Ubisoft has created the best music game to date. That’s not to say popular titles like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and DJ Hero are bad in comparison, it’s just Rocksmith is the first real game for musicians on this generation of consoles. It is advanced enough to test the abilities of a guitarist with 16-years of experience, like me, but easy enough for beginners to pick up any six-string and learn the very basics. With an eclectic track list, local split-screen multiplayer, a plethora of arcade-style mini-games, and a nearly complete virtual playground filled with simulated amps, pedals, and even microphones, Rocksmith finally gives musicians—and wannabe musicians—an experience worthy of rock guitar’s long and historic existence.
Rocksmith is possible via Ubisoft’s Real Tone Cable (¼” jack to USB), which allows the magic to happen through your PlayStation 3. Plug in any real guitar with a ¼” output jack to your PS3, and you are ready to play. It’s important to note that you need a real guitar, so don’t expect to use your old plastic Guitar Hero peripheral. This makes Rocksmith one of the more expensive overall gaming prospects, unless you already own a guitar. You can expect to spend $199 for the complete Rocksmith package, bundled with an Epiphone Les Paul Jr. Guitar, but you can likely find a cheaper axe at your local music shop. Sadly, what makes Rocksmith so great—the fact it’s an actual music game, played with an actual guitar—may mean some people simply can’t afford to give it a try.
The game’s built-in tuner teaches you how to tune your guitar, and in no time you’ll be ready to try your first song. If you are absolute beginner, it will probably take some time to move beyond the basic single root note progressions. But, even if that’s your starting level, the game quickly adjusts to your abilities, and you may be able to add a chord or two to the mix. The presentation is extremely similar to other guitar games, but it mimics a real guitar neck. Notes will fly at the on-screen guitar neck, the strings are color coded, and the frets are even highlighted to give you a general idea of where to keep your hands. Beginners will play the bulk of each song on the E string (red) generally in the first five frets. But, as you prove to the game you have the skills to move beyond that root note progression, you will move up and down the neck, play different strings, and swap between playing the rhythm or lead arrangements.
There is a small campaign-like section of the game that puts players in the shoes of a nameless and faceless guitarist. You’ll start as a relative nobody playing very small venues and eventually build up enough skills so you are the world’s best, touring only the biggest venues, and likely dating a B-actress or a former Victoria Secrets model. Your event manager acts as your hub. You earn points in-game by, you guessed it, playing the notes on the screen properly. You must practice each song until you reach or surpass a specific point level, and when you’ve unlocked each song for that specific event—usually three to six per event—you’ll play the setlist at the venue.
The progression from practicing a song to performing at a venue is only mildly noticeable. This is one of the aspects I wished Ubisoft took a bit further. When you are practicing the songs in a set for the upcoming event, you do so one at a time and tune your guitar before each song. When you play the actual concert, you tune once at the beginning (unless a song calls for a different tuning) and simply play the songs in the set in succession. You play these songs in front of a life-like crowd, but even at the bigger venues, the crowd feels small, and bored, no matter how well you play each song. In between songs you’ll hear a pin drop even if you nearly maxed out the previous song. On occasion, you’ll hear the crowd cheer when you land a nice streak of notes, but it isn’t until your last song is over that you tell how well the crowd thinks you did. They will finally cheer, frequently netting you an encore or two, but I can’t help but wish the concert experience was bigger and more exciting. Master a song and you’ll get to play it straight from memory—something that doesn’t come easily.
The game is extremely responsive to player’s abilities. This is one of the smartest systems in all virtual guitar lessons. Rocksmith, it should be stated, is anything but a gimmick. As someone who’s played guitar for nearly half my life, I was absolutely amazed how after a couple songs, the difficulty level was adjusted enough to test my abilities and actually teach me a thing or two—or, more accurately, force me to relearn what I already knew. Given my ability (and, that’s not me saying I’m some superstar, I’ve just played guitar every day for many years and understand some basic theory), I can’t truly comment on what the game is like for a true beginner. However, there are plenty of opportunities to go beyond the in-game songs to learn some of those basics.
The mini-games in Rocksmith, which are based on arcade games, are a treat. You can play a game that tests your abilities with chords, scales, and even harmonics. Beginners may spend a fair share of their time in this area, but I found it a bit boring after a couple tries of each. You can also break apart each song to focus your attention on mastering different sections. There are also challenges that help you learn some more complex techniques. All of this translates to a good guitar teacher. If anything, Rocksmith may give actual guitar teachers more work when kids play this highly addictive game and want to learn more with a real person. I don’t believe Rocksmith takes the place of a real-life guitar teacher, but it is absolutely enough to give your fingers a proper workout and teach you the different arrangements of about 50 songs.
The track list in Rocksmith is extremely impressive, and that’s not just a subjective statement. For those interested in learning music, there are some classic guitar songs like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama, and The Animals’ take on House of the Rising Sun. Fans of the ‘90s will get their kicks from songs by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and Radiohead. More avant-garde fans will enjoy songs from the Pixies, Sigur Rós, The Cure, and David Bowie. There is something for just about every rock fan.
The mini games, great track list, and progressive-approach to difficulty are a complete enough package to warrant a purchase, but real musicians will probably spend a great deal of time tweaking their sound through in-game sound simulators. You unlock pedals, amps, and guitars as you progress through your campaign, and you can create your own sound by mixing and matching the different gear you’ve acquired along the way. I spent a fair amount of time here and never quite found that sound I was looking for, meaning I still have more work ahead of me. That’s a good thing because there are some truly authentic sounds, ranging from delay, distortion and modulation pedals, to classic rigs. I’d like to see more in the line of a virtual studio, but I bet if Rocksmith is successful, we may see that in the near future.
Outside of the mediocre event presentation, I was a bit frustrated with setup. If you play the game through your HD TV, you will most likely experience some audio lag. You can remedy this by playing through an external system (I played with Astro Gaming’s killer Mixamp and headset). This completely cuts out the lag. You can also play using the PS3’s composite cable, but this didn’t completely fix the delay—but it certainly improved the HDMI hook-up. I also found it frustrating trying to get the onscreen delay match properly. You can adjust the video delay, but I was never able to get it perfect. I can imagine that this will be even more frustrating for beginners.
Rocksmith is the game real musicians, and those who always wanted to learn guitar, have been waiting for. Simply plug in any guitar, crank up your stereo, and get ready to rock. This is the most complete music game I have ever played, and with the prospects of playing real bass guitar, vocals, and drums (someday), this could turn home consoles into home studios. It’s not a perfect outing, but it’s a great place to start, and if sales are strong enough, we can expect to see an even more complete package in the sequel. While it’s less of a game and more of a guitar teacher, there is plenty of fun to be had in the mini games, and simply learning the basics of an instrument. Rocksmith is an absolute must buy for anyone slightly interested in learning how to truly rock.