I am not a musician. I have fantasies of smashing electric guitars into amps and stage diving after an awesome concert, but fantasies are all they are. Games like Rockband have allowed me to bring these fantasies to life, rocking out on plastic tinker toys in my basement with a bunch of friends who are trying not to wince as I belt out the lyrics to Don’t Fear the Reaper. However, it was Rocksmith 2014, the new music game/guitar tutor from Ubisoft, that actually made me feel like some day, I could actually play a real, true, guitar.
Because I’m not a musician, this review is going to be a little bit different. Half of it will talk about my impressions as a musical newbie, and half will talk about my impressions after seeing my roommate, who is a guitarist in an alternative rock band pick up the game. As soon as Rocksmith 2014 starts, it asks you a couple questions pertaining to your skill with the guitar like, “have you played Rocksmith before,” and, “what sort of style (rhythm, lead, bass) do you want to focus on?” This allows Rocksmith to skip lessons that you don’t need in order to focus on areas you need to improve on. This is a great idea and should probably be integrated into tutorials of other games in other genres.
Starting from skill level 0 gives you a bunch of tutorials that cover the basics of guitar playing, and I mean the real basics. Some of the first things you are taught are how to hold your guitar and pick. From there, you are taught basic strumming and finger techniques, scales and chord progressions, and so on. As you continue with your lessons, Rocksmith will start throwing easy songs your way to see what skills you have internalized. While you think of this as a chance to show off your rocker skills, Rocksmith is actually using this as a test to see what areas you have to focus on next.
That’s what’s really brilliant about Rocksmith 2014. It teaches you guitar intelligently. It suggests that you play songs that you should be able to tackle with the skills you have learned so far. If it finds that you are having troubles, it may take a step back and assign you tutorials or have you spend some time in the Guitarcade, which allows you to play mini-games that focus on the fundamentals. If it finds that you are blowing through the missions it recommends, it automatically switches songs to “master” mode which hides the notes from you, asking you to play by memory. If you simply follow the instructions you are given and tackle each mission one by one, you suddenly find yourself able to play simple songs by Green Day and The Foo Fighters.
Unfortunately, as I said before, I am not a musician, and so the limited amount of time I had with Rocksmith only allowed me to increase my guitar skills to “Generic White Dude With an Acoustic” level. When you hand off Rocksmith to a seasoned guitarist, however, that’s when its true strengths are shown. Now the game shifts from simple background chord progressions to teaching you crazy solos, like that one from Muse’s Knights of Cydonia. These solos and more complicated songs take some real skill, skill I am not even close to matching. However, it does prove that no matter how good you are, you can always get just a little bit better.
There is a mode that seems to be the territory of semi-pro guitarists only and that’s Session Mode. In this mode, Rocksmith accompanies your electric guitar with a virtual backup band. This allows you to just rock out and improvise while a virtual drummer keeps time. You can also add a whole bunch of other backup instruments, like guitars, keyboards, banjos, and more. Session mode has a lot of options like tempo, music genre, and complexity to tweak, but it keeps track of your actual speed and key automatically, allowing you to just rock out. What’s really awesome, is that Session mode works with literally any electronic instrument. If you want to rock out with an electric Ukulele you can do it. If you want to plug in your electric violin, you can do that too. Want to shred out some Red Hot Chilli Peppers style bass licks? Go for it.
Most of the problems with the original Rocksmith have been fixed in Rocksmith 2014. Loading times have been reduced from a day and a week to virtually non-existant. Menus are now easy to navigate with each mode being presented to you right at the main screen. The tracklist has expanded to include some rocking hits by Aerosmith, Kiss, Rush, Queen, Pantera, and plenty more, and you can import the original Rocksmith’s track list for just $9.99.
Rocksmith 2014 isn’t really a game. Yes, you can “fail” songs, but that’s not really the point here. You aren’t trying to become a fake rock star legend. You are trying to become a real guitarist. As a result, Rocksmith 2014 will turn off a lot of people who aren’t looking to actually learn a musical skill. Heck, the price of entry alone, that being actually owning an electric guitar, is enough to turn most people away and you need a special adapter in addition to that, bumping up the game’s price to a steep $80.
But for the few out there that are looking to increase their love of rock past simple fanboyism and are willing to shell out the dough, there is no better tool than Rocksmith 2014. It makes learning how to play the guitar fun in many different ways. It’s an organic learning experience that turns the slog of practicing your chords over and over again into a fun and engaging activity. After tinkering around with Rocksmith for a little under a week, I’m still not a musician, but I am well on my way.
This review was based on a retail copy of Rocksmith 2014 for the PS3.