Learning to play the guitar is extremely rewarding but can be very frustrating. As a self-taught guitarist who spent many years getting into bad habits and feeling like I’d hit a brick wall and couldn’t progress any further, I can testify that having someone to put you on the right path and help get you through those tough times makes it so much easier.
For me, that person ended up being YouTube, where I’d watch dozens of excellent tutorials that showed me how to progress from strumming to finger-picking, versed me in the art of bends, pull-offs and hammer-ons, and gave me access to almost any song I’d ever wanted to play. That made me wonder: what is the point of Rocksmith when there’s already such a wealth of information out there?
Well, Rocksmith 2014 All-New Edition for PS4 is kind of the video game equivalent of those guitar tutorials, taking players through almost everything they need to know to play the guitar, from how to change the strings to developing advanced techniques. Though it’s much more of a learning tool than a game, Rocksmith does well to motivate players through those tough times, making playing the guitar fun with a clear set of goals to aim for, a progression system that feels very balanced and rewarding, and an ingenious way of interpreting how well you’re doing by adapting and suggesting lessons accordingly.
The PS4 edition features a 1080p visual upgrade over the PS3 version, though this really doesn’t make much difference at all in terms of improving the learning process or making the game any better than its predecessor. Remote Play via PlayStation Vita is available, though it’s a feature I can’t see many using as there’s no real point playing Rocksmith unless you’re being scored for your efforts and the guitar is plugged into the PS4. Finally, you can stream and capture video, which you couldn’t do in the PS3 version. Sadly, there’s no digital upgrade offer, so deciding whether to take the leap from PS3 to PS4 will really depend on whether you have any interest in this handful of new features.
The game begins when you plug your electric guitar into the PS4 via a Real Tone USB cable (existing PS3 ones also work). Using HDMI, there is a slight delay between the moment you strum or play a string and when it’s detected in game, so first up (if you really want to get the most out of Rocksmith) you really do need to set-up audio properly. In the PS3 version of Rocksmith, Ubisoft recommened using analog audio inputs of the console to ensure there’s no lag. The PS4 does NOT have analog inputs but instead uses optical audio outputs. That means, you’ll need to go and buy an optical cable and a receiver of set of headphones that have an optical input, although there’s other options available too, such as using a HDMI audio convertor.
During the set-up process you get to choose a skill level from ‘beginner’ to ‘very experienced’ which determines how far the various modes will push you. You then get to pick whether you’d like to play Lead, Rhythm or Bass guitar, meaning you could, if you’ve got the patience and motivation, become a master of all three styles.
Rocksmith offers a wide range of game modes and a superb set of tutorials that teach you every aspect of playing a guitar. Through video tutorials you are taken through many different guitar techniques such as picking, string bending and palm muting. After each video, you then get the chance to practice the technique and pass a test as a pre-requisite in order to move onto a more complicated version of the technique. Get it wrong and Rocksmith talks you through where you need to improve. Indeed, one of the greatest features of Rocksmith 2014 is the feedback system; it recognizes where you’re going wrong and purposely sets challenges to fix it, or points you in the right direction.
Learning to play a song competently is one of the joys of playing the guitar and in Rocksmith beginners will soon be strumming along to the likes of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” while experienced guitar players may get more out of perfecting lightning fast solos from the likes of heavy metal band Mastadon. Whether you’re impressed with the set-list or not is really going to depend on your taste in music and bands. The set-list stands at around 50 tracks from the likes of major artists like The Police, The Kinks, The Who, Queen and Kiss, but there’s also the option to buy 300 more additional tracks from the Store, and players with the PS3 version can transfer their existing DLC.
One of the highlights is ‘Learn A Song’ mode, which slowly introduces you to each song, making you play single notes before dynamically adjusting the difficulty based on the way you play. Note detection is spot-on and one step at a time you get better and better. You may, for example, be encouraged to repeat a riff over and over again at a slower pace or told to re-check a certain chord, or go and play an arcade-style mini-game to improve your dexterity and speed. Indeed, everything you do in Rocksmith is designed to improve your guitar playing skills.
Guitarcade mode offers a more light-hearted guitar experience, with mini-games where you’ll have to shoot the likes of spaceships by hitting certain notes with perfect timing, but it’s still all about teaching you technique and honing your skills so you can play the songs and eventually get the most out of the brilliant Session Mode. Here, you can choose up to four instruments to jam along with, choosing the tempo, scale and tunings of other guitars, drums, or keyboards that will play along with you in synch. While this mode may be appealing to experienced players, even a beginner who can strum a few chords can get a feeling of what it might be like to play in a real band. There’s even the option to play Session mode alongside a friend in multiplayer.
The interface is decent too, ensuring that you don’t need to be able to read sheet music or tablature. Instead you follow patterns and icons as they scroll down screen before hitting the six strings on the bottom of the screen. Though it can be a little overwhelming due to the garish colour scheme, and the fact that notes move so quickly during some of the faster tempo songs, there’s always the option to slow things down to practice. In fact, Rocksmith allows you to customize to your heart’s content which banishes the frustration you can sometimes feel from trying to nail a song in the likes of Guitar Hero. Still, I do think that the interface could be easier on the eye as it takes some getting used to before you’re following it cohesively without having to intensely concentrate.
Despite all its positives, Rocskmith 2014 doesn’t quite offer the complete guitar learning package. One of the biggest omissions is that there are no strumming patterns to follow. As someone who leans towards playing rhythm guitar, but occasionally struggles to work out when I should be strumming up or down, I need help here. There’s no help in Rocksmith at all for strumming patterns, it’s totally up to you to listen to the track and try and work it out for yourself. Consequently, I ended up using Rocksmith alongside my usual guitar learning method of watching real people on YouTube. I think Ubisoft could really evolve the series by teaming up with YouTube guitar tutors, as nothing really beats watching someone play that song and talk you through it. Rocksmith almost gets you all the way there, but there’s an extra step needed for mastery, unless you happen to already be an accomplished guitarist.
Nevertheless, this latest PS4 version of Rocksmith 2014 offers a hell of a lot in one package and there’s absolutely nothing else like it on console. This is much more than just a rhythm game: Rocksmith 2014 is a masterfully put together and fun learning package that will change some people’s lives for the better by introducing them to the joys of playing guitar. Just like learning the guitar in real-life it can be a slog, but for those committed it will really help them learn and improve their skills alongside other guitar learning methods, such as YouTube videos, books and existing online tutorial sites.