Reviews

You can always get better — Rocksmith 2014 “Experienced” review

I began to teach myself how to play guitar about fifteen years ago, following along with some of my favorite bands and paging through tab books. But once I was able to play what I’d desired, I plateaued and essentially stopped learning, ending up far from a well-rounded guitar player. I was never satisfied with that, but anyone who’s learned an instrument knows what it took to get there. Who wants to return to that grind?

With Rocksmith 2014, Ubisoft aims not only to attract the person who’s never played guitar, they’re also shooting for people like me — someone who knows how to play but has always meant to sit down and get better at it. It’s difficult for me to claim how effective this title is at enticing the brand-new aspiring guitarist (our own Ron Burke covers that angle). But as someone who’s already comfortable with the instrument, Rocksmith 2014 provided me with three things: challenge, improvement, and fun.

When jumping in as an average player, the first menu choice you’re provided with is to “Learn A Song.” This game gives you quite a bit of material to work with — over 50 songs out of the box ranging from “You Really Got Me” from The Kinks all the way to “Now” by Paramore. And the DLC songs from the original Rocksmith title — consisting of almost one hundred and fifty additional songs — are all forward compatible. The styles range as well, with simple power chord-driven riffs to those with complex arpeggios and solos. To top it off, your arrangements are tailored to your style of choice — lead guitar, rhythm guitar, or bass guitar.

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The initial impressions aren’t so inviting, though. Beyond the obvious learning curve provided by the guitar itself, Rocksmith 2014’s own interface takes a bit of getting used to. You’re presented with a transparent guitar neck at the bottom of the screen while icons travel on the note highway towards appropriate strings. The game color-codes the icons to correspond with a particular string, but it’s still very difficult to sight-read without several hours in the bank. With chords in particular, I found myself pausing the game to figure things out on many occasions.

However, the biggest hurdle to jump before you’re comfortable is learning what each different kind of icon means on the note highway. Even if you start with a song that you’re familiar with, you’ll have no way of knowing how the game depicts things like bends, palm mutes, or tremolos. After each play-through of a song, Rocksmith 2014 makes intelligent suggestions for what to work on, and these can include lessons that will explain the icons. Still, it would be nice to have an avenue to that information ahead of time without having to take the lesson itself (some of them can be quite basic for experienced players). Even an icon key in the pause menu would have sufficed.

As you progress, though, things improve. One thing that Rocksmith 2014 does impressively is scale the difficulty. You’ll begin a song with a very simple arrangement, only tasking you with playing occasional notes to ease you in. But if you’re nailing it right off the bat, the game pays attention. The next time around, the flawless sections will be cranked up in complexity, while the parts you may have flubbed will stick to basics.

The scaling difficulty helps make Rocksmith 2014 a less tedious learning tool, but the feature that I found most valuable was the Riff Repeater. At any time during a song, hitting the spacebar activates this feature, which takes a small portion of the song and repeats it for practice. You can also slow it down if you like, making fast riffs easier to pick apart. If you play through the section without missing a note, the difficulty steps up. Keep at it and you’ll hit the 100% difficulty mark, playing the riff exactly like it is on the recording.

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The Riff Repeater is invaluable for learning a song thoroughly. Parts of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android had me saying “no way,” but after working through Riff Repeater, I was soon playing note-for-note with Jonny Greenwood. And once I hit “Master” level on Everlong by Foo Fighters, the game’s note highway disappeared altogether! It’s pretty thrilling to suddenly realize that you’ve learned the entire song — with the training wheels off, you feel like part of the band.

When reaching roadblocks out of your comfort zone, that’s when it becomes important to double-back and work through the lessons. They’re not as exciting as playing along with the licensed music, but they’re effective learning tools that only serve to make playing your favorite songs even more enjoyable. And while the early lessons can feel like wastes of time for experienced players, they progress quickly to more complex topics. Unless you’re entering as an expert already, you’ll find plenty of lessons that will test your skill.

There’s also a surprisingly robust suite of arcade-style mini-games in the Guitarcade that are geared towards helping you brush up on specific techniques. Return to Castle Chordead is like House of the Dead with a guitar instead of a light gun, playing appropriate chords to fight back zombies. String Skip Saloon tasks you with playing the string associated with a lane of bandits to cause the bartender to shoot them away. They’re a fun diversion and include leaderboards to encourage competition, but they didn’t feel as effective in cleaning up technique as learning the songs themselves.

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I was impressed with the accuracy that Rocksmith 2014 wielded in detecting the notes and chords from the guitar as I played them. But there were occasional strumming sequences that weren’t being detected very well, resulting in missed notes. This only caused a problem in the Score Attack and Riff Repeater modes, where errors can cause you to fail out and prevent progress. Thankfully, the game offers an “error tolerance” adjustment option, and that was enough in my experience to get around the issue.

Not everything else about Rocksmith 2014 is smooth sailing, either. Audio volumes were inconsistent between play modes — I could hear Paranoid Android perfectly during Riff Repeater, but once I loaded up Score Attack, the song was much quieter than my guitar, making it very difficult to play along to (and it can only be adjusted globally across all modes).

At one point, the amp modeler — what makes your guitar sound like the one on the track you’re playing — stopped working altogether, giving my guitar a direct clean channel at all times. I had to restart the game to fix it. To top it off, the game’s executable inexplicably crashed every time I quit, though I never lost any data.

For would-be guitarists, it’s important to note that for all of Rocksmith 2014’s ability to help you feel comfortable with a guitar in your hands, very little of the training you’ll receive includes any actual music theory. You’ll come away being able to identify the fret numbers much more quickly, but not necessarily what notes you’re playing. Regardless, you’ll still end up as a better guitar player, and that should be more than enough for most.

Not just for newbies, Rocksmith 2014 presents enough diverse play styles that guitar players of nearly all skill levels will find something to learn. Playing along to the licensed songs brought back the days of jamming to my favorite albums -- I’d forgotten how much fun that could be. It’s also the first time in a long time that I had the feeling of reaching a challenge that seemed insurmountable at first, only to conquer it and move on to the next. The technical issues are merely hiccups -- putting a real guitar in your hands with songs that you already know and love, Rocksmith 2014 might really be the best way to learn how to play guitar today.

Matt has a love for video games that has existed since he could comfortably grasp a joystick and play Combat on the family Atari 2600. While fond memories of SNES and shareware PC games still dance in his head, he is dedicated to enjoying as much of modern gaming as possible on all platforms. Matt has served as a game critic for several publications since 2009. When not playing games and writing reviews, Matt is an Ethernet network engineer for an international bandwidth provider. He is a musician through schooling, as well as a recording engineer, and he remains active composing and recording music. Matt also is a Crossfitter and an avid fan of MMA and hockey (go Flyers!).

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