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Rocksmith teaches you how to play guitar for real

3:30 PM on 10.03.2011 // Lori Navarro

Music games that simulate musical performance have often been criticized, ridiculed and lampooned for being too repetitive and for lack of a better word, fake. Synonyms aside, Rocksmith -- a new game that lets you plug and play an actual guitar to your gaming system -- is something that is geared towards actual learning rather than simulating an experience. 

Plus, with the recently announced cooperative gameplay feature, it’s enough to pique the interest of most guitar players -- old, new and well, fake alike.

Rocksmith (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release: October 18, 2011

It is impossible not to compare Rocksmith with games like Rock Band or Guitar Hero, especially out of the public ennui from being overexposed to these titles. But Rocksmith is not merely Rock Band with literal strings attached. What makes it different from the others, as Ubisoft North America President Laurent Detoc explains it, is in its aim to pursue “real life benefits” in games. That is, players will be able to take lifelong skills with them even after they play. Based on what I experienced at the Rocksmith Event, the game has enough features to let players train progressively and selectively -- in reading tabs, recognizing chords, making techniques such as hammer-ons, bends and so on.

Unlike its predecessors, Rocksmith is obviously not a party game anyone can pick up on the spot -- or a rock star simulation where you play as an Axl Rose-lookalike or decorate your virtual guitar with skull studs and cool shit like that. In fact, as a warning to new guitar players, you will suck. You will feel yourself suck, see yourself suck and listen to yourself suck. You will experience the soreness in your fingertips after a full day’s contact with steel strings. But once you get the hang of the system, you will also progressively get better and produce more refined tunes -- and that’s the primary selling point of the game.
Another difference is you personally can’t set the game difficulty at easy, difficult or hard. The game is intuitive enough to determine player’s level or “wavelength” -- if you are a guitar beginner or masterful enough to have an international tour like Lady Gaga. A Lady Gaga who plays guitar like Joe Satriani anyway. If you keep on hitting notes, the game will dynamically adjust the song in real-time, adding or reducing notes as necessary. On the other hand, there are no consequences missing a note or two or even rewards for getting combos. It stays true to its goal of letting players learn at their own pace. There is no use for a scoreboard because essentially, you are competing with yourself and your mastery of a song.
Just last week, Ubisoft revealed a new peripheral, the Rocksmith Real Tone Cable, which enables two players to jam together. The principles behind single-player still follow: each player still has his own profile tracking that lets them play at a pace they’re comfortable with. What’s more, you can even choose to play a certain part of the song such as rhythm or lead, resulting to complementing sounds that mesh quite nicely together. Real music!
Even with my measly background in guitar, I had a hard time imagining how the game’s interface will allow players to read the tabs while timing the notes properly -- especially through the narrower split-screen of co-op mode. It follows a system that is actually simple but takes a while to catch up on. Like in the photo above, you are given two perspectives to help you visualize the guitar. One view shows you the actual tablature with the frets displayed (ninth and twelfth, in this case) and the notes color-coded by string (yellow = second string, etc.).
The next guitar view gives you the X-Y position of the notes on the fingerboard with the approaching notes highlighted. Once the notes intersect with the fingerboard, you should be able to pluck the string. It also conveniently shows the string colors if you still haven’t memorized them. Add to the fact that you also have to look down at your guitar every three seconds if you are a beginner like me, it takes a while to get used to this visual barrage of info.
One thing I really appreciate about Rocksmith is it doesn’t simply assume that you know your guitar basics. When starting up the game, you will be shown video tutorials on how to tune, where to place your fingers, how to pluck, etc.

The main “Journey” mode even provides a setlist based on your performance. This is the recommended mode as you can learn techniques as you encounter them in the songs. After attaining high enough Rocksmith points (RSPs) for all songs in the setlist, you can be qualified enough to play in a concert and move on with the next set.
Aside from this, there are a number of ways on how you can keep on practicing songs and improving your techniques. There is the leveler mode that lets you repeat certain riffs of songs until you master them. Free speed lets you play at a convenient pace. You can also master techniques such as bending and playing chords through guided tutorials.
For me, the most innovative teaching tool would have to be the Guitarcade. Perfect for more casual players, it is a series of mini-games designed to improve your reflexes and muscle memory in moving up and down frets, making tremolos and slides among other things. I personally enjoyed the “Ducks” mini-game, which let me shoot the ducks by positioning my fingers along the frets of the guitar and strumming the first string to shoot.

 While Rocksmith has developed a really fun interface for learning guitar, one of the issues I had with is timing. My timing has always been a little off, and sometimes I strum a little too early for the song, but I felt the game doesn’t exactly recognize little things like that. In general, I felt that it’s up to you to personally refine the quality of your sound, which the game doesn’t really have control over. It can read if you’re playing a note, but not if you’re doing it correctly.
But overall, I appreciate the psychological satisfaction that Rocksmith can give by letting you experience tangible improvement in your skills while engaging you intellectually by constantly amping up the challenge. It’s not exactly a game that teaches the intricacies of music theory, but it inspires you to keep improving and learn for yourself.
For another viewpoint on Rocksmith, check out Abel Girmay's recent preview.
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Lori Navarro,
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