If you saw my preview for Rocksmith 2014 you realized very quickly that I’m not a guitar player – percussion is my thing. I took a swing at the original Rocksmith but the agonizing load times and the ‘play it until you learn it’ approach turned me off pretty quickly. That was back in October of 2011. Taking two years to rebuild the product, the team at Ubisoft San Francisco has given me another shot at learning the instrument, claiming that this new game is “the fastest way to learn guitar”. Let’s find out if that is true.
I got my hands on a preview of the product about a month ago and started on the long road to 10,000 hours. Minus a one week much-needed vacation, I’ve put in roughly 35 or so hours over the course of a month learning to play guitar while my wife learns bass. My review will cover our journey towards proficiency while Matt Buckley’s review of the Steam version focuses on his reception of Rocksmith 2014 as someone already well-practiced with the instrument.
As a novice, as much as I wanted to jump right into the Learn a Song area, I hit up the Lessons section. There are over 80 lessons to experience in Rocksmith 2014. Each have a show and tell portion with a guitar player demonstrating the technique they are trying to impart, and then a practical session where you try to emulate it. How to attach your strap, the proper method to pick, sustain, and slide, how to pull off a bend, tremolo, and hammer-ons / pull-offs are joined by chords, bends, accents, arpeggios, and master classes that help you take the experience you’ve earned and turn it into something that can be used outside of the game. After working through a few of them I popped out and hit the Learn a Song section – where this game shines the most.
Learn a Song has over 50 tracks from a pretty wide variety of artists that work with all three instrument types – bass, rhythm, and lead guitar. The previous game required an expansion pack to play bass, whereas Rocksmith 2014 includes it as part of the experience. Purely opinion, but my highlights include Cold Company from Minus the Bear, Everlong by the Foo Fighters, Knights of Cydonia by Muse, The Trooper from Iron Maiden, Thunder Kiss ’65 by White Zombie, Wasteland by EarlyRise, and The Spirit Of Radio by Rush. On the flipside of that coin, my wife and I both dreaded playing Love That’s Gone by La Sera, Sixteen Saltines by Jack White, Paranoid Android by Radiohead, and more than all others combined – Rotten Apple by Screaming Females. I’m sure each of these have lessons to teach, but if I never in my life hear Rotten Apple again it’ll be too soon. That aside, Rocksmith 2014 features the best and most diverse soundtrack of any music title, offering something for everyone. Even my friend Silas was happy – Mastodon and Slayer have tracks on the disc! You can check out the entire list of songs at the official page.
Playing the tracks in Rocksmith 2014 isn’t like playing Rock Band – this isn’t about memorization of patterns. The game asks some basic questions including your starting level of proficiency. Selecting the easiest level gave me notes in the highway that came slow enough for me to literally count the frets at first. The lane is split into color coded strings, showing frets starting at one on the left side of the screen. Like the fretboard itself, there are dots to help guide your fingers to the right place. As you play and nail notes you’ll hear a cheer from the crowd – you just leveled up, and the game will now dynamically raise the difficulty ever so slightly. Instead of getting three notes every 30 seconds you might see five. Nailing that you might see it drop in one more string in your sequence. The game is dynamically teaching you the skills to play a song without overwhelming you with notes. If you tackled a track and did very well on it you might get a 90% accuracy rating, but you are only playing maybe 50% of the total notes. Within a play or two Rocksmith 2014 will have quickly discerned your skill level. This means if you know what you are doing, the game will catch onto that quickly, but if you don’t it’s not going to club you like a baby seal.
If there is one feature that is essential to learning music it’s the Riff Repeater. Learning percussion I spent a lot of time learning paradiddles, flamadiddles, and other rudiments in slow motion and then speeding it up to something usable. Riff Repeater does exactly that, slowing down any section you’d like and allowing you to get the fingering and muscle memory. As you get better at playing the section it’ll get a little faster and slowly add notes. I imagine that this tops out with you playing the song note-for-note, but that’s still a little outside of my skill level.
There is one particular area that I feel like Rocksmith 2014 falls a little short. While the game does a good job of analyzing what you’ve done after you play a track, or making small adjustments during the song, it doesn’t do a fantastic job of anticipating things you might not have seen yet. This means that you’ll often see something you’ve never been taught pop up in a song and have no idea how to approach it. There are still a few things in the game that make me mutter “What are you asking from me?!” in frustration, even after dozens of hours of play. I suspect that this will remedy over time and practice – these are the problems of inexperience.
An area that isn’t just my inexperience is that the game doesn’t offer a lot of technique refinement lessons. I’m having a lot of trouble with harmonics, and I’m finding myself muting my strings accidentally. I know those items are simply novice issues, but the game can’t detect or help me correct them. I find myself trolling YouTube for tips when a tips and tricks section or some sort of refinement section might have gone a lot further. Still, a minor quibble when you look at the fact that I can play the guitar at all!
There is a new addition to the series called Session Mode. Essentially the idea is that, as you free-play whatever random bits of music your heart desires, a backup band will programmatically play with you, reacting to your play style. You can add up to four instruments from a fairly huge variety of types, but for somebody who has not at least mastered one song, this mode is lost on me – I’m still in the ‘follow and learn’ mode. That said, there are a LOT of pre-built bands that you can use from Mixolydian Funk and Phyrgian Dominant Metal to Experimental Electronic and Vintage Blues. Building your own is the fun part, but the prebuilt ones sound pretty fantastic.
Kinect voice integration works very well – you can play tracks by simply calling out the name of the song and then saying “Select”. No waving your hands around to select anything. The only area where it falls short is scrolling through your music. You have to say “Next” or “Previous” to move down just one song – there is no “Page down” option – an unfortunate omission that has me keeping the controller nearby when I shouldn’t have to. Perhaps the team at Ubisoft San Francisco can patch that in?
In Nonstop Play you create a playlist and set a timer anywhere from five to 90 minutes of continuous string time. This alleviates the Kinect selection issue completely with just a little bit of forethought. You can skip back and forth within your setlist anyway, so if you change your mind on a track it’s easy enough to move forward.
There is a mode called Tone Designer lets you add the effect of a real life pre-amp, cabinets, and other accessories to enrich or change your guitar sound. I’m that dog in the helicopter flying upside down in this area though – I have no idea what I’m doing.
Where you’ll spend the vast majority of your time when not in lessons or playing songs is in the arcade…er…I mean Guitarcade! Featuring 11 old school arcade style minigames, these lessons will have you learning techniques like strumming, chords, and more in no time. They all have sub-objectives that help you also improve every time you play, such as pulling off a certain number of chords, touching islands in some of the side scrollers, or shooting a certain number of ducks in a single game. All of these are achievable with just a little practice – a great motivational tool. Below is a quick montage of the various modes in Guitarcade. Don’t expect miracles people – I’m still learning!
Beyond the minigames, you can also hit up Score Attack or Leaderboard Challenges. In Score Attack you’ll play a song on one difficulty level for points, measuring your overall accuracy. The Leaderboard Challenges ask players to reach a score on one of the arcade minigames or on a specific song. I imagine these will likely change pretty frequently like the challenges in Rayman Legends.
You don’t have to go it alone either – Rocksmith 2014 supports same-screen multiplayer for up to two people simultaneously. It doesn’t matter if you are playing different instruments or the same one, and your difficulty level is also irrelevant to the other person. This lets both people enjoy the game without feeling like they need to compete.
One of the things I really like about Rocksmith 2014 is that the game supports all three different types of basic guitars, and it does so separately. This means that playing the bass will give you different lessons than if you were playing the lead guitar. It also tracks your progress on songs separately. This has allowed me to keep my skill level for bass and lead compartmentalized. As my wife uses a different profile, it also allows me to keep hers separate as well.
Any music title has its longevity determined by its long-term support, and Rocksmith 2014 has that in spades. Featuring over 250 tracks from Rush, Oasis, Blue Oyster Cult, Incubus, Heart, and Queen, you know that there are some epic guitar tracks waiting for anyone with the desire to play awesome music while they learn. All of that is locked out while we await the launch of Rocksmith 2014, so I wasn’t able to test out importing tracks from the original title, nor any DLC, but supposedly they are forward compatible, upgrading to have all of the new features of the new product.