Learning how to play a musical instrument can be a challenging task, so when Ubisoft announced it was making a game that used an actual electric guitar as a controller, there were plenty of skeptics, including us. In order to put Rocksmith through its paces, we decided to have someone with zero guitar experience (outside of the plastic Rock Band variety) give the game a go. While it has a few rough edges as a game, Rocksmith is a surprisingly fun way to learn how to play.
Key to Rocksmith's success is the manner in which it teaches you how to play guitar. Rather than hit you with musical theory and arcane tablature, the preeminent goal of Rocksmith is to get you playing as quickly as possible. No, you're not going to be belting out "Sweet Home Alabama" or "In Bloom" on your first try, but you will end up playing something that vaguely resembles an actual song soon after you start plucking those strings.
Every arrangement featured in Rocksmith has roughly 20 different difficulty levels. Interestingly enough, you never directly select a level. Instead, Rocksmith analyzes your playing ability and dynamically changes the difficulty as you play. Perfectly nail a phrase, and the level subtly shifts upward, increasing the complexity of what you're expected to play. Whereas a song might have just had single notes on your first time through, later attempts may feature bends, chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs. Miss too many notes, and notes are quickly dropped out, leaving you with a simpler chart.
What's brilliant about the manner in which Rocksmith handles this is the fact that the game never highlights failure. In fact, your only penalty for not playing like a pro is a lower score. There are no annoying tones if you mess up. There are no boos. You can't fail a song. You simply keep playing. It's actually a very supportive environment, and the game is never a cause of frustration.
Because of the adaptive difficulty, practicing a song in Rocksmith never feels like practicing. Instead, it always feels fresh. The game has a natural progression to experience, starting you out with basic tracks and slowly layering on more complex songs. If there's a given track you want to master, you are free to load it up any time. As you play a song over and over, muscle memory starts to form and what originally felt like finger gymnastics starts to feel natural and pattern-like.
Speaking of practice, Rocksmith also features a series of minigames and technique challenges, both of which are designed to improve some of the more mundane, but essential, guitar skills. The minigames, also known as the Guitarcade, were detailed in our preview coverage and are just as useful as they sound. For example, the very first one you play, Ducks, is designed to teach you fret positioning. A veteran player isn't going to have an issue with this, but for a newbie, this is a fundamental skill that needs to be mastered. The only real downside to the minigames is that they are locked when you first start up Rocksmith. This doesn't seem like a very good idea, as a new player would probably be better served by freely exploring.
The Rocksmith technique challenges are a more formalized set of tutorials. Much like Guitarcade, the challenges are each designed to teach a specific skill. It's just that there isn't a game wrapped around them. When you start a challenge, the game shows you a tutorial video and then has you attempt to repeat what you've just been shown. Not all of the challenges are easy — some will take more than a few tries to master — though they do teach fundamentals.
Another way Rocksmith helps you learn is how it handles note streaming when you are training. Instead of just letting you miss, the game pauses until you hit the correct note. Continuing on requires that you play the note on display. These pauses don't happen during standard gameplay, though if you mess up there, Rocksmith displays arrows showing you where you messed up. The game can tell if you played the wrong string, the wrong fret, or both.
All of the magic happens in the USB tone cable that ships with the game. Featuring a 1/4" jack on one side and a USB plug on the other, it converts the analog sound into digital form so it can be processed by the game. When you play, Rocksmith doesn't check for discrete inputs; rather, it "listens" for the correct musical notes. This allows the game to focus on overall performance rather than arbitrary button presses.
Where Rocksmith stumbles a bit is in the core game user interface. While the underlying technology is solid, the navigation can be a little off-putting at times. Perhaps most annoying are the seemingly constant loading screens and the game's incessant saving. It seems like every time you select an option, Rocksmith is saving.
There is a score meter that tracks your progression in single-player, but it's not nearly as easy to read as the star system employed by many other music games. There also doesn't seem to be an easy way to just hang out in free play mode. Rocksmith's UI always wants to push you back into the single-player progression tree. If menu navigation were smoother, Rocksmith would be much better for it.
Finally, there is the option to use Rocksmith as a custom guitar amp. During gameplay, Rocksmith automatically loads the most appropriate amp settings on a per-song basis, but if you feel like experimenting (or know what you're doing), you can configure up to three custom presets that are mapped to the face buttons of the Xbox 360 controller. You can also free play in amp mode, with your console serving as an amp and nothing more.
Rocksmith supports more than one player, but you will need a second tone cable and a second guitar to play head-to-head. There is no online multiplayer. If you can't scrounge up two guitars, the game also supports a mic. This allows for one player to jam out on the strings while another sings, karaoke style. Rocksmith works with both wired and wireless mics on the Xbox 360. It'll even record your performance so you can play it back for posterity.
Outside of the game, new guitar players should be aware of a few gotchas. If you don't already own an electric guitar, you're either going to need to pick up the bundle or purchase a guitar separately. Rocksmith does not work with "guitar controllers." In addition to the guitar, you're also likely to need a guitar stand, a guitar strap and picks. All of the accessories ended up costing us an additional $35. The guitar stand is necessary if you wish to store your guitar properly, and the guitar strap is a must-have unless you plan on dropping your musical instrument.
If you do purchase the Rocksmith bundle, it includes an Epiphone Les Paul Jr., which has a retail price of about $130 when sold separately. For the purposes of this review, we used an Epiphone Les Paul Special II guitar, which is one step up from the junior and sells for about $170. Epiphone guitars are known for being basic, but solid instruments, so an entry-level player should do just fine with either selection. There is no need to drop a grand or two on a guitar just to play.
Also of note is the weight of a real guitar. If you're used to plastic instruments, picking up the real thing feels much more substantial. In addition, don't be surprised when you end up with sensitive fingers after a few hours of playing. Holding down wires with your fingertips is an easy task if you have developed calluses, but for a new player, there will be a few bouts of tingling and pain before you can consistently sit down for extended play sessions.
In the end, making the decision to purchase Rocksmith comes down to what you're looking to get out of it. If you just want a music game to bust out at parties, stick with Rock Band or Guitar Hero. On the other hand, if you've always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, Rocksmith is a great way to do it.
Editor's note: This review was written from the perspective of someone who's never played the guitar before picking up Rocksmith. Be sure to check out our review of the PlayStation 3 version, which was written from the perspective of an experienced guitar player.
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