With the suspension of the Guitar Hero franchise and Rock Band not being able to extend beyond its fan base after a wildly ambitious version last year, the public thought that instrument-based games had run their course. It's why Ubisoft's announcement of Rocksmith was met with heaps of speculation. If neither of the music game vanguards can be top sellers anymore, why would this feel like it had a shot? With the exception of a new set list, what would be anyone's reason for getting this game? When told that it was going to use a real guitar, visions of Power Gig didn't exactly make us feel confident. At E3, Ubisoft brought out its tour bus so we can try Rocksmith for ourselves, and we have to admit that our speculation quickly turned into anticipation at wielding an ax once more.
First things first, Rocksmith still does some things that people have come to expect from rhythm games. Scoring is still based on how well you do in strumming as the colored icon meets the string on-screen. You have a pretty hefty catalog of songs to play through, with DLC coming to fill up that library. While the game is really focused on the guitar alone, you have the option to plug in a microphone and sing along if you so desire. There's even a practice mode that lets you go after any troublesome song sections. From here, though, things get very different.
First off is the guitar. While there will be a version of the game packed in with a Gibson Les Paul guitar, the game can use just about any guitar, as evidenced by the wide variety used for the various demo stations in the bus. The guitar connects to the console via a special USB cable with a quarter-inch jack that plugs into the guitar's pickup port, transforming the analog sound into a digital one. What's amazing is that the technique works. Because the system is based on sound and less on the strings being able to touch special parts of the neck, players are almost guaranteed to hit the note correctly if they happen to be in the right general area. It succeeds where Power Gig failed in making you use a real instrument for a game, and because you can plug in just about any guitar you want, it'll be easy for everyone to find the one that feels most comfortable.
The second big thing about the game is its adaptive progression system. Unlike other games, there are no pre-set difficulty levels. Instead, when you boot up the game with your profile for the first time, you're automatically sent to the easiest level of difficulty and play with just one string. As you become more proficient, the game gradually opens up things until you're playing songs with all six strings at a normal speed. It never progresses any further until it's sure you've mastered a level, and if it detects you doing worse, the game automatically lowers its difficulty to a more comfortable level. That same system is in place for the practice modes, as it'll slow down the song tempo you want to practice on and freeze a note in place until you get things right. While we didn't spend much time seeing the system make a grand leap from one string to the full six, we were good enough to make it to two strings before panicking. It was enough to make us see that the system works as advertised.
Rocksmith's interface, while slightly familiar to the genre, seemed to be more intuitive to a rookie guitar player than the pro mode was in Rock Band 3. Instead of learning a completely new way to read notes, you're given a transparent version of the guitar neck as your hit area for the icons. Each major area is marked by a number, and while it isn't quite the same as you'll see on a real guitar neck, they do match up with the marks on the neck so it starts to make sense. There's still a learning curve to playing the game via this method, but it feels more natural than the competition's current system.
While the three big mechanics tout the title as a guitar learning tool, there are still some gameplay elements to be had. There are a few minigame knock-offs of some classic arcade titles that help you learn the basic guitar mechanics. During our hands-on session, we were able to play a shooting game clone where aliens launch from several different columns, and the only way to get them is by strumming the guitar on the correct column. It wasn't revolutionary, but it was certainly an interesting teaching tool. Also, as you begin to perform better with each song, you'll unlock different effects for your guitar to add some flair for your sounds.
After only 15 minutes with the game, it's easy to see that Ubisoft has something special with Rocksmith. The ability to use any real guitar is amazing, especially with the game reading everything so well, but its teaching methods should really be commended. With an intuitive system in place and a difficulty level that's based on your experience, this game makes you feel like it'll help you learn to play a real instrument, even if it's only by ear. It won't dethrone Rock Band 3 as the go-to title for instrument-based party gaming, but it's aiming to be much more, and that can only be a good thing. Look for more news and information on this impressive and ambitious title as its fall 2011 release approaches.
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