After building to a crescendo in early 2009, the music game genre went a bit off-key over the past year. Activision put both the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero franchises on hold. Harmonix's Rock Band 3 was a critical success, but it was quickly discounted at major retailers. Then there was Power Gig: Rise of the SixString. Probably best just to forget that one. Despite all the gloom, Ubisoft saw the chance to do something different with the genre. With next month's release of Rocksmith, it might just pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat.
When you first read about Rocksmith, it sounds a lot like all of the other music games on the market. It has a song list. You have to match the notes that scroll down the screen. There are around 50 songs to choose from, with more available via DLC. You can even plug in a USB mic and sing along. It isn't until you get it in your hands that you begin to realize that Rocksmith is quite different from the guitar games you've played before.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that Rocksmith uses a real electric guitar as a controller. It's not a special "game-ified" guitar, but an actual guitar. Guitar Hero and Rock Band guitar controllers will not function with RockSmith. Instead, both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 bundle versions of the game are scheduled to ship with an Epiphone Les Paul Junior in the box, though you can use any guitar with a standard 1/4" output jack. The magic happens in the 1/4"-to-USB connection cable that is included with all copies (standard or bundle) of the game.
This cable, which will also be sold separately to allow for split-screen multiplayer with a second guitar, takes the tonal output from the guitar and converts it into a pure digital signal that can be used by the game. Incidentally, we're also told that it will double as a recording cable when used on your PC. Plug it in to a Windows machine, and the cable will be recognized as a mic so you can use it to record your personal masterpieces.
Using technology purchased from GameTank, Rocksmith recognizes the actual tones that are produced by the guitar and uses this to track player progress. Because the technology requires the guitar to be tuned to work properly, Rocksmith includes a built-in tuning utility. Before each play session, you need to strum all six strings to test the guitar. If it is out of tune, Rocksmith shows you how to get it tuned up with a real-time display. It's simple enough that even a beginner will feel right at home.
Speaking of beginning players, don't worry; Rocksmith was designed with you in mind. The game has a dynamic difficultly level that scales up (and down) based on your performance. Someone who knows how to play will quickly find themselves facing a play field with every single note and chord highlighted while entry-level players will only have to worry about single notes and a handful of fret positions. The developer who demoed the game to us said that, on average, each section of a Rocksmith song has around 20 levels of difficulty available for the game to scale through.
Just jumping into a song as a newbie can be intimidating, especially for someone who has never played a real guitar before, so the team at Ubisoft addresses that issue with the Guitarcade minigames. Inspired by classic arcade games, the Guitarcade games teach you specific skills through repetition.
- Ducks is a shooting game (think Galaga) that teaches you fret placement, but keeps it simple with a single string.
- Super Ducks is similar to Ducks, though it uses all six strings.
- Scale Runner focuses on teaching basic scale patterns.
- Quick Pick Dash is all about picking speed. Here, you simply pick the selected string as fast as possible. This is a good way to learn string placement.
- Big Swing Baseball puts you on home plate, ready to swing. You hit the ball by playing the correct note on the guitar.
- Super Slider is a puzzle game inspired by Nintendo's Dr. Mario. You need to use the slide technique to succeed here.
- Dawn of the Chordead mixes up chord playing with zombie killing. Play the right chord to kill the little zombies. Yes, even a music game has zombies these days.
- Harmonically Challenged is a "Simon says" type of game where you have to repeat a series of harmonics.
In addition to the minigames, there is also a proper training mode called technique challenge. For this, Rocksmith first shows you a video highlighting the proper technique then challenges you to repeat it on the guitar. These are more advanced than what is found in the Guitarcade, making for a nice progression. As far as individual songs are concerned, you also have some training options, including slowing down individual sections until you can master them before going back to full speed.
The last bit of Rocksmith we saw was amp mode, which essentially turns your PS3 or Xbox 360 into a custom guitar amp. Rocksmith automatically defaults to the proper amp presets when playing the main game (so songs sound as they should), but for those who like to experiment, you can define three custom presets in amp mode by combining various components as you would in real life. Want that warm tube sound? Done. Need a bit of distortion? Go for it. If you like, you can even freestyle in amp mode, playing to your heart's content with your custom settings loaded.
Ensuring that the set list keeps growing, the Ubisoft rep told us that a DLC store is already in the works and would launch alongside Rocksmith. In addition to more songs, there are also plans to add support for electric bass guitars via DLC.
Having only spent an hour with the game, it's difficult to say how Rocksmith will fare over the long haul, but the initial impression is absolutely amazing. Though it shares the same shell as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, you're not just playing a game with Rocksmith, you're learning a skill. In that regard, it's somewhat similar to the old Miracle Piano System on the NES. Be sure to check back next month for a final verdict on the game that promises to make you look forward to music practice.
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