Monday, January 30, 2012

A Rocksmith Review by a Drummer

As a drummer who has owned a guitar for nearly 35 years, I love Rocksmith. I bought an XBox 360 just so we could play Rocksmith at our house. That's how much I love Rocksmith. My kids, neither of whom have ever had a music lesson, also love Rocksmith. It's an absolute blast for a wide range of ages and skill levels. Even if you're already a Professional Guitar Player, this game could be good fun.

And, contrary to what a lot of know-it-all's have spouted on forums all over the Internet, you WILL learn something. No, Rocksmith will not show you how to finger pick or teach you music theory. Yes, Rocksmith gives you the latitude to pick up bad habits. But, if you want to major in guitar performance at Julliard or Berklee, you should be taking lessons from Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai. The rest of us can relax and enjoy playing, knowing that guitar greats like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn taught themselves to play by listening to records. Rocksmith is like playing along with a record (CD for those of you under 30, MP3 for those of you under 20) with tablature - or something like it - streaming simultaneously across your TV.

My kids played Rocksmith at a music retailer before we bought it. When we got home that night, my 11-year old son picked up his guitar for the first time in over a year and played exactly what he had learned from playing RS at the store (Satisfaction by the Stones). When we got our own set-up, I picked up my guitar and - for the first time in over 30 years of guitar ownership - actually learned a song from beginning to end. In about a month, I've learned 15 songs. A few of them I'd be comfortable playing on stage from memory. Anyone who says you won't or can't learn to play guitar from playing Rocksmith is just being an ass.

The premise of the Rocksmith game is that you are starting out on your Journey to become a rock star. Rocksmith creates editable Setlists of three to five songs each for you to learn from a library of about 50 songs. Once you reach a minimum qualifying score on each song in a Setlist, Rocksmith unlocks an Event for you to play at some fictional venue. You start your Journey as an Amateur and advance by increasing your overall score. Venues get bigger as you climb toward the 11th and highest level of achievement - Rocksmith. (I'm currently a Local Headliner, the 4th level, in Rocksmith Land; in the real world I'm still pretty much a hack. But, I'm getting better every day.) 

If you just want to play some songs on a your guitar, you can do that. The entire song library is stored in a big alphabetized list under the main menu and new DLC is added to the on-line Store all the time. You don't have go on "the Journey" at all, but I personally find that the scoring system and unlock incentives make it challenging and fun to practice.
Scoring 70,000 or higher on a song will unlock a new effects pedal which you can actually use to modify your guitar's sound within the Amp portion of the software. (You can also unlock new guitars, but these are nothing more than achievement "badges," which - unlike the armor upgrades in Halo - you can't even actually see in the game itself.)

I've played more guitar in the past month than probably the previous 3 years put together. I continually find myself saying, "OK. Once more through this song and I'm quitting for the night." And, then I play that song again. And again. And again. The Riff Repeater lets you learn songs piece by piece before you ever try playing through the entire song, or you can use Riff Repeater to drill the hard parts of any song. There are Technique Challenges with olympic-medal style incentives. And, there are Guitar-Cade games to which make boring stuff like scales more fun. So, there's a considerable amount of flexibility in how you use Rocksmith. Much more fun than sitting in a room by yourself running scales for hours at a time.

Qualifying a song for an Event is often pretty easy, but really getting it down is a different story. When you do get good enough, there's a Master Level where it's just you, the backup band, and a thousand screaming fans. You have to play the songs from memory. To unlock the Master Level, you have to score at least 100,000 on a song and max each phrase or section of the song. As of today, I still haven't made it there.

There's a multiplayer feature which lets two people play at the same time - without being on the same skill level. My son and I can play at the same time, either playing the same part or splitting rhythm and lead. Doing something creative with your kids or friends rather than sitting on your ass shooting aliens? That alone makes Rocksmith worth every bit of $79.99 - even if you DO have to read the set-up instructions and run analog audio cables. (For multi-player mode, you will need an extra Real-Tone cable which will cost you another $30. Still well worth the price.)

There are some things about the design that I'd change if I had the smarts to write game software but overall it works fine like it is. Most of the songs that come with Rocksmith are pretty good. There's only one or two that I would delete. You can download new songs for about $2.00 each through XBox Live. Not sure how DLC works for PS users. At Christmas, the folks at Ubisoft gave away three free Christmas songs.

To play, you need a guitar (just about any guitar with a pick-up on it will do) and a game console, currently either an XBox or PS. A release for PCs is due out this Spring. You don't need an expensive guitar, but it's helpful if your guitar will at least stay in tune. Otherwise, it'll be very hard for you to make any progress in the game and you'll sound horrible.

You'll also need some way to run analog audio from your game console to some speakers or headphones - through a home theatre receiver, for example. This game is unplayable if you insist on ignoring the very clear on-screen directions for hooking up your system. The audio delay that you'll get using HDMI cabling or your TV speakers makes Rocksmith virtually impossible to play. This issue is already widely known and Rocksmith addresses the issue right on the screen before you ever play the first note. As with most things in life, if you read the directions first you'll have no problems with audio latency.

Overall, Rocksmith rocks. The detractors are entitled to their opinions, of course, but I wouldn't give their opinions much weight. Unless you already think you are some kind of guitar god, you will really, really enjoy Rocksmith and also learn quite a lot from playing it, kids included. Best $110.00 (with extra cable) I've spent in a long, long time. And, when you consider that you can use Rocksmith as a practice amp - with a whole bunch of effects pedals built-in - even the additional $299 I spent on an XBox makes Rocksmith look like a very, very good buy.

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