Rocksmith – So you wanna be a rock superstar?

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Gavin recently got to experience Rocksmith, Ubisoft’s new real guitar game that purports to actually teach you how to play guitar.

As a guitar neophyte, Gavin was probably expecting to just hold the guitar,  have the information beamed in to his brain and have chicks circle around him throwing their panties in his general direction.

Learning to play any instrument though is hard work – and Rocksmith hardly makes it any easier.

As somebody familiar with a guitar, I thought myself a better fit to see if Rocksmith was capable of doing what it said on the box – teach you to play guitar. I’m no Yngwe Malmesteen, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai – but I own a few guitars of my own, been for lessons, and even played in front of a crowd before.

It’s been years since I’ve played though – and my once rock-hard finger-tip callouses are now softer than baby bottom and my guitar case, still in the corner of my room, is covered in a thick layer of dust.

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I was excited to snatch Rocksmith from Gavin – hoping that it would reignite the passion I’d lost all those years ago – and give me a skill revitalising crash course. Here’s my experience so far.

When you first start up Rocksmith, you’re forced to do a soundcheck – a quick check to see that the cables are working and that you’re not getting any discernible audio or display lag. Ubisoft recommends that you route your audio directly through an amp of some sort using optical audio to minimise the impact of such audio lag – and for good reason. through HDMI routed to my TV, there’s a slight – but annoying delay between plucking a string, hearing it physically vibrate and then hearing it through the TV. hooked up to my amp, this delay was negligible – leaving me rather impressed with Rocksmith’s underlying technology.

Soundcheck out of the way, I took a glance at the song selection before even trying to play anything – and there’re are definitely more than a few track’s I’d love to be able to play, ranging from simple strummers to intricate flying-finger works like “Plug In Baby” From Muse’s fantastic “Origin of Symmetry”; Radiohead’s High and Dry; Stone Temple Pilot’s Vaseline. There’s good stuff, obviously a lot more guitar-centric than the “band” stuff we’ve been playing in party games  Rock Band and Guitar Hero.

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Anyway…on to the first song in the career, which as Gavin’s mentioned is The Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction,” lead by its iconic, easy-to-play riff that any guitarist should know anyway – which was the case with me. So I kinda flew through the first song – and found my first irritation with Rocksmith; the dynamic difficulty.

Similar to Guitar Hero, notes fly at you on the screen – but the notes instead of just being coloured, are now tied to frets as well. Instead, individual strings are coloured, and if you’re familiar with a guitar there’s a weird transition that has to happen in your head, assigning the right colours to the right strings. The software’s pretty lenient with timing, but I was quite impressed with how well it picks up individual notes. The problem is that the dynamic difficulty – one of the game’s touted features – makes learning songs feel like a chore.

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I know the first song, and could probably have passed it easily on my first go at a high difficulty level. Instead, the game assumes you have no idea what a guitar even is, and starts you off on the lowest difficulty – throwing maybe a single note or two at you every 3 seconds. As the game realises you’re getting better, it starts throwing more and more notes at you, until you finally “master” it. Because you can’t actually select a difficulty level, I had to replay the song, over and over in order to get a gold medal – purely because it wasn’t giving me enough notes until it decided I was good enough. Frustrating.

One thing I found that i found worth mentioning is that many of the songs offer different arrangements; you can often elect to play single notes for a song, for the wannabe lead guitarists; chord arrangements for the rhythm guys and combination arrangements for those who’re more well rounded.

The second annoyance? Having to tune your guitar, using the on-screen tuner, every time you want to do…well, anything.

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I’ve not progressed too far in the career yet – I’ve mostly been spending my time with the genuinely useful technique challenges – which help take some of the tedium out of learning basic, important skills like Tremolos, Slides, Hammer-ons and Pull-offs, Pinch Harmonics, palm muting and more. I’ve also been spending way more time than I should playing the bizarre (by some standards) arcade mini-games – like one that has you shooting ducks by plucking specific strings at the right right fret – or another where you ward off zombies by the playing the right chord as it pops up on screen. It certainly makes finding your way around a fretboard a lot more fun than it ought to be.

Everything, from the presentation, the techniques and the dynamic difficulty tells me that this game really is tailored for beginners – but there’s enough here to keep intermediate players interested. Experienced guitarists would likely just find the whole thing frustrating though.

There’s nothing easy about learning to play a musical instrument – but Rocksmith might at least make it fun- and could leave you learning a tangible, actual skill.

Time will tell.

Rocksmith will be available locally on PS3 and Xbox 360 in October.

Last Updated: June 1, 2012

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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