Vault Play: Rocksmith
With the right mindset and instruction, the journey towards guitar proficiency doesn’t have to be a daunting ordeal. Playing Rocksmith has opened my eyes to this. Every aspect of the experience is approached with accessibility in mind, from all-inclusive support for real guitars to a dynamic learning curve that adjusts to your skill level. If you’re willing to spend more for the expansion, you’ll also get bass arrangements to every in-game song and support for bass guitars. While it is by no means a substitute for formal training, and the game has some notable flaws in its approach, my tangible growth as a guitarist is proof that it can help kickstart the process.
Rocksmith is not the first console game to support a six-stringed guitar controller, but it is the first to offer support for virtually any guitar. As long as it has a ¼” jack you’re good to go. This means that if you have one, your most expensive investment is already out of the way. If you don’t, the bundle that comes with an Epiphone Les Paul Junior is a viable option that is usually cheaper than buying the two separate. I got the game as part of the bundle and think the guitar works great for the game and as an instrument when plugged into an amp.
Ubisoft is able to offer this level of flexibility because the packed-in Real Tone Cable does all of the heavy lifting, converting your instrument’s analog output into data the game can comprehend. I’m not sure what voodoo magic is in that cable, but the game recognizes all of my inputs perfectly. The only thing it cannot do is read if I’m properly inputting muted notes, hammer-ons, or pull-offs. As long as you play the proper note, the game will not penalize you for ignoring those specific input techniques, which doesn’t make this shortcoming that big of a deal.
As elegant as the connectivity is, input lag is a serious issue. If your console is hooked up through HDMI and the audio is outputted through your TV speakers, the audio lag makes the game arguably unplayable. The effect is notably worse than anything I’ve experienced with other modern rhythm games, and one that can’t be fully addressed with the game’s input lag calibration.
Besides turning on game mode in your TV settings and turning off any other special filters, Ubisoft recommends piping your audio through a home stereo system or headphones. It’s a huge hassle to rewire your setup just for this game (or dust off an old CRT television), but one that proved necessary to deal with the large amount of lag. At the very least, kudos to Ubisoft for being upfront about these challenges by addressing them within the game and in a fold-out that comes with the manual.
Aspiring guitarists who have played Guitar Hero or Rock Band in the past will find a lot of parallels here. From its similar-in-concept note highway, to its rudimentary career mode, to even a number of songs that are shared between games, it is in many ways a familiar experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as having tentpoles like those for reference help offset the intimidation factor of the guitar itself. When the game hits its stride, it gives me the sensation of playing a traditional guitar video game, except that I’m actually playing the real deal. As someone who came into this with virtually zero experience, the feeling that came with actually making real music was nothing short of euphoric.
Where the game really sets itself apart is in the way it handles difficulty. Rocksmith takes a much more granular approach to the matter. Instead of the standard easy, medium, hard, and expert modes, the game has a dynamic difficulty scale that adjusts every section of the song based on how you perform. For instance, if you do a great job playing the chorus for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the game will add more notes to it the next time you have to play it. Conversely, if you play it poorly, the game will give you less notes on the second go-around. In theory, this helps you build up your technique in every song until you’ve reached 100% mastery.
When it works, the dynamic scaling helped me build up my skills to a point where I can play certain songs without having to reference the game. However, this design decision comes with some downsides. For instance, it is very easy to stop making forward progress within certain sections of a song because the incremental steps upwards in difficulty are too high. In particular, the progression from notes to chords is a huge jump, as they take a lot more work to comprehend and execute. When encountering a new chord for the first time, I like to carefully read the notation in isolation, figure out where my hands should be, then play the chord a few times to get the feel for it. Instead, the game requires you to figure everything out as the elaborate notation races down the note highway within the context of the song, which is far from ideal.
Besides the stress of repeatedly stumbling over the same parts, it may negatively impact your score to the point where the game won’t let you progress in the career mode. In a perfect world, career mode should be a natural progression in difficulty. However, after the 4th or 5th set, making forward progress got really tough due to how difficult the starting arrangements got.
At this point, the most efficient way to improve is to hop into Riff Repeater, which is the game’s training mode, to work out all of your kinks. The tools available to you here are excellent, as they allow you to practice specific sections of songs by slowing them down, manually setting the difficulty of that section, or even allow the song to stop on every missed note until you play it correctly. Outside of song-specific training, there are interactive tutorials for every technique and every chord you’ll need to play in the game. As great as these tools are, they’re no fun in isolation and completely removed from the game aspects of the experience.
Though the career mode and its suite of teaching tools could have been better woven together for a more natural learning experience, you can still get a lot out of Rocksmith if you’re willing to work around its flaws. I don’t regret jumping in, as it’s proven beneficial to my growth. As someone who initially gave up on the guitar after one five-minute lesson, I can now play a number of different riffs after a few weeks of play. I’m working towards mastery of a handful of songs. Most importantly, it’s helped me develop the confidence to push forward. If your desire to learn the guitar or bass is strong, and can accept the fact that can feel more like work than play, then this might be a viable first step towards making those dreams a reality.