It would be remiss of me to start a review of a game that teaches you to play the guitar without telling you about my previous guitar experience. I come from a musical family, I’ve dabbled with the bass guitar in my time, and taught myself a little guitar as well. Then I put all that away for a while, and started playing Guitar Hero like a fiend. So now, I’m a bit of a Guitar Hero wizard. Top ranked female player in Western Australia, actually. No big deal. *cough*
So when Tim asked me if I wanted to review Rocksmith, a game that teaches you to play the actual guitar through gameplay similar to Guitar Hero/Rock Band games, I was understandably excited. Rocksmith seemed like the perfect combination of gameplay and actual learning, and having to deal with it being unavailable to Australians for over a year was just frustrating — let alone its absence from the PC. But now it’s here in Australia, and on PC as well.
From humble beginnings
When you begin your journey to Rock God status, you might be forgiven for thinking Rocksmith is a frustrating, limiting game. The first screen of real gameplay it shows you are some songs, some numbers and a little arrow that will eventually track your progress — once you start making some. It is a little confusing, and the best way to understand it is just to get started.
I chose the first song, having not picked up a guitar in… well, years, and began to play the Guitar Hero-esque representations of notes coming down the highway at me. “All right,” I thought to myself as the song ended. “That wasn’t too bad. Let’s play it again, to make sure I’ve got it.”
But as I start the song again, I notice something. This song is different. It’s changed. It’s become harder.
What I’ve just discovered is that Rocksmith tracks every note you play, and levels you up accordingly — giving you more notes, harder intervals, ramping up the challenge as you improve. I eventually came to love this feature; it keeps you on your toes and makes sure you keep learning and improving.
To start with, though, it really felt like too much, too soon. I had gone from being able to play a song in a somewhat mediocre fashion, to hardly being able to hit notes before they disappeared again. With a cry of frustration I put down the guitar, quit the game and didn’t return until the next day.
Adjust for the learning experience you need
In the following days, I took on technique challenges, played games in the ‘Guitarcade’ section, and tried to familiarise myself with Rocksmith and where I was going wrong. It was still frustrating me, and I couldn’t play for more than half an hour at a time. It felt like the difficulty was just beyond my reach.
Providence intervened, though, in the form of Ubisoft, who wrote to us and ask how the game was going. We relayed my frustrations with the increasing difficulty level that never seemed to let me get a handle on things, and they let me in on a little secret – the Riff Repeater.
I call it a secret because — even though it’s a community-requested feature that’s actually new to the Australian version — it is hidden away, deep in the sea of menus. For those looking to learn from my mistakes, you have to select the song you want to play from the ‘songs’ menu, not the ‘Rocksmith Recommends’ menu that you start on. And then from there, you have to cycle through some more menus until you eventually hit the ‘Riff Repeater’. It is difficult to find, and I hadn’t known it was there to begin with — it occasionally shows up after you’ve completed a song in the ‘Rocksmith Recommends’ menu, but not all the time. I recommend activating it manually.
The Riff Repeater is awesome. It essentially takes all the frustrations I had with playing the song from scratch and irons them out into a neat, learnable system. From there you can fiddle with the difficulty, play the parts of a song that are causing you trouble, whatever you need to really nail a song, and really improve your skills.
Two guitars in one
The other key feature that I should mention is the Bass Emulator. This was released as DLC for overseas players, but one of the advantages of this delayed Australian release is that it’s included as part of our Rocksmith package right from the start.
Naturally, Rocksmith can teach you to play either the guitar or the bass guitar, but for those interested in playing both but who only have the one guitar, there is the Bass Emulator. This feature allows you to start learning the bass using the top four strings of your regular guitar, pitch-shifting the notes down to bass levels. It’s truly sweet, and works flawlessly if you just want to change things up a bit from your regular learning.
Pushing the PC
Graphically, Rocksmith isn’t going to blow anybody’s minds. There are three levels of graphical fidelity: high, medium or low, but there’s no individual control over level of detail, shadowing or AA or anything of the sort — which, honestly, is fine. It’s the audio we’re interested in here.
Inside the audio menu you can adjust audio exclusivity, latency settings, fiddle with the buffer, as well as make tweaks to clean up the quality of sound. I’m running an Auzentech X-Raider 7.1 card at the moment, and didn’t come across any latency issues to speak of — everything was snappy and responsive. The only problem I did notice was the occasional refusal of the game to accept guitar input, but this was resolved with a quick restart.
Wrapping it up
A lot of this review has been exploring my frustrations with Rocksmith, and I don’t want to leave you thinking it’s bad, simply because it took me a while to find a style that suited me. Once I got to grips with the game, I had a blast — playing song after song, feeling really good about my progress. A lot of my frustration came from what to me, at least, seemed like fairly important features being hidden away in menus.
But a large part, I realised, came from me treating Rocksmith like a game. I mean, well, it is a game. But the frustration you might feel playing it, that’s the feeling of you learning a new skill. Sometimes, you’re going to suck at it. In fact you’re probably going to suck at it a lot when you start, only getting better with practice. That’s not Rocksmith’s fault — it’s simply trying to teach you that skill. And when it comes down to it, Rocksmith is a really good teacher.
I eventually came to think of Rocksmith like this: imagine you’re solving complex maths problems, and rewarding yourself with a jelly bean each time you complete one. Rocksmith’s game aspects are like that jelly bean. Sure, you could skip the maths problem and go eat a bunch of jelly beans straight out of the packet — the gaming equivalent of say, playing Guitar Hero. But at the end of the packet, you wouldn’t have learned any math.
- Well-thought out learning experience
- Flexible difficulty levels for all skill levels
- Good selection of tracks
- Strong audio options, including free-play Amp Mode
- Bass emulator means you only need one guitar
- Somewhat unintuitive in assessing how you’d like to learn
Rocksmith is available on Steam for $64.99. You’ll need a Rocksmith Real Tone Cable as well, which can be purchased separately at places such as JB Hi-Fi, Amazon, or Ozgameshop. Thanks to Debari for lending me his guitar for this review!