Since the original Guitar Hero brought guitar-themed music games to the masses, gamers have dreamed of plugging in an actual guitar to play. Some had the skill to do so, while others wished they could learn. Even forum trolls would criticize the game, telling those who played it to "play a real guitar." While other games have allowed you to plug in the real instrument and play, none have done so to the level of Rocksmith, which features surprisingly strong technology wrapped in a front end that accommodates both seasoned guitar players and those who don't know what a callus is.
True to the bullet point on the box, Rocksmith allows you to plug just about any electric guitar into the proprietary USB cable that comes with the game, and assuming your guitar is functional, you can jump right into the game. To get you started, it asks a few questions about you and your guitar, and then it walks you through tuning it. The game is fairly obsessive about tuning, as it asks you to test your tuning before every playlist you tackle, but it walks you through each string and the necessary adjustments. The tuner isn't perfect, but it is certainly accurate enough to rival the casual-level tuners that most guitar plays have rattling around in their gear.
The underlying technology is quite impressive, as the game can independently tell which string and fret you are playing. This makes the game fully capable of detecting even the most advanced chords with s high degree of accuracy. There are times (usually with a fast string of repeated notes) when you have physically missed a note and yet the game still thinks you hit it, likely due to the string still vibrating enough from the previous hit. Blatantly missing a note by being on the wrong position entirely is something that the game easily detects, so overall, the problems in accuracy detection are relatively small. It amounts to a really low number of false negatives (where you hit a note and the game doesn't detect it) and only a few false positives (where the game thinks that you hit a note that you didn't).
There are a few things that the detection technology grapples with, such as tremolo picking or palm-muted notes. Tremolo picking is accomplished by rapidly picking a string, and in-game, this is represented by an area that you just have to pick as quickly as possible, and if you do so fast enough, the note section counts as cleared. Palm muting is done by placing your palm over the bridge, which mutes the strings and gives them a more percussive sound. While the game has a special icon to signify muted notes, it still counts as a cleared note if you play the note normally. Likewise, and not unlike other games, hammer-on and pull-off notes can either be performed by only picking the first note or by picking all of them.
The biggest hurdle before you are cleared to rock is one that Rocksmith can't help with: the delay caused by most forms of digital audio connections. Though the game has video delay controls for your TV, it does not have the same tweaks for audio lag, which, even in the best case, would cause a noticeable lag between your unamplified guitar's sound and the sound as presented amplified through the game. This means that depending on your setup and platform, you may need to make some adjustments to your connectivity.
On the PS3, this is incredibly easy. In our setup, we used HDMI to carry the video and optical to carry the audio to a receiver, and this worked flawlessly. However, more hops in your system between console and speaker (like going through a TV and then passing off to a receiver) will add delay, as will sending audio over HDMI in many cases. This makes the Xbox 360 a worrisome choice if you are using HDMI, but users who are going out a VGA AV cable should be fine through either the optical audio port or using the included analog red/white connectors. In a nutshell, do your homework and make sure that you are either using low-latency digital connections for your audio or simply use analog, as this has a pretty big impact on the enjoyment of the game.
Once you've got your connections made and your guitar tuned, it is time to hop into a quick warm-up song that the game uses to determine your initial proficiency level. At the lowest difficulty level, Rocksmith is essentially designed around the budding guitar player who has never picked up the instrument before, the one who is frantically trying to find the upcoming note on this mess of strings and strange metal lines. At this difficulty level, chords are nowhere to be seen, and you may only have one note every 16 beats or so, allowing for plenty of time to get your finger on the right spot and then pluck the appropriate string.
The user interface borrows fairly liberally from other games in the genre, with color-coded strings and note blocks to signify fret positioning. The notes come down at you in lanes that represent frets, with numbers appearing on those that have the same fret notation marks on the actual guitar (third fret, fifth fret, seventh fret, etc.). Chords are represented similarly except that the finger positions all show up at once and are surrounded by a pane of glass to make them stand out as a group. For a newcomer, it's a lot of information to take in at once, which is precisely why the game starts off so mellow and skeletal. There are many assists in place as well, such as arrows pointing you the right way should you accidentally play the wrong string or fret and need to move over a position or two.
Rocksmith utilizes dynamic difficulty scaling, based on how well you are playing and a few other factors. When you play well and hit most of the notes in a few sections, the game automatically ramps you up mid-song by adding a few more notes or making single notes become chords. Start doing poorly, and the difficulty goes down to let you learn the structure of the song before throwing alien finger contortions at you again. This really tailors the gameplay to be right at your skill level, and it automatically calibrates it for you on the fly. As a result, every song you attempt feels like something that you are capable of playing, though you know that with just a bit more practice, you could get that much closer to perfection.
More importantly for novice players, the game never fails a player for performing poorly, and the crowd doesn't jeer at you. The game simply lowers the difficulty until you get back on your feet and start rocking again. It is an important feature, as those who would fail are likely those who have never played before, and a big part of that is usually the intimidation factor. There are plenty of reasons to want to achieve a high score, such as unlocking new effects equipment for the amp mode or knowing how to play a song on the actual instrument. The smart design choice is that the game lets the player pursue those goals at his own pace, offering plenty of incentives yet no downsides.
In addition, there are a multitude of minigames that you unlock during the course of normal play. These minigames take the mundane act of learning scales, chords or fret positions and makes games out of them. These games take some of the same thematic elements from the normal UI but dress them up in a different style, such as the 8-bit styling of Ducks, which has you shooting down fleeing ducks by playing the proper fret to send a shot flying up into the duck's lane. Other games, such as Dawn of the ChorDead, wheel up a flatbed with Gatling guns, and in the same vein as Typing of the Dead, you have to play guitar chords to mow down waves of encroaching zombies. The games are lighthearted and simple, but playing them helps you work on basic guitar-playing mechanics.
The progression of the game centers around a pretty informal succession of playlists that the game generates based on songs on the disc as well as any DLC that you've purchased. These playlists are composed of between three and six songs, all of which must be first rehearsed and a sufficient point score reached before you are cleared to play them in a performance. This means that you essentially have to play each song twice to clear a playlist, but it also gives you opportunity to learn each song before you include them in your performance.
If you really don't like a song, you can remove it from your playlist and replace it with another, though if you do so, the qualification score needed in the new song's rehearsal is much higher. Basically, if you replace a song, you had better be quite proficient in the one that you swap in. The game pretty much says, "Fine, you didn't like my pick? Get 90% or better on this song, and I'll let you perform it." This allows you to customize your playlists and get rid of songs that you don't like, and after a few hours, most players will have at least one song in the roster that they can play decently enough.
Once you've qualified on all songs in a playlist, you can perform them as a set, which puts you in front of an animated crowd and in some relatively ritzy locations. Completing these performances is easier than qualifying for them, as you simply have to play them again without worrying too much about getting a high score. Play well enough, though, and the crowd will demand an encore, which is often a song that you've never played before and possibly haven't even unlocked. Play the encore well enough, and you'll unlock a second encore, a song is even more likely that you haven't unlocked and is usually somewhat ridiculous to play. Playing performances in the game feels like the game is paying you back for your work earlier; as they are essentially stress-free and a lot of fun. You know you can play all of the songs; you just have to step up and rock out with them.
For some players, this progress takes some time to achieve, whereas others who have played guitar before may jump right into the game after learning the UI for a couple of songs. It is at this point where the dissection of songs becomes enjoyable in the game's riff repeater and chord tutorials, which are available for any song in the game. This allows you to choose particular parts or riffs to practice and repeat, letting you focus your efforts on a part in a song to get it right. This progression carries over to the song in rehearsal and performance modes as well, so whatever proficiency you built up will immediately carry over and get you that much closer to acing the song. The chord tutorials break down things even more granularly, letting you choose a particular chord from a list of those found in a song and play it a few times to get a feel for it, first by playing the notes individually to learn finger positioning and then as a chord.
The biggest feature that Rocksmith has isn't featured on the box: the feeling of actually connecting to the music. As a game, it is downright skeletal; it's barely a framework that is geared toward learning how to play the guitar and then enjoying yourself. Even at the lowest of difficulties, however, it amounts to you playing an actual guitar, and in doing so, you immediately feel a connection to the song. You aren't playing a song by manipulating plastic buttons; you are playing a song by actually playing it (if, at times, only a simplified version thereof). You aren't hearing a canned guitar wailing but the sound of your actual guitar as amplified and enhanced through the game's audio filters and effects.
As a game in the traditional sense, Rocksmith is barely there; it's essentially a practice aid combined with a rudimentary teacher. However, it is one that works quite well and is fully capable of letting you learn at your own pace — right up to the point where you could easily plug your guitar into a conventional amp and play a song unassisted. The game makes it easier to learn enough to get to that point, and that knowledge can easily be transferred out of game and into your choice of tablature sources from books and the Web. The grace with which Rocksmith handles this transition is nothing short of stunning, giving complete novices and experienced players a chance to plug in, play and genuinely connect to their music in a way that no game has done before.
Editor's note: This review was written from the perspective of an experienced guitar player. Be sure to check out our review of the Xbox 360 version, which was written from the perspective of someone who's never played the guitar before picking up Rocksmith.
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