Monday, November 14, 2011

Rocksmith is not a rhythm game in the vein of Rock Band or Guitar Hero. For the .01% of you who have never played those games, the essential goal is to hit colorful blocks that correspond to a plastic guitar-shaped controller, vaguely in the area of where notes would be located on the strings of a regular guitar. The challenge is in hitting the right color at the right time. Rocksmith is nothing at all akin to this style; the player wields a real guitar (any electric guitar, regardless of make or model, will work with this game, so long as it includes a 6.35mm input jack), and the notes that tumble down the screen correspond to the actual honest-to-God notes required to play “Satisfaction”, or “Breed”, or “RebelRebel”. Whereas Rock Band and the like’s goal was to give the user the impression of rocking out, Rocksmith works to give the user the satisfaction of ACTUALLY rocking out. The experience and results of which, are a moderate success.

My experience with music has been a varied sort. Although I have dabbled quite a bit with the electric bass, the guitar is something I had always seen as the highest echelon; the people who are able to master it are magicians and should be revered as such. Guitar Hero is fun but eventually I always felt like an idiot standing in front of a tv with a plastic guitar. This, surely, would be the dawn of a new, great era. My trepidation of picking up a guitar would end with the purchase of a damn video game.

I purchased the entire Guitar Bundle which includes an Epiphone Les Paul Jr. Having already owned a bass, it was nice to see the packaging and inhale the new-guitar-smell upon unraveling my new axe. It is a fine guitar, from what I can tell, however it is painfully obvious that it might as well have “My First Guitar” written in Comic Sans on the body of it somewhere. It is incredibly light and much flimsier than I thought it would be. However, for $200 (which includes an innovative USB to 6.35 jack adapter, as well as the $60 game itself), it could have been worse. At least Gibson is behind it.
The setup process is very easy and only takes around five to ten minutes from plugging in to playing. The game goes through some initial sound tests and tuning, and then sets you on your journey to melt faces.

The game is set as a growth-structure; it starts you off playing the 4 notes necessary to play the main riff of “Satisfaction”, and from there it gauges how well you are playing to pump up the difficulty for future songs. Everything is set inside of what feels like the ultimate band rehearsal room; huge, thick rugs anchor vintage leather chairs and couches, flanked by small gold lamps stacked on top of road cases and amps. The mood of the game is very low-key and inviting; any second you expect Tom Petty to saunter in, pick up a guitar and gently strum on a few chords while slouching down in a plush recliner, swinging his leg over the arm of the chair. Ambience is a major part of this experience, and it’s one of the reasons why many probably will not give it much of a chance after a few weeks. This is a very singular journey, which the mellow environment lends itself to perfectly. This is not a party rocking game, it requires concentration and demands personal drive to learn the instrument.

That’s all fine and good, and I’m game (as are many others who have always wanted to learn guitar, I’m sure). The problem is that when you give the program your attention and devotion, it doesn’t quite give you what you really feel you should have. The mechanics are fine, as the game does a superb job of tracking and building upon how well you are playing, however there’s nothing more to the challenges than knowing which string is represented as yellow, red, blue, purple, etc. Going through the exercises feels like half a lesson. For instance, after two weeks of consistent use, I feel confident enough to play the main lines of “I Can’t Hear You”, however I have no idea what notes I’m playing, exactly, and how they correlate musically to the rhythms of the other instruments in the song.

Rocksmith essentially breaks down to an aide to learning to play by ear; or, muscle memory foundations for performing lead-lines for well-known songs, with which someone can use to build upon to perhaps eventually develop their own riffs or find where other songs lay. That’s not to say the game does not help the player become comfortable with the guitar and even learn some terminology and techniques specific to the tool, Rocksmith does that very, very well; the problem is not knowing what to do with the knowledge gained from the experience, and how much confidence in guitar playing to walk away with. 

Rocksmith looks fantastic. The practice arena is the ultimate hangout of cool, and the venues the game takes you to look like the best of Sunset Blvd has to offer, right down to the worn wooden floors and low ceilings. Mini-games have a very bright and sharp look, providing a stark contrast to get the person out of the mindset of learning an instrument, and into the mindset of using that instrument as a controller. The interfaces are clean and well organized, although a bit confusing when expanded past the three or four major options it will hint at as what should be chosen in order to complete the journey.

All of the songs are the original recordings by the actual artists (the full list of songs can be found here). Other sounds worth mentioning is the ambience of the practice room; while sifting through menus and options, the room is sprinkled with random riffs and notes that are echoed and sound far away, again lending to the laid back, very cool vibe of what is happening. 

If this game had a personality, it would be the lovechild of Eric Clapton and Jack White. It feels refined and historic, forward thinking and innovative. It’s a nice guy who digs that you want to learn the guitar, and is patient enough to help you work though everything you need to get rocking enough to feel good. It’s a cool older cousin who’s in a band, and invited you over to hang out and learn a few things in their huge rehearsal room. It’s where you want to hang out, and if not necessarily to learn how to play a guitar, to purely soak in the ambience. It’s a very cool scene.

All in all it’s a very good first step in a brand new genre of gaming. In the early-90’s, there was a fairly big push of “Edutatinment” titles that aimed to teach a skill or topic in entertaining ways. This could have easily fit that mold. It’s caught in a strange trapping of needing to be a game, so that mom & dad will consider picking it up and stores will shelve it next to the Ultimate Nerd editions of Skyrim, yet it’s goal is to teach people how to do something musicians devote years of their lives to master. It can’t go too hard in either direction, and for that, it falls slightly flat on both. I’ll continue to tinker with it, and although I am much more comfortable using a guitar, I would never walk away from this feeling as if I’ve learned anything more substantial than how to string a few chords and hit the right tones.

A very close one, but, eventually 4 out of 5. If I did half-stars, it would be 3.5, however the sheer amount of content coupled with the innovation of the adapter, as well as the overall cool factor of the experience got it over the hump. 

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