Rock Out, And Learn Something Too

Reviewed On
PlayStation 3
Available For
Very Hard

I love those guitar-based party games. I’ve spent many evenings with friends playing The Beatles Rock Band, singing along, banging on the drums and yes, strumming the plastic guitar controller with its five colorful buttons. I’ve even seen people tackle some very difficult songs with Rock Band or Guitar Hero on Expert, and was impressed.

But in the end, did anybody really learn anything? Most of those Guitar Hero warriors would be lost if they picked up a real guitar. That is entertainment, and its fine for that. But the Rocksmith game offers something else, education. It’s a way to learn a fairly complicated instrument that is a lot more fun than guitar lessons.

For background, I’ve been a musician for many years now. I’ve played gigs at bars and in concert with a variety of bands. I don’t play guitar for a living, but let’s just call me a professional amateur. So I was excited at being able to pick up my real-world Fender Stratocaster and plug it right into the PS3 via the included 1/4 inch to USB cable. This pretty much turns your PS3 into an amp, and since mine is connected to my HDTV via an HDMI cable, my guitar sounded pretty good.

Rocksmith has no difficulty settings to start with. Instead, everyone starts at the lowest level, and the game ramps up the difficulty as you learn. This is a pretty cool idea, though it can be frustrating as new concepts are thrown at a player from time to time without adequate description as to what the game means by its symbols.

I was initially disappointed that the songs were not in sheet music form. I figured I would see the notes and could simply play like I do on stage. But instead, the game shows you a virtual guitar on the screen with square blocks coming down to a “hit zone” which is pretty much like Rock Band or all the other music games. I was kind of hoping there would be a pro mode for people who know how to play and just want to rock out.

My no-notes disappointment aside, the game’s interface is most like tablature. I’m not the biggest fan of tabs, but I notice that almost all the guitar books are written in it today instead of sheet music, so that’s probably the wave of the future in terms of showing how to play songs. For some unknown reason however, the tablature is backwards by default in the game. Once I realized this and reversed it back to actual tab in the settings, I had a much easier time keeping up with the game. I would highly recommend everyone do this as their first order of business. It’s not an easy setting to find or even one you would know exists, but you should hunt it down. Otherwise, you are forced to learn a completely unique system to play Rocksmith with no real-world counterpart.

Once you get that sorted out, you are probably going to start in Career mode. Rocksmith does a great job of starting you out very slowly, which is perfect for those who don’t know anything about how to play the guitar. In fact, when I tested the game out with someone who had never even held a guitar before, they seemed to pick up the concept a little easier than me at first! Professional musicians will probably need to re-learn a few things before they get good at the game, though it can teach a lot of advanced techniques that anyone will find helpful.

You start out playing single notes. As you get better, you learn some single note techniques like hammer ons and pull-offs, something every rock guitar player needs to know. If you are having trouble with a song, the game realizes this and sends fewer notes your way. If you are doing really well, it sends more notes at you until you start to fail again, whereupon it figures out your current skill level. It’s constantly sensing how you are doing and challenging you, and sometimes this is where Rocksmith runs into a little trouble.

If you play really well, it will start to send new techniques your way, even if you haven’t practiced them. For me, I knew what the techniques were, but had no idea what symbols the game used to represent them. So while I could play a hammer on, I didn’t, because I didn’t know the Rocksmith sign for it. If you want to be smart, you should probably practice about five techniques ahead of where you think you will be, so you don’t get shown something you don’t understand.

Going through the techniques section is probably the most beneficial in terms of learning how to play the guitar. There are exercises where you can learn everything. After that, the songs themselves in Career mode are more or less just practice.

After single notes, the game teaches you chords and eventually special moves like power chords. Each new technique has a video that explains why a move is used (power chords are easy to switch around and get to quickly in rock music without having to change your hand’s position) and then a practice exercise to help you get good at it. There are also mini games that let you do those techniques over and over again in a sort of amusing way that’s better than just playing alone in your room for no reason. Learning to play the guitar is a hard and tedious process. Rocksmith makes this a bit more fun, but if you are not willing to put in the work, and yes, it is very much like work, then the game can’t really help you. If you want to learn, this is a great tool.

Once you learn the techniques and how they are represented in the game, the fun part is following the career mode. Here you start out in the studio and once you get good enough to qualify, you get to go out and play gigs in increasingly large clubs and venues. It’s really cool playing for the virtual audience, though I have to say that especially at the smaller clubs, the crowd looks a bit creepy. I thought I had wandered into one of my husband’s zombie-killing games for a moment when I got to my first gig. Still, it’s nice to see the crowd get excited as you ace the songs. I’ve seen this in real life, and Rocksmith is a good simulation. It gave me that “this is really cool” feeling like I was on the stage again and everything was going well. If the PS3 could pump out stale beer and cigarette smells, it would be about perfect.

The song selection is pretty diverse, though of course we are talking about mostly guitar-heavy bands. There are a few Nirvana songs and a Rolling Stones hit or two, plus a few standards like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama that will have you singing along. There are even some nice tunes from bands I wasn’t familiar with before playing, but who I have now come to respect like The Black Keys. And of course a library of DLC songs are popping up, as my PS3 reminds me each time I load the game.

There are a few annoying things about Rocksmith, with the biggest one being the need to tune your guitar after almost every single song you play. Hello, if my Fender Stratocaster gets out of tune after playing a half a dozen power chords, I’m checking the serial number on the back because someone switched it for a knockoff when I wasn’t looking. One tuning session per game is more than enough for almost any guitar. Also, being forced to begin as a rank amateur is a little annoying for those who can play, though it doesn’t take long to climb up the difficulty levels once you learn the game’s symbols.

Finally, Rocksmith is not a party game. You can’t get your friends to gather around and have fun like with Rock Band, though it would be pretty cool if they let someone sing along, or you could sing using a mike stand and play at the same time. This is pretty much a single player experience, and really designed for people who want to learn to play the guitar or learn to play it better. If you don’t want to learn guitar, then there are much more interesting games for you out there. While Rocksmith is amusing, I would not go quite so far as to say that it’s fun. It is more fun than any guitar lesson you could take, and just about as effective. But know what you are getting into.

In fact, Rocksmith is a perfect game to accompany any guitar purchase. If you or your kid got a guitar for the holidays, then do yourself or them a favor and get Rocksmith. As a family title, it’s an incredible value. Professionals can brush up on their skills and keep in practice between jobs, and might just learn something along the way. But newcomers will actually learn how to play over time, getting something out of a guitar-based game other than bragging rights and a high score.

As a final perk, there is an amp mode where you can play around with adding foot pedals to the game and create a unique sound for your instrument which can then be used within the game. A creative person who is really into guitars could spend a lot of hours just fooling around in amp mode.

In the final report, Rocksmith is an incredible concept implemented reasonably well given that the game literally appeals to guitar players of all skill levels or even no skill level. Parents will actually see their kids accomplish something while playing with their consoles for hours on end, and at $70, it’s a lot cheaper than lessons. I wish there was a tool like this when I was just starting out. I might have cut a year or two off my learning curve with what is a decidedly difficult instrument to master. Rocksmith earns every bit of the 4 GiN Gems it gets here, and I for one hope this educational/entertainment game gets a sequel and support from Ubisoft.

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