Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Man, I suck at the guitar. This wasn't always the case, mind you. I used to know my way around a fretboard relatively well (relative to a donkey) in younger years. To this day, Jon and I will reminisce about that time we had back at uni when a few friends came round and we managed to jam out a 17-minute long mashup of Phantom of the Opera and Knights of Cydonia with several guitars, a keytar, and a penny whistle. It was awesome.
How awesome? We'll never know. We were drunk and we've never been able to replicate it sober.
The reason I tell you this is because it's important that you know I went into Rocksmith 2014 having not practised in years, with the soft fingertips of a mediocre stringsmith who hadn't picked up an axe in months, and who was never especially brilliant to begin with. To this day, I still struggle with barre chords and making my little finger do anything besides hovering around uselessly.
Several weeks after spending time in the company of Rocksmith, however, and I'm making severe progress.
The greatest criticism levelled at the Guitar Hero boom came from musicians such as my flatmate who moaned that it had nothing to do with actually playing a guitar. Although one could argue that those rhythm games did go someway towards boosting dexterity, he had a point. Enter Rocksmith, which appropriates the rhythm game format in order to teach you how to play an actual axe. Gamification is something that's in big boom right now, and underneath it all, Rocksmith 2014 is really just a host of familiar exercises, practices, scholastic learning, and musical rote dressed up in a variety of different packages.
But it does its job incredibly well, even if the first few days will have you learning Rocksmith's teaching mechanisms rather than really learning the guitar. As someone who started busting out RHCP songs based on tabs from Ultimate-Guitar, adapting to Rocksmith's backwards-looking, upside-down, Rock Band-esque way of doing things confused the hell out of me. Once you wrap your head around it, though, things become much easier simply because you're not "translating" the game's presentation. It's not immediately intuitive, and it would have been nice perhaps to have tablature options in there, but once you're used to it, Rocksmith's presentation offers great clarity and complexity of depth.
The level of detailed feedback is outstanding, and this is what really makes Rocksmith a worthwhile proposition for someone with a dedicated mindset: you can see your progression in incredible detail. The simple act of adding in a score changes everything. Now you can see as well as hear the improvements, now you have targets to aim for on a day-to-day basis. Sure, you'll improve naturally over time, but Rocksmith provides daily incentives for sticking with it, and, as someone who's often thrown the towel in far too early when it comes to things of a musical nature, I love the fact that Rocksmith has me coming back every day, even if it's just for a few minutes.
The improved Riff Repeater is essential to this. As with everything in Rocksmith 2014, there's been a huge focus on streamlining and accessibility, keeping players in the song wherever possible and making it so that you no longer have to sift through the endless menus of the original. So it is that nowyou just hit a button and the Riff Repeater comes up, giving you reams of playback and feedback options for the song in question from tempo to margins of error, incremental increases in difficulty etc. It's an all-in-one tool that you can bring up on the fly, without having to quite out, which is most welcome indeed. Whereas the original had all songs start off at the easy end of things before the adaptive difficulty ramped things up, now veterans will be happy to know that you can set the bar high from the very start and tweak the settings as you go.
The Guitarcade is back in a big way too, boasting lots of fun little minigames, and not so mini games, to help turn repetitive boring practice exercises into fun score attack slices of gamified wonderment. None come better than Return to Castle Chordead, which unashamedly rips off House of the Dead and turns playing chords into an arcade FPS where successfully strumming the right chord will net you sweet points as you blast bats out of the sky with the power of rock. There are even boss battles and cutscenes to keep you entertained.
Of course, the newest addition to what was already an impressive content offering last time around arrives in the form of Session Mode or, as I like to call it, The Jam Shack! Session Mode basically allows you to pick four instruments -- from drum kits to the kazoo -- set a tempo and a groove, pick out a key for your virtual band to mooch around in, and choose what sort of backing style you want to jam to. On top of that, you can then get the game to highlight the chord box for whatever musical noodling you plan on doing, whether that be a complex, flamenco-tinged phrygian shuffle or the basis for a moody, wailing, mixolydian solo.
Oh yeah, Rocksmith 2014 taught me about musical modes.
I just love the way that Rocksmith 2014 constantly throws up invitations, critical feedback, and player challenges. It's all marvellously integrated in this release, with the game dynamically suggesting exercises and Guitarcade games that might improve aspects of your playing that aren't as strong as other areas, and then throwing up little targets and challenges for the bits you're comprehensively owning. A few of the early mission prompts feel a little like the game straining to show off a little bit of everything it's got under the hood, but once you start playing and start getting into the swing of things, it'll direct you to specific chord exercises, instructional pieces, similar song types, and Riff Repeater challenges. You can engage with all of these independently, of course; if the first thing you really want to do is learn how to pull off pinch harmonics then you can, but it's nice to have the game suggest a few options too.
There are one or two little issues, and most of them come down to the main barriers to entry: setup and expectations. The game itself and the included adapter lead are priced at standard RRP, but you need to make sure that you have everything else set up sufficiently. Obviously you'll need a guitar, but having the right setup for sound is important too, and those using HDMI for audio and video, and running sound through the TV speakers might suffer from occasional latency issues. I haven't it to be horribly game-breaking, but it can prove a little disconcerting. Secondly, it's important to approach Rocksmith 2014 with the right frame of mind. Learning an instrument and progressing in terms of music is a world apart from progressing in a game. Things will come slower for beginners and novices and although bits of Rocksmith look like a game, it's important to realise that the work still has to come from you. It's not a magic device that'll instantly turn you into Steve Vai, but put the work in, and you'll be rewarded. Rocksmith just makes that work more bearable and engaging.
And that's the bottom line, really. If you want to learn the guitar or if you're looking to dust off the old axe, there's nothing around quite like Rocksmith 2014 to help you do it.
- Guitarcade games are fantastic and fun
- New improved Riff Repeater has more options and is more accessible
- Session mode is outstanding, and the game provides all the tools to help you get creative
- Feedback system is amazing, pinpointing parts that need work
- Impressive amount of content out of the box
- Fantastically rewarding, even on a day to day basis
- Some latency issues, particularly across HDMI
- High barrier to entry
- Initial presentation may confuse tablature fans
The Short Version: Rocksmith 2014 is a fantastic tool for developing your guitar skills in a manner than makes practicing feel much less like work than it ever has before. If you're committed to becoming a better guitarist and already have an instrument and a decent TV audio setup at home, there's nothing out there that even comes close to doing what Rocksmith 2014 does. Simply outstanding.