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Jam Sessions

Platform(s): Nintendo DS
Genre: Simulation
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft

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NDS Review - 'Jam Sessions'

by Tom Baker on Oct. 21, 2007 @ 4:24 a.m. PDT

Players will rock out, or smoothly strum, on the lower screen of the Nintendo DS system, producing an authentic sound digitally remastered from an actual acoustic guitar. The simple interface will guide players into the various easy-to-play modes which include: Performance Mode, allowing users to sing and play along both yesterday and today’s hottest artists; Free-Play Mode, where people can play anything they chose; and Tutorial Mode where novice musicians will learn to play guitar without paying for lessons.

Genre: Rhythm/Music
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Plato
Release Date: September 11, 2007

Every so often, a game comes along which brings such a level of innovation to a console that it sets the bar to which future games can aspire, in essence creating a new genre altogether. Jam Sessions treads the really thin line between game and education, ultimately creating an experience which is limited at the best of times and boring at the worst. The real enjoyment that can be gleaned from Jam Sessions is in seeing how good your musical ear is or how much you really know about music. You will not be asked to do much more than play songs, try out how different chords sound and write your own song.

At first glance, it looks like Jam Sessions might follow the simple, fun and addictive style of gameplay where one keeps time with a given song and essentially plays along with the music, like Guitar Hero. Not content with simply creating a game where you have to keep beat with a musical track, the developers have engineered the title to play as a simulation, where each chord is accurately reconstructed through the tiny speakers of the DS and the game essentially lets you mess around with different sounds. Rather than having you mimic color-coded icons, the title offers songs that you must try to reconstruct by recognizing chord names and playing them. The smattering of included songs, such as Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" or Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good," can only keep you entertained for an hour at most.

As far as gameplay goes, Jam Sessions is surprisingly easy to pick up, despite some of the complexity of chord configurations and advanced musical knowledge needed to work out where which chords sound "right." You use the stylus to strum a single string on the bottom screen, the d-pad acts as a switch between the chords (of which there are over 100), and the shoulder button (depending on whether you're right- or left-handed) switches to a second pallete of chords. The harder you strum, the louder the sound and you are able to mute notes and hold certain pitches longer if you hold down a direction on the d-pad.

Make no mistake in thinking that this is a guitar in your pocket, as the game's advertisements would have you believe. Even though it's simplified to the point where it could make an Elite Beat Agents-style title, the insistence on "realism" means that any chance to actually have fun is quashed, whereas any opportunity to make the game a true simulation is ruined by the oversimplified strumming system. For what it does, the game's controls are solid, and the delivery system is effective, and truthfully, it comes closer to playing an actual guitar than any other title has.

The main complaint here, however, is that Jam Sessions feels woefully incomplete because all you have is a single string on an acoustic guitar to strum. Including more strings may have overcomplicated the intuitive and simple playing system, but the title feels almost remedial in the way it does pretty much everything for you, especially in comparison to the knowledge required to create the chord palettes in the first place. Being able to use more than one instrument would have been a welcome addition to gameplay, as would the ability to pluck individual strings instead of being restricted to playing all of the strings as one. It also seems odd that in a music game, it does not, unlike many DS titles, use the console's built-in microphone.

The acoustic guitar has a slightly mechanical sound as you strum, which may become unnoticeable as you continue to play. You also can choose to implement a mixture of two out of seven different effects on your guitar, all of which actually make the output sound markedly worse, especially the dire distortion which essentially makes all of the chords inaudible. The effects can be customized by using the stylus to fine-tune the levels on the pedals, which makes the game feel a lot more in synch with actual playing and definitely recreates a garage jam session and lets you find your own style and sound. The lack of additional instruments and the inability to play over recorded tracks often make the audio aspect feel incomplete and slightly shallow.

As a musician myself, I could use the chord configurations to write a song or even test out new sounds, so there is some merit to the title in that sense. Other musicians may also find the ability to tune the game's guitar useful in tuning their own instruments. However, Jam Sessions is obviously aimed at giving new players a chance to learn the basics of the guitar, and it is here that it fails. It may teach some basics, but it doesn't translate to real-world playing; there are no chord diagrams, and you don't strum a single string. The lack of multiplayer functionality is also bad for the game's replayability, although it is difficult to see where this feature could fit in a game that is, at its core, very much a single-player experience. Ultimately, Jam Sessions has no real audience in beginners or more advanced musicians, and those with no interest at all in music will find nothing to keep them amused in this title.

Audio is at the very forefront in a musical game, and luckily, the devs have done a great job in recreating the actual sound of a guitar in Jam Sessions, albeit through the rather limited midi format. You can tune your guitar to an accurate degree using your ear, and there is a variety of different effects at your disposal, including a nice re-creation of the tremble effect, which is slightly let down by the awful-sounding distortion and flanging effects which are not handled well by the DS' speakers.

Graphically, Jam Sessions goes for simplicity and never really pushes the DS to its limits, but then again, there really is no need. The developers have wisely opted for better sound and less graphical flair because it wants to be taken slightly more seriously as a simulation rather than a play-along title. The most visually impressive sight to which you'll be treated is the numerous customizable effects on strings and bright and colorful artwork for the backdrops of your guitar. The layout is simple yet effective, and menus are easy to reach and never more than a few stylus taps away. All of the necessary buttons for recording can appear at any time in a drop-down or customizable menu. All in all, this title simply looks cool, simple, trendy and never tries to be something it's not. Unfortunately, this may not appeal to the broad spectrum of gamers.

Jam Sessions is a title that I hoped would do well because it introduces a level of innovation not usually found in video games. With the number of cookie-cutter titles out there, it's a breath of fresh air to see developers taking a risk with a new genre. Unfortunately, innovation does not necessarily translate to quality. Jam Sessioins is dull, and calling it a game doesn't seem right because it's mainly one big music lesson. Those experienced at instruments will have limited use of the chord sounds and bits of technical knowledge that can be gleaned from this title, but at the asking price, it may just be wiser to buy a book. Inexperienced musicians who want to gain an appreciation for music may find something in the game's simplicity but this, unfortunately, is nothing like playing an actual instrument. Ubisoft get points for effort, but overall, Jam Sessions hits a dead note.

Score: 6.2/10


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