The first time I tried Rocksmith 2014 was at FanExpo Canada and I walked away impressed. At first glance, the game may seem like a Guitar Hero clone, but after 40 hours hands-on with the game and its features I can say with confidence that is so much more.
For my graduating college course, I took a 600 level course called The Psychology of Music, an obvious dream class for my professor to teach. It was just the eight of us students and her every Friday for three hours discussing journal articles and the science and theories of how we experience, craft, and appreciate music. On the first day of class, she asked everyone what experience they had playing an instrument. Only one other classmate didn’t have any. I’ve always had a love for music, thus my taking the class, but I’d never experienced making music before. I was never in the school band, and learning one or two chords on a guitar was as far as I had ever gotten. She told us, “It’s never too late to learn.” She herself had just started learning the piano seven years ago at the age of 45, and knew firsthand the rewards of learning to play an instrument.
So the new year came around and since selling my soul to the devil at a crossroads wasn’t working, I had some Amazon gift cards lying around, so I took the plunge. I bought the game and cable, found a used bass and amp on Craigslist, and dove in. Nearly a month later, this has been my experience.
Rocksmith Real Tone Technology
The magic of how Rocksmith works with any electric bass or guitar is the Real Tone Cable. The tech inside allows for the notes played on the instrument to be understood by the program with no latency and an almost perfect tone recognition, aside from a few minor quibbles I will go over later. The cable is required to play, but comes bundled with the game. Setup is as easy as plugging the cord in and running a quick latency test. You start the game by selecting your path —either bass, lead, or rhythm guitar—and the game begins.
Learn A Song
The first option on the main menu—and the main draw of the game—is the Learn a Song mode. That’s what I dove into first. Now the strength of any music game is really in its song list, and with over 50 songs available from the start, it’s robust and varied enough that there will be something for everyone. Aerosmith, Avenged Sevenfold, Def Leppard, Foo Fighters, Green Day, KISS, Oasis, Iron Maiden, The Shins, The Police, Nirvana, Weezer, The Who, and System of a Down are just some of the examples of the variety of time periods and genres that were put into the song selection.
In addition to the songs on the disc, if you own the original Rocksmith (which you can pick up for next to nothing used) you can import your songs over to the new edition for just $9.99—effectively doubling your library of songs. There is also an extensive library of over 200 songs available to download as DLC and new song packs being released every Tuesday.
With built-in filtering tools that arrange song by recommended, difficulty, artist, year, or title you can always find what you are looking for quickly. So if you want to learn a particular song, you can probably find it. But can you play it?
The game consists of hitting colored buttons (there is a color blind mode available) representing frets floating down a path with the correct string, a sight normal to anyone who has ever played Guitar Hero or Rock Band before. This made the transition much easier for me. Song difficulty works on a 0-100 scale. The first time you play a song you will be in the lowest numbers, just getting a feel for the very root of the song progression. Helpful tools appear on screen when you mess up, pointing you in the direction of frets or showing proper finger placement.
Depending on how well you play, the game can shift the difficulty of the song to help or challenge you. As you progress higher in difficulty, more notes, chords, bends, slides, and mutes begin to appear. Eventually there will be a section that is just a little too fast or too difficult to play. At any time during a song you can pause and enter a mode called Riff Repeater, in which you can select segments of the song to practice and adjust the difficulty and speed. I found it helpful to put most songs at 100 difficulty, slowed down to 70 percent speed so I could practice proper technique then slowly increase my speed.
After a song is completed, you are given your score based on total notes hit, accuracy, and longest streak. You can replay the song, or the game suggests three different options to help you with techniques you will need in the song. It might suggest riff repeating a chorus you’ve been having trouble with, reviewing a lesson on slides, or playing a mini game that works your sense of timing.
Once you have conquered a song close to 100%, the game will begin to put you in master mode, fading out the notes from the track until you are playing off memory and the music alone. Conquering this mode is your final test in mastering and learning to play a song, and it feels incredibly satisfying when you do. I can only play one song completely on mastery, but I have two or three others that I’m beginning to get into master mode with. The non-linear approach to learning worked really well for me, as being able to jump to any song meant never being bored or frustrated at being stuck on one part of a particular song.
To a complete noob like myself, these lessons were a godsend. They’re structured like college courses with the Bass 101 basics of how to strap and properly hold your instrument all the way up to advanced techniques like Chords 301, Tapping 401, and Arpeggios. They even have “Special Topics” like tuning without a tuner, maintenance, and using capos. Each lesson consists of a video demonstrating a technique, then the game asks you to try and provides practice tracks and instant feedback. It even displays additional videos if you need help. To learn an instrument, you have to become familiar with all the tools of the trade, and the early lessons especially gave me confidence and guidance starting out.
Guitarcade has fun little mini games that help teach techniques. String Skip Saloon is a Tapper like game where you shoot outlaws rushing at a bar by hitting the correct string. Return to Castle Chordead has you blowing away zombies in this House of the Dead style game using the appropriate chords. Other games teach volume dynamics, fretting, slides, etc. The gamer in me appreciated these and constantly strove to reach a high score, but aside from the occasional game, the other features are more interesting.
One of the coolest features is the session mode in which you play with a virtual band. You select up to four different AI instruments out of over 75 options with every style of bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums imaginable. Then you begin playing. The band picks up on the tempo, key, intensity, and style you play and joins in to fill out the sound. This mode really encourages improvising and creating your own music. I enjoyed playing around in this mode, but it is still a little out of my league. For advanced players, it provides a strong incentive to come back and play even after songs are mastered.
Some Minor Issues
The game isn’t perfect, however. If you want to really hear your instrument properly I would highly recommend an amp, for bass especially. Sometimes it can be hard to hear the pitch, loudness, and timbre of the notes, and that makes all the difference in how smooth and professional the sound is. I found that starting a song, then switching to my amp to play along has helped me become a much better player. I’ve had a few instances on PC where I would need to hit a fret twice, but not be fast enough. The first fret still ringing would trigger the second one and it would show me performing better than I actually played.
It also doesn’t teach scales, chord progression, or other parts of music theory. I think the game is best used in conjunction with other exercises to train your music theory as well as a very liberal dose of experimentation and creativity. After all, that’s the whole point of the instrument.
Recently I went to a friend’s house who has been playing guitar for seven years or so now. For the first time, I brought my bass and amp out of my room. He had his guitar, and my roommate climbed up on drums. We jammed for two solid hours. Some songs I knew—Seven Nation Army and Tighten Up by The Black Keys—others I had to improvise (probably poorly). He shared the bass line he had in his head for a jazz song he created, and we worked together to nail it down. It was an incredible experience and even though I know I didn’t play very well it was a rush like no other. Being a part of making music, no matter how poorly, was always a dream and for a little while I got to live it. My fingers have developed new calluses, and I’m just starting on a path that will take a lifetime to learn, but thanks to Rocksmith it seems that much closer.
You can pick up the bundle with the cable,game, and guitar here
PC/Mac – http://amzn.to/1djtRaH
PS3 – http://amzn.to/MlxE07
Xbox 360 – http://amzn.to/1gtV250