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Rocksmith Is No Pretender to the Guitar Game Throne

After spending a little time with Ubisoft's first venture into the realm of rock rhythm games, Alex comes away sincerely impressed.

I did not go into Ubisoft's New York City press day expecting to write anything about Rocksmith, the publisher's debut foray into the realm of non-dancing music games. Given my previous, erm, history with the genre, my intuition was to just avoid the room that housed the title as if it contained a stack of expired plague victims.

Check out how this totally real non-actor dude is totally playing a real guitar in a totally not staged living room set!

My fear was objectivity. I like lots of music games, and I play lots of music games. That said, my earlier industry associations make it difficult to sound objective when talking about products that competed with my previous employer (Harmonix Music Systems, makers of the Rock Band series), especially when discussing a negative impression. Going into a Rocksmith demo, I had a great deal of skepticism regarding the product. Rock Band 3 was the first title to attempt a real guitar game with its pro instrument mode, and the marketing coming out of Ubisoft proclaiming it to be the first "real" guitar experience on consoles seemed like petty grandstanding. Infomercial-type videos like this did little to help matters, and then there's that name...the whole thing was setting off the same alarms that Power Gig did upon its debut.

And yet, I somehow found myself pulled into Rocksmith's orbit. Suddenly, a guitar was strapped to my waist, and I was at the mercy of Ubisoft San Francisco creative director Paul Cross, who slowly but surely began to show me the ropes when it comes to Rocksmith's brand of guitar instruction. After what felt like at least an hour of discussion, observing others play, and playing myself, I can say with definition that this is not Power Gig all over again.

In fact, it's actually pretty cool.

The premise of the game sounds like pure voodoo. A small USB-to-quarter-inch adapter bridges the gap between any electric guitar you may already own (Cross very much stressed that any guitar brand should work) and your home console of choice. When you strum a note on your guitar, the note plays through your television's speakers with any effects, distortion, or whatever else you program using the in-game pedals system.

The crazy thing is that it works. I do not play guitar. I have spent ample time futzing around with Rock Band 3's pro guitar mechanics, and through that I picked up a few things, but eventually I was forced to resign myself to the notion that I am a drummer, and not a guitar player. Ultimately, I may end up having the same reaction to Rocksmith in the long-run, but the early modes I played not only worked, but they gave me hope that I might not be completely worthless at playing a guitar.

A big part of Rocksmith's methodology revolves around its difficulty settings, or lack thereof. There is no expert mode in Rocksmith, nor is there an easy mode. Rather, difficulty revolves around "leveling up" songs. You can choose to play any available song in arrangements of single notes, chords, or full charts, and when you begin playing, you're dealt a minimalist version of that arrangement's note chart. The game reacts to how you play, slowly building up the number of notes it tosses at you based on your performance. Once you level up a song, you can keep practicing it until you eventually are playing the entire thing note-for-note. It's worth noting that if you're already an expert guitar player and know the song in question, the game doesn't penalize you for playing extra notes on an easier chart. As long as you're hitting the correct notes it tosses at you, you can play pretty much whatever you want in between.

The in-game interface mirrors the neck of the guitar, and is surprisingly easy to work with.

Weird as that may sound to those who have spent years playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it's actually perfectly workable in practice. Largely, that's because there are no dead spots in the music when you mess up. Cross told me that while the team had played around with chopping up the masters and adding failure-oriented sound effects for missed notes, playtesters ultimately found it too distracting. So much as you would in a guitar lesson, you simply play over the song in its entirety. The volume differential between your guitar and the song seemed such that it shouldn't be too distracting to play over the existing track.

Rocksmith's interface does a great deal to engender feelings of ease when picking it up for the first time. In videos, the mirrored image of strings and frets to what your hand actually is required to rest upon looks a little odd, but in practice, it works extremely well. Once you start a song, you're required to strum each string individually to make sure they're in tune (a tuning prompt appears if they aren't), and once the song begins, notes move toward the represented fret bar on the screen, with colors and numbers depicting which string to strum, and which string to hit, respectively.

My first attempt to play was on The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," which has a fairly iconic opening salvo of notes. Early struggles audibly signaled that I had no idea what I was doing, but after a couple of reboots, I hit that first signature note, and from there, I began to improve. The timing window for the notes seems reasonable, as I am not perfect at strumming in time, and I still hit most of the notes that I had locked to the correct fret.

Unfortunately, a bug in the build I saw prevented Cross from showing me some of the more complicated, leveled-up note charts, but I could see a bit of progression as I got better, and as Cross (who himself was not a guitar player when the project first began, but began to learn alongside the development of the game) played on songs he'd spent some time leveling up manually. I do look forward to seeing someone play along with a fully-leveled up version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." That ought to be a sight.

Speaking of the soundtrack, the build I saw at Ubisoft's event actually had a few more songs than the nearly 30 that have thus far been announced. While I can't spoil what I've seen beyond those announced songs (which include everything from Bowie to Black Keys and back again), I can say that the soundtrack reminds me a lot of the first Guitar Hero soundtrack--with master tracks instead of covers, of course. It's geared less toward the notion of a radio-friendly playlist of non-stop hits, and more toward finding songs that simply play great on the guitar. The developers are looking for riffs, solos, and iconic guitar lines that are going to be fun to play. While there are undoubtedly some classics, there are as many smaller indie rock bands, including a few bonus tracks from projects headed up by developers at the studio. Unsurprisingly, those are some of the more challenging tracks in the game.

DLC will, unsurprisingly, be added to Rocksmith post-release, but Cross and other Ubisoft representatives were mum on what kind of songs might be coming down the pipes, as well as how frequently they'd be coming. You can likely expect at least monthly offerings to start, though how frequently they come beyond the early release days will simply depend on how well the game performs.

The interface adjusts over time as you "level up songs," adding more notes to play.

I went into Rocksmith expecting nothing, and came out of my demo shocked at how wrong those expectations were. It's easy to get cynical in this business, especially after hearing ad infinitum how thoroughly dead music games are, and seeing the blitzkrieg of cringe-worthy marketing Ubisoft has thus far inundated consumers with. That Rocksmith was able to penetrate that initial skepticism and show me something legitimately cool is a testament to what Ubisoft is aiming to do with this game.

Is Rocksmith absolutely, 100% guaranteed to make you into an expert guitar player? I have absolutely no idea. You'll probably have to wait for the reviews to start hitting to find that out. Will Rocksmith help revitalize the flailing music genre? Again, it's too early to tell, but to hear Cross tell it, he hopes Rocksmith will simply help push innovation in music titles, much the way Rock Band did with its last iteration, and inspire competition in the genre once more. Is Rocksmith a fun way for newcomers to test the waters of learning the guitar? From my time playing it, I certainly think so.

Alex Navarro on Google+
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Posted by Alex

I did not go into Ubisoft's New York City press day expecting to write anything about Rocksmith, the publisher's debut foray into the realm of non-dancing music games. Given my previous, erm, history with the genre, my intuition was to just avoid the room that housed the title as if it contained a stack of expired plague victims.

Check out how this totally real non-actor dude is totally playing a real guitar in a totally not staged living room set!

My fear was objectivity. I like lots of music games, and I play lots of music games. That said, my earlier industry associations make it difficult to sound objective when talking about products that competed with my previous employer (Harmonix Music Systems, makers of the Rock Band series), especially when discussing a negative impression. Going into a Rocksmith demo, I had a great deal of skepticism regarding the product. Rock Band 3 was the first title to attempt a real guitar game with its pro instrument mode, and the marketing coming out of Ubisoft proclaiming it to be the first "real" guitar experience on consoles seemed like petty grandstanding. Infomercial-type videos like this did little to help matters, and then there's that name...the whole thing was setting off the same alarms that Power Gig did upon its debut.

And yet, I somehow found myself pulled into Rocksmith's orbit. Suddenly, a guitar was strapped to my waist, and I was at the mercy of Ubisoft San Francisco creative director Paul Cross, who slowly but surely began to show me the ropes when it comes to Rocksmith's brand of guitar instruction. After what felt like at least an hour of discussion, observing others play, and playing myself, I can say with definition that this is not Power Gig all over again.

In fact, it's actually pretty cool.

The premise of the game sounds like pure voodoo. A small USB-to-quarter-inch adapter bridges the gap between any electric guitar you may already own (Cross very much stressed that any guitar brand should work) and your home console of choice. When you strum a note on your guitar, the note plays through your television's speakers with any effects, distortion, or whatever else you program using the in-game pedals system.

The crazy thing is that it works. I do not play guitar. I have spent ample time futzing around with Rock Band 3's pro guitar mechanics, and through that I picked up a few things, but eventually I was forced to resign myself to the notion that I am a drummer, and not a guitar player. Ultimately, I may end up having the same reaction to Rocksmith in the long-run, but the early modes I played not only worked, but they gave me hope that I might not be completely worthless at playing a guitar.

A big part of Rocksmith's methodology revolves around its difficulty settings, or lack thereof. There is no expert mode in Rocksmith, nor is there an easy mode. Rather, difficulty revolves around "leveling up" songs. You can choose to play any available song in arrangements of single notes, chords, or full charts, and when you begin playing, you're dealt a minimalist version of that arrangement's note chart. The game reacts to how you play, slowly building up the number of notes it tosses at you based on your performance. Once you level up a song, you can keep practicing it until you eventually are playing the entire thing note-for-note. It's worth noting that if you're already an expert guitar player and know the song in question, the game doesn't penalize you for playing extra notes on an easier chart. As long as you're hitting the correct notes it tosses at you, you can play pretty much whatever you want in between.

The in-game interface mirrors the neck of the guitar, and is surprisingly easy to work with.

Weird as that may sound to those who have spent years playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it's actually perfectly workable in practice. Largely, that's because there are no dead spots in the music when you mess up. Cross told me that while the team had played around with chopping up the masters and adding failure-oriented sound effects for missed notes, playtesters ultimately found it too distracting. So much as you would in a guitar lesson, you simply play over the song in its entirety. The volume differential between your guitar and the song seemed such that it shouldn't be too distracting to play over the existing track.

Rocksmith's interface does a great deal to engender feelings of ease when picking it up for the first time. In videos, the mirrored image of strings and frets to what your hand actually is required to rest upon looks a little odd, but in practice, it works extremely well. Once you start a song, you're required to strum each string individually to make sure they're in tune (a tuning prompt appears if they aren't), and once the song begins, notes move toward the represented fret bar on the screen, with colors and numbers depicting which string to strum, and which string to hit, respectively.

My first attempt to play was on The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," which has a fairly iconic opening salvo of notes. Early struggles audibly signaled that I had no idea what I was doing, but after a couple of reboots, I hit that first signature note, and from there, I began to improve. The timing window for the notes seems reasonable, as I am not perfect at strumming in time, and I still hit most of the notes that I had locked to the correct fret.

Unfortunately, a bug in the build I saw prevented Cross from showing me some of the more complicated, leveled-up note charts, but I could see a bit of progression as I got better, and as Cross (who himself was not a guitar player when the project first began, but began to learn alongside the development of the game) played on songs he'd spent some time leveling up manually. I do look forward to seeing someone play along with a fully-leveled up version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." That ought to be a sight.

Speaking of the soundtrack, the build I saw at Ubisoft's event actually had a few more songs than the nearly 30 that have thus far been announced. While I can't spoil what I've seen beyond those announced songs (which include everything from Bowie to Black Keys and back again), I can say that the soundtrack reminds me a lot of the first Guitar Hero soundtrack--with master tracks instead of covers, of course. It's geared less toward the notion of a radio-friendly playlist of non-stop hits, and more toward finding songs that simply play great on the guitar. The developers are looking for riffs, solos, and iconic guitar lines that are going to be fun to play. While there are undoubtedly some classics, there are as many smaller indie rock bands, including a few bonus tracks from projects headed up by developers at the studio. Unsurprisingly, those are some of the more challenging tracks in the game.

DLC will, unsurprisingly, be added to Rocksmith post-release, but Cross and other Ubisoft representatives were mum on what kind of songs might be coming down the pipes, as well as how frequently they'd be coming. You can likely expect at least monthly offerings to start, though how frequently they come beyond the early release days will simply depend on how well the game performs.

The interface adjusts over time as you "level up songs," adding more notes to play.

I went into Rocksmith expecting nothing, and came out of my demo shocked at how wrong those expectations were. It's easy to get cynical in this business, especially after hearing ad infinitum how thoroughly dead music games are, and seeing the blitzkrieg of cringe-worthy marketing Ubisoft has thus far inundated consumers with. That Rocksmith was able to penetrate that initial skepticism and show me something legitimately cool is a testament to what Ubisoft is aiming to do with this game.

Is Rocksmith absolutely, 100% guaranteed to make you into an expert guitar player? I have absolutely no idea. You'll probably have to wait for the reviews to start hitting to find that out. Will Rocksmith help revitalize the flailing music genre? Again, it's too early to tell, but to hear Cross tell it, he hopes Rocksmith will simply help push innovation in music titles, much the way Rock Band did with its last iteration, and inspire competition in the genre once more. Is Rocksmith a fun way for newcomers to test the waters of learning the guitar? From my time playing it, I certainly think so.

Staff
Posted by BryanDaGimp

Waiting for drumsmith

Edited by Sinful

2...3 and 4...*bangs drums*

Posted by DavoTron

I'm very interested in this game actually, being a guitar player already...

Posted by minarge67

wow I wonder who Alex used o work for... The 'game' sounds interesting go, i'll keep one eye on it

Posted by lumberingjackal

I want this to be good

Posted by buft

waiting for air'o smith the Irish airline simulator

Posted by Shuborno

*sigh*

I'll buy this because the barrier to entry will be low. I already play guitar, so if I just need to buy the game and use my current guitar, that's simple.

It's difficult to find the Rock Band 3 Squier Strat. If I could just go to a store and buy it, I would have done that already. I'd rather play RB3.

Posted by kingzetta

What is the game's stance on Kid Rock?

Posted by slantedwindows

alex - you strap guitars to your waist?

Posted by 234r2we232

Those informercials never lie. THIS CAN ONLY BE THE REAL DEAL.

Posted by aceofspudz

@slantedwindows said:

alex - you strap guitars to your waist?

Rocksmith: Strap it on.

Posted by MattyFTM

Sounds a lot better than I was expecting. I'm no guitar player though, and I'm resigned to the fact that I never will be, so it isn't for me.

Moderator
Posted by russianblue8181
@minarge67: Not sure if you're joking or not, as he even says it in the article: Harmonix, makers of the Rock Band series of games.  If you WERE joking...ha.
Posted by Little_Socrates

I've been impressed by responses for a while, looking forward to trying it when it comes out (but I don't currently own an electric guitar, so I can't buy it yet.)

Ooh, another really curious question; will the game respond to acoustic-electric guitars (aka acoustic guitars fitted with pickups?)

Posted by dragonzord

but does it have Kid Rock?

Posted by Sn1PeR

I'm pretty interested in this.  If it works well, displays proper tab, and can keep up with bends, harmonics, etc. I'm in.  Hopefully the 1/4in to USB adapter is reasonably priced.

Posted by Winsord

Hrm, I'm still somewhat skeptical just because of the ways the notes are tracked visually, but I've got a Fender Deluxe, so if I see this stores one day and find myself enticed, at least the barrier to entry will be low.

Posted by Akrid

Sounds great!  From what I've seen thus far  I'll be picking this up for sure. Might be a good and fun way to go back and get comfortable with using a pick, as I imagine there aren't too many finger-style songs on there.

Posted by ajamafalous

This actually sounds pretty cool.

Posted by PLWolf

Pre-order is already in, I can't wait for this.

Posted by Moppy

I got my first guitar last April so I'm super pumped to get this game. 

Posted by cultofweaver

@slantedwindows said:

alex - you strap guitars to your waist?

Steve Albini (a GREAT MAN) straps his guitar around his waist.

Fingers crossed there is an option to switch the chart around for left-handed players. The screenshots make it look like it'd be a nightmare to follow otherwise.

Posted by Rasgueado

Well... I'm glad to hear it works at least. I hope some people like it.

Personally speaking... a CD is a lot cheaper.

Posted by craigbo180
@minarge67 said:
wow I wonder who Alex used o work for...
I am assuming this is sarcasm but as this is the internet and I canno't be a hundred percent certain, he used to work for Harmonix the creators of the Rock Band franchise. This was stated in the article.
 
I am quite surprised by this reaction to the game, it doesn't particularly interest me but I was assuming the game would be ass on a power gig level.
Posted by Simplexity

DID YOU GUYS KNOW ALEX USED TO WORK FOR HARMONIX?

Posted by GeoAbraxas
@Shuborno: Just call your local music store, they should be able to order it from Fender without a problem. At least the stores around my place can.  
 
As it stands I can't see how I won't pick this up, especially if it allows me to also easily hook this into my computer with the adapter. Although I'm not quite sure how it works so maybe that's not a possibility.
Posted by yates

That actor has a lot of speakers in his fake house.

Edited by Wiseblood

@Prodstep said:

DID YOU GUYS KNOW ALEX USED TO WORK FOR HARMONIX?

Ever hear of "full disclosure"?

Posted by masternater27

@Shuborno: Best Buy Carries the rb3 strat in store. At least my store always has one

Edited by MrKlorox

Cool. It's about time. I've been waiting for a piece of software that did this correctly for a good decade. I'll probably get this on PC if it makes it to Steam.

@Little_Socrates said:

Ooh, another really curious question; will the game respond to acoustic-electric guitars (aka acoustic guitars fitted with pickups?)

I'd bet so. In fact I'd also bet one could 'fake' it using the headphone port of a keyboard if they really wanted to. I mean it just translates audio tones into a signal that can be deciphered by the software, right?

Posted by Ramone

I'm so happy this sounds good.

Posted by MooseyMcMan

Did Alex refer to himself in the third person up there? 

Moderator
Posted by QKT

oh, so alex used to work with harmonix? 
i havent heard that before...

Posted by HarrySound

Ok i'll probably get it for easy points but I still have to say that the tech for this game to track the guitar notes your playing does not exist. 
It'll only surely be able to track single notes or even power chords as the very most. 
Look at the current guitar to midi converters and tell me i'm not lying. 

Posted by kagato

@Prodstep: Did you not? Hes mentioned it quite a lot on the bombcast and during the E3 specials, i figured it was common knowledge by now

Edited by Danda

I knew this had to work. Otherwise, why would Ubisoft risk venturing into a dying genre? 
 
I have to admit I don't care if it's much fun. I just want to use it to learn some guitar.

Posted by Trojan

I've owned an electric guitar for like 15 years but I never ended up learning much. I didn't realize Rocksmith let you play with any electric guitar. Sounds like I may have to dust off mine and give learning guitar another shot.

Posted by Mumrik

It would be awesome if this actually was good. I've haven't used my electric guitar for anything sensible since I bought it 14 years or so ago (damn, now I feel old at 28).

Posted by buzz_killington

If there is the slightest chance that I will learn how to play an instrument, I'll give it a shot.

Posted by Beer

@Prodstep

said:

DID YOU GUYS KNOW ALEX USED TO WORK FOR HARMONIX?

Posted by Jensonb

Buying it.

Posted by Agent47
@cultofweaver: Yes!Please show some love for lefties.I'm pretty sure they have to cause one of the guys on their team HAS to be lefty.I mean if they shipped without a lefty mode I would flip.
Posted by Govannan

I swear to god, I thought those last few words said Game of Thrones and nearly soiled my breeches.

Posted by Tim_the_Corsair

He has to explain who he worked for from an integrity perspective, there's no guarantee that everyone reading this article has any idea who he is or what his history is.

Posted by Mars_Cleric

I'm surprised but I will reserve judgement

Posted by JJpenguin

I wonder if they'll do drop C#/C/B/A# songs? 
 
I would love to plug in my schecter blackjack and play some machine head. 
 
Having said that, if you're good enough to play Machine Head, odds are you wont need the game's help, leaves me at a loss to what purpose this game serves. Guitar hero was detached enough from guitar that both non-guitarists and guitarists could enjoy an equal challenge, this seems like somewhere in-between a starting point to real guitar and something for guitarists to show off on.

Posted by RJPelonia

You have me genuinely intrigued, Alex. I was ready to completely ignore this game, but... well, I'll keep this game in my periphery. Hope the final build finally delivers on what many others have failed to do so on.

Posted by gorkamorkaorka

I wish there were more educational games.

Posted by wolf_blitzer85

@BryanDaGimp said:

Waiting for drumsmith

Oooh yeah. Then I would be interested....HARD.

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