- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developer: Ubisoft
- ESRB Rating: “T" for Teen
- Genre: Music
- Pros: Works very well; good song list; great teaching tool; minigames
- Cons: Lacks personality; awful menus; having to unlock stuff
Full disclosure: I never played the Rock Band 3 Pro Mode so I can't compare it with Rocksmith. Review units for the RB3 guitars were not easy to get, and I couldn't justify paying $150 for a fake Mustang or $300 for a so-so Squier Strat.
This is why Rocksmith is appealing for me. I didn't have to buy new equipment just to play it. I already have an Epiphone Wilshire LE (hugely underrated fairly cheap guitar, I love mine) and an Epiphone LP Special II (my first guitar ... I have no regrets) so I was already set to play Rocksmith.
If you have a guitar already, you can buy Rocksmith along with the special cable it requires for $80 MSRP. You can also buy an extra cable, for simultaneous co-op play, for $30. If you don't already have a guitar, Rocksmith comes in a bundle with an Epiphone LP Junior for $200, though some retailers have already had sales where it was down to $170 or so, so if you look around you might find a deal. The LP Junior is a solid beginner guitar. Keep in mind, the Junior part doesn't mean it is small, it just means it is a full sized Les Paul-style guitar but with less features - mainly just one pickup compared to the two you'll find on the slightly more expensive Epiphone LP Special II. It won't blow you away or anything, because the pickups are pretty muddy, but it has a great feeling neck and is a great place to start for beginners.
Any guitar with a pickup and a 1/4" output will work thanks to a special cable that comes with the game that is a 1/4" audio plug on one end and a USB cable on the other. Unlike with Rock Band 3 or (lol) PowerGig: Rise of the Six String, which had sensors in the neck so it could tell what note you were playing, Rocksmith instead looks for the specific tone it expects based on the sound. An in-game tuner helps you tune your guitar to match what the game expects to hear. It isn't a super precise tuner, but the whole point is that it produces the tone that the game is looking for, so even if it isn't as perfect as some $100 chromatic tuner, you can't really complain. This way, any guitar will work perfectly fine with the game.
As for my own skill level, I have only been playing a couple of years now. I'm not some semi-pro musician who has been playing 10+ years that doesn't "get" what Rocksmith is trying to do (like some reviews I've read, yeah I'm calling you out). I'm pretty much square in the intended demographic for Rocksmith - well, maybe a little further ahead. I already know scales and chords and transitions and all of that and have my handful of songs I have learned and can play. Side story time. I was actually inspired to learn guitar by the "Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad" anime. I loved the music and decided then and there that I was going to learn it. About a week after I bought my first guitar, I could already play "Face" and "Moon on the Water" and have progressed a lot more since then. I never had a teacher or lessons, and instead learned with tabs and watching other people play.
Some experienced guitar players will tell you this is the wrong way to learn and you need to know the basics first and HAVE to get a teacher. In my experience, experienced guitar players are super territorial and want to make learning guitar seem much harder than it is. And if you don't learn the hard way (with a teacher) and have to suffer like they did, then you're doing it wrong. But I feel you have a lot more fun learning to play songs you actually like instead of practicing tedious crap for months. And by playing songs you actually like, I guarantee you that you'll learn all of the basic techniques and scales and chords along the way, and you'll have a lot more fun doing it. Teachers and lessons are great for some people, but they don't work for everyone which is why so many people end up giving up on learning guitar.
What does all that have to do with Rocksmith? Everything. Rocksmith teaches you to play in much the same way as I described. You play real songs and the techniques and things you need to learn are introduced slowly and naturally in the context of a real song rather than just making you practice something without really understanding how it is supposed to be applied.
The on-screen interface is laid out with the six strings of the guitar each representing a different color. Numbers appear on the in-game fretboard which show you where on the neck you are playing, and when you have to move your hand the fretboard expands well ahead of time to show you which direction to move, as well as how far. Notes show up on the fret board on the numbered fret it is on, as well as the color of what string it is. Power chords and full chords have their own special markers on-screen, so it is easy to know ahead of time when you need to change position. If you are off by a fret or two, a little arrow pops up telling you what direction to go so you'll be right. This way you can learn to play without having to look at your hands too much, which is very important. It takes a bit to get used to it all, but it works very well once you learn what everything means.
One tip I will offer is that you can invert the string layout in the options menu, which I recommend. Normally, the bass E string would be on top of the screen, followed by A,D,G,B,E to the bottom, which mirrors your guitar in relation to the TV. For many beginners, however, it is easier to have the strings represented in the opposite order, with the bass on the bottom and the treble on the top, because this is how the guitar looks when you look down at it when you play. It is also the way guitar tabs are laid out, so if you plan on going from Rocksmith to learning other songs with tabs, inverting the string layout in the game will help you.
When you first start a song it will be easy with single notes where you are only playing a fraction of the total notes of the song. As you demonstrate that you know what you are doing - by playing along perfectly or even filling in the gaps with the right notes if you already know the song (you aren't penalized for noodling, which means you can improvise and have fun here) - the game automatically adjusts the difficulty either up or down to suit your level. The difficulty of the song dynamically changes, so after you play a song a few times it will have a much more complex note layout from when you first played it because you, presumably, are getting better at it.
It is an incredibly smart way to learn, and really is an improvement over how most players learn with tabs. Players that learn with tabs usually know a few full songs, and only the beginning part of a ton of songs, because that is all they bother to learn (guilty ...). The way you usually learn with tabs is to learn a chunk, then play a little more, then learn a little more, and a little more, and a little more, starting over from the beginning and learning ever-increasing chunks of the song until you know the whole thing. Sort of like how you play Dark Souls (play just a little further after each death). Rocksmith, on the other hand, makes you learn an entire song all at once. But, like I said, with the dynamic difficulty you learn on a curve where the song gradually fills out with all of the notes instead of overwhelming you with having to absorb every note all at once. It is a very clever way to learn.
The game comes with 40+ songs, with more coming as DLC (see the full track listing at the official Rocksmith website here), each with multiple versions that that only make you play single notes, chords, or combo versions with everything. You progress through the "career" by meeting point thresholds in each song. The scores to progress are very, very low, so don't worry too much about progressing even if you are a beginner. With that said, however, more skilled players will have to play pretty well to master each song where you have to play everything note-for-note and be nearly perfect. Which is great, because whether you are a beginner or skilled player, the goalposts are always moving just a bit further ahead so you are motivated to keep playing and learning.
It has to be said, though, that the game is kind of dry and sorely lacks the personality found in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. You just sort of trudge along the maze of menus (seriously, you have to select a million things before the game lets you do anything) playing songs from the menu and occasionally playing a "show" where you play the songs you just learned for a crowd.
The only real reward you earn is that you unlock new guitars, amps, and effects pedals you can use in the "Amp" mode of the game where you just get to play whatever you want. It is fun to set up all of the levels and effects and craft custom tones, but it is a serious pain in the butt to have to unlock it all. Particularly because the good stuff is all locked away for much later in your progression through the game. It does help motivate you, but it is also sort of ridiculous how all of the fun stuff is locked away.
Also waiting to be unlocked are arcade-style minigames that teach you basic techniques in the guise of actual fun. Things like shooting ducks by playing a note on the correct fret or destroying zombies with the right chord, among a handful of other minigames. These games are surprisingly fun, and actually pretty effective at teaching you how to move along the fretboard and change chords smoothly and quickly. Again, though, it is a pain they all have to be unlocked.
Visually, Rocksmith is pretty simple. There aren't any big crazy venues or characters, but the interface is clean and very easy to follow. This is a teaching tool more than a game, after all.
The sound is quite good overall. At least, as good as playing guitar through your TV can be. Each song changes your guitar tone to fit the real song (pretty much like a digital modeling amplifier does) so your guitar always sounds just like it should for each song. I haven't mentioned lag in the review so far because I never experienced any. Of course, my setup was already what the game considers optimal - not using HDMI for sound and instead using the separate Xbox 360 audio out cable to direct the sound to your stereo or headphones - so I never had to deal with any audio lag like some other reviewers complained of. This setup is actually good practice for all music games, not just Rocksmith, as it eliminates audio lag almost entirely.
All in all, Rocksmith does pretty much exactly what it promises. It will absolutely teach you how to play guitar. The dynamic difficulty ensures you never get too overwhelmed, but also doesn't hold you back while you're learning and advancing. I won't lie and say it makes getting started any easier if you are a true beginner - honestly, picking up a guitar for the first time is overwhelming and confusing no matter what method you are using when you are trying to learn - but the learning process will definitely be more fun and smoother here than trying to learn by yourself. For beginners and intermediate players, it is a solid learning tool, though truly advanced players likely won't learn much since the songs are generally pretty easy. Though, I'm not an advanced player so I can't precisely predict at which level the advanced guitar snobbery skill many guitar players have kicks in. If you are a novice or beginner guitar player, however, and want to learn to play, Rocksmith is a great tool to use. Buy it.