Pick up and Play
Before I start this review I have to lay down a few things. First off, I have wanted to learn to play the guitar for years now. My dad plays, even found his way onto a local cable show back in the early 80's playing as the house band for a show called Street Beat based out of Maryville, IL. His band, “The Mob” was basically a Black Sabbath cover band, but they played a bit of everything. In the 20 years since this show, one member has passed on, and my dad still maintains a studio in his basement where he and his drummer continue to play. I took a liking to drums as a kid, because the guitar was too hard. My dad's idea of teaching me was “here is a power chord. Now here is the entire solo to 'Crazy Train.'” I quickly lost interest. About two years ago I tried again. I borrowed chord books, took a few “lessons” from dad, and brought home one of his guitars to try to teach myself. I gave up after a few months. I just could not get it. Then last week I saw an advertisement for Rocksmith on a YouTube video. I had to have this game. Looking at the website, I was expecting to have to wait months before I could give it a shot, but then I saw the release date. “THAT'S TODAY!” I didn't have my dad's guitar, so I didn't rush out that night. But the next day...
I'm at my dad's house, unpacking the xbox, hooking it up, and I put RockSmith in for the first time. The game starts out just like any other. Sign in, choose your memory slot, and set up your profile. For RockSmith, your profile includes which side you play from, the style of head for your guitar, a sound check, and finally tuning the guitar. Tutorials take you through each step. Next is a basic lesson in strumming and hitting your notes. After a brief tutorial, you are given a chance to play a few notes for practice in learning how to time your notes and how to read the game screen. Once you have hit each note, the game responds by playing the notes over in real time, which is immediately recognizable as the riff to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. You also get a congratulations screen saying you have played your first riff. Great stuff.
From here, the game basically jumps right into the story mode. You start out as a beginner playing scrub locations to minimal crowds. In the Guitar Hero fashion, the better you play the better your score, and your score dictates opening up new locations and better set lists. This is basically how the game progresses, but hold on. You aren't quite ready for that yet. Let's back up to the gameplay itself.
Your first song in story mode will be “Satisfaction.” The song starts with you hearing the other band members playing the song, while you get one note every few bars. As you maintain consistency in hitting those notes, more are added. As a beginner, I was impressed with both the pace the game kept up with my progression, and the rate at which it added notes to the mix. There is no pass or fail, so you either maintain consistency and the game adds notes, or you don't maintain it and the game will back you down to fewer notes. The entire idea is to keep you on pace, train to hit the key notes, and as you get better, build your skills around those key notes.
While playing you will get immediate feedback on your mistakes. Playing the wrong fret will prompt an arrow on your screen to either move left or right on the fret board. Playing the wrong string will prompt arrows telling you to play the string above or below. Very impressive stuff. As you advance, you will start seeing chords thrown in where you were playing one note. Power chords come soon after. For me, I played through “Satisfaction” about 3 times before I could play through and recognize the song, albeit while playing a dumbed down version of the real deal. I would call it “campfire approved.”
Now, in story mode, you will have to practice this song and any others in your set list before you can go perform them. Once you meet a minimum score, you can move on to playing your first venue. As you progress, the game opens up the next level of set lists which become more difficult to learn. As for me, I wanted to see what songs made the cut, so I cut out of the story mode and found the song list. I was pleased to find that I could “try” any song I wanted. I found “Breed” by Nirvana and gave it a shot. I am not as familiar with this song as I had hoped, but was able to get a good chunk of the basic notes. A second play through proved, as before, that the game tracks skill on a song by song basis. I started out with more notes than I had the first time, thus being more difficult from the start. As I played through, I was playing a more recognizable version of the song. Again, a few times through and I certified myself as “campfire approved.”
My biggest mistake was listening to my father. As we clicked our way on down the track list, one of our favorite bands popped up. I took his challenge to try “Slither” by Velvet Revolver. I should have known I was in trouble when I got to the tuning screen (which pops up before each song to ensure the guitar is in tune) and was prompted to adjust the tuning from the standard to a “drop D” setup. My dad's reaction was an inquisitive “ohhhh..” as if to say, “THAT'S what I was missing.” The next words out of his mouth were “I've been trying to learn this song for a while now but something just wasn't right.” Great. My dad who can play damn near anything he hears can't play this song, and now I'm trying it.
Alas, the game taught me another lesson at this point. Not only does it track song to song your skill level, but at some point as it realizes you are getting better, it will start you out on new songs with an elevated skill level. Before I knew it I was playing strings I hadn't attempted yet. I was all over the fret board losing my anchor and blowing any chance I had of recognizing this song. We got a good laugh and learned a tough lesson. Stick to the story mode and learn how to play!
This is a great lesson because once I got back into the story mode, I realized that new songs bring up technique challenges which teach you a new technique and give you a chance to learn them and how they are used in songs. (It also teaches you what to do when you see alterations to the notes on the screen. An arrow on a note will indicate a hammer on or pull off, while an x will tell you to silence the string) Some of these technique challenges would have come in handy for “Slither,” but hey, you can't blame a guy for trying!
Once you master a technique, a mini game is unlocked. I have only played one or two, but from what I can tell, these mini games help you improve your dexterity and muscle memory, making it easier to transition fret to fret, string to string, and so on. These mini games simulate the exercises a guitar instructor might have you do to accomplish the same goals, making it that much more fun to practice!
For those of you that already play, or at least have a good amount of knowledge to start with, the game doesn't count you out. You can pick up any song and give it a shot. A free play mode allows you to basically do whatever. The game has several amps and tuners you can unlock via gameplay, along with some great auto tune setups taken from the songs in the set list. These are unlocked by reaching a score goal which changes for each song, but usually lies in the 60,000 – 70,000 point range. (Points are awarded based on notes hit, streaks, etc) At this point, there is no recording option, so if you have some original stuff you can play it but recording isn't available. Hopefully this is added via DLC or the next game if one is planned.
Of course, RockSmith's DLC area is empty for now, but it is set up for songs and albums, along with additional tuners and amps, guitars to grab, etc. I am hoping to find some more learning tools to teach us beginners about basic rhythms and bars. It would be nice to learn the basics down to the core, because one day I would like to move from playing everyone elses music to maybe creating my own. A better understanding about the music would come in handy!
In all my biggest complaint about RockSmith is the lack of “real” learning. I find myself referring to the strings by their color code in the game rather than their tune. The developers would be doing the world a favor by simply labeling the strings in the game screen during song play and not just in the tuning mode. The last thing I want is for kids to grow up and teach the next generations of guitar players to start with the red string and work down to the green string. Other than that, I have had no issues with the game at all. Some people have complained about latency issues when using an HDMI output. Everything I have seen from people using component cables seems to reduce or completely eliminate these issues. Load screens can be an issue as you bounce in and out of them going back and forth into songs. I could also do without having to tune the guitar EVERY time I play a song. When practicing I may play the same song 10 times in a row, but the game forces you to do a tuning check each time. Perhaps a bypass would be a welcome adjustment.
Final verdict on this game is that it is highly impressive. I give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars simply because there is room for improvement in the areas of actually teaching players about the strings, and DLC could help beginners learn about rhythms and bars that are universal to each genre. A beginning guitar player can easily pick this game up and feel like they are learning in only one or two play throughs of each song. There are plenty of mini games to help train your hands to do what they need to do to get through most songs, and the feedback and skill tracking makes sure you don't get bored playing the same stuff every time. Once you plateau in skill, you find yourself re-learning the same song just a step back from where you plateau, making sure you learn the songs basics before pushing you into the final, radio quality song. I hope this review has helped. Enjoy!