to please everyone but this is a solid and diverse list. Additionally, all of the previously released DLC works with this new edition (around one hundred and fifty songs) plus you can import the songs from the original Rocksmith if you own it - although this is not free. You can also work on specific skills by playing mini games in the Guitarcade which allows you to focus on things such as string skipping, chord shapes and scales. Along the way the game presents you with missions to help you advance which will span all of these various tools. This new edition of the game also introduces Session Mode which is a stunning tool designed for improvisation.
First, let's discuss the improvements. The menu interface has been completely redesigned and is very fast and easy to use. The entire look of the game has been changed and is presented in a much lighter and airier environment which immediately feels more welcoming. Slightly annoying is that the game clearly wasn't designed for using a mouse and the menus are best navigated using your keyboard or gamepad. Upon starting the game you'll be asked if you played the original Rocksmith and how much (if any) guitar experience you have. The game uses dynamic difficulty to adjust as you play, so if you're a complete beginner you'll be given very simple note paths to follow. As you get the hang of them more notes will appear. The original game used this system too but it appears to have been tweaked here and is much more gradual - indeed, you may notice that you nail a section of a song but the difficulty will seem to take a long while to increase. This could be potentially frustrating but is by no means a bad thing: the most important part of learning guitar is practice and repetition, repetition, repetition.
If it really is too slow for you, this time around you have a lot of control over difficulty and speed settings. At any point you can pause and use the Riff Repeater to choose any section of a song (or even the whole song) and set it to a certain difficulty level. The game then allows you to repeat the section with the complexity increasing each time you get it right. The original game was quite restrictive with this feature and required you to go through a bunch of annoying menus and loading screens. This time around it's instant. Indeed, loading times throughout the whole game have been virtually eliminated.
The other thing which has thankfully disappeared is the audio lag. Although this is heavily dependent on your setup, out of the box the PC version we tested had zero delay between the moment you pluck a note on your guitar and the moment you hear it played back in the game. Absolutely perfect. When we switched over to an HDMI connection hooked up to a television, the lag became more noticeable but was still not enough to make the game unplayable. It is very important to note the steps you can take to keep the audio lag to a minimum, especially if you are playing the game on a console. On PC, you will get much better results by using the onboard audio on your motherboard rather than a dedicated sound card (this may sound odd, but it was the same with the original Rocksmith. There are technical reasons, but basically you want the purest audio signal possible with nothing getting in the way to slow it down and the best way to do that is straight through the motherboard audio so there aren’t any more hoops for it jump through).
The interface for learnings songs has been subtly improved but the changes make a lot of difference. The general layout is the same: you have an image of your guitar neck at the bottom of the screen while the notes you have to play come towards you down a note highway. This time specific fret numbers accompany the notes which makes it a lot easier to know where you need to play. A number of improvements have been made in regards to the way certain techniques are displayed, for example when you need to bend a note the game now tells you exactly how far you need to bend and how long to hold it for. The game now recognises vibrato, tremolo picking, double stops and accents. Very noticeably, the response of the engine has been significantly improved. Not only does the game recognise the notes you're playing more readily, but the feel of the whole thing is a lot more solid. You are able to really feel like you are "locking in" to a song. It's infinitely better than the original game. Another very welcome addition is that the guitar sound you are using will now automatically change during specific sections of songs so that it consistently sounds correct (a light distortion for rhythm sections, big reverb, delay for solos and so on). The tones are all very authentic to the original songs and extremely well done. A variety of alternate tunings are now supported for songs which require them, plus the game even recognises songs that were not recorded at standard concert pitch and supports songs which use capos. Left-handed mode is seamlessly integrated here and throughout every part of the game if you require it.
The more you explore the game, the more you discover. In addition to missions, you are presented with numerous score challenges across the game's different modes. If you continually follow all the tasks you will find you're always being pushed to do a little better. Score Attack mode turns the game into something closely resembling Rock Band or Guitar Hero wherein you can choose a set difficulty (easy/medium/hard) and aim to get the highest score possible to climb up the leaderboards. A fun addition here is that you are given three lives and you lose one for every section of the song you fail to play accurately enough until it's game over.
The Guitarcade has been given a big overhaul. The idea behind this section is to give the player a group of mini-games which are designed to get you practicing specific skills, and everything here is presented as if you were playing arcade games from the '80s or '90s. It's good fun and there's a decent selection. Some of the games are more in-depth than others but all of them can yield valuable results if you dedicate some proper time to them. Rocksmith 2014 also boasts a fun and robust local multiplayer mode (keep in mind, you will need two USB cables to do this). You and a friend can both plug in and play songs together, each choosing which part you wish to play (lead, rhythm, bass). You can both choose the same parts or play different ones. The game remembers each player's skill level and preferences (right or left-handed, the orientation of the strings) and there's no fuss or hassle, you can just start playing. Various modes are available here; you can simply play the songs for fun or go head-to-head to try and beat each other's scores.
Possibly the biggest talking point of this game is the new Session Mode. This is a very unique and intriguing little gem. It's designed to work as an improvisation tool and provides you with your own dynamic backing band who respond to your playing. Start off by choosing the style of band you want to accompany you (acoustic, blues, hard rock, metal, acoustic - there are a lot of selections within these genres) and customise it to your liking. Give the band a tempo and a key to play in. Start playing and the band responds to you. If you play loud the band will start to rock out, if you quieten things down then everything will become much more calm. You'll be shown a scale box which will give you an idea of what to play so you can be sure never to hit a bum note. Session Mode is potentially a tool for more advanced players but you can make the whole thing as simple or complex as you like. If you want to just jam on a very basic A minor pentatonic scale then the game can do that. If you want to start messing around with your Mixolydian and Phrygian modes then that's all in there too. This is really something quite special and a very exciting development for any musician who really wants to develop their improvisation skills, or just learn their scales properly. It makes the process a lot more fun than simple backing tracks or YouTube videos, plus it provides you with a huge amount of information to help you understand what you're playing.
We have only a few minor niggles with the game. The volumes are quite inconsistent as you go from song to song and sometimes you can barely hear what you're playing above the song audio (we actually found that the USB cable's input volume is set very low by default and needed to be turned up from the Windows control panel after you've started the game). The in-game tuner still isn't the greatest and will often tell you that you're in tune when you are still a bit off. Perhaps the most frustrating thing for any player new to the guitar is that you may feel that there is very little focus to what you are supposed to be learning. There are a large number of video lessons and practice tracks included with the game - and they are of a far higher quality than those in the original Rocksmith - but it's easy to get overwhelmed or lost. The greatest danger here is that you may decide to give up early due to this and that would be a real shame. The missions and challenges are always there but you may prefer to just spend time trying to perfect your favourite songs. Every player struggles with slightly different things so it's very hard for the game to provide a path that will suit everyone.
What you get out of Rocksmith 2014 depends heavily on how you treat it. It's important to realise that it is not a complete learning program but rather the ultimate practice tool and is best used to supplement other learning avenues, be they YouTube videos, books, or classes with a tutor. There is no quick and easy way to ever learn an instrument and if you really want to improve your playing then you need to practice. A LOT. This game should help you greatly with than and it will make sure you have fun doing it. Rocksmith 2014 is a genuinely exciting development in music software and continually offers you more than you expect. A hard truth is that guitar newcomers are going to find this a very different experience to people who already have some playing ability and may struggle, while others will delight in the playground that’s being offered up. We highly recommend you try to get some guidance as to what you should be playing, either from a guitarist friend or using the resources that the internet offers by posting in forums.
When you step back and take in what this game offers as a whole, it’s absolutely stunning. It’s a massive improvement over the original and we could not give this anything but our highest recommendation to anyone even slightly interested in picking up a guitar, be you a newbie or experienced player. Put the time in, take things slowly and be prepared to practice the same things over and over and you will be surprised - and delighted - at the results.