RockSmith: No! More! Plastic! Guitars!

ROCKSMITH is a fascinating game, if it’s even fair to call it that. Ubisoft’s new entry into the rhythm-music genre ditches our trusty plastic 5-button controllers in favor of real guitars, and is arguably more of a teacher than a videogame. For a first installment, it gets a surprising amount of stuff right, probably more than anyone should rightfully have expected for an undertaking this complex. But with a steep learning curve and not a whole lot of “game,” it’s hard not to worry about how much longevity this new franchise will have.

 The first hurdle, of course, is getting your hands on an electric guitar. If you don’t already own one, there’s a special Rocksmith bundle going for $200 that includes an Epiphone Les Paul Junior. On the other hand, if you’re like me and already have an electric guitar (or six), you can plug it directly into your Xbox or PS3 via the quarter-inch-to-USB cable that’s included with the game, which is pretty darned cool. 

Before you play a single song, Rocksmith does some simple housekeeping that beginner guitar players will probably appreciate. After asking if you’re a lefty or righty and what shape your headstock is, the game helps you tune your guitar, and for any novice who’s never owned a digital tuner, this will be a godsend. Some people might get tired of the game double checking your tuning before every song, but it takes less than two seconds and really isn’t a big hassle. (Trust me, you’ll be far more frustrated with all the weird menu navigation and endless loading screens to be worried about retuning.)

The meat of the game is a “journey” mode, which places you in the shoes of an up-and-coming guitarist.  The progression resembles the World Tour from the Rock Band games, where you play gigs and earn points which unlock more events. You can also play individual songs if you prefer, as the entire setlist is unlocked from the get-go, but be warned: certain songs contain mechanics that will scare the bejeezus out of beginners. If you’re new to the instrument, the “journey” mode is the way to go, as it teaches basic skills and presents interface elements in a logical order and doesn’t throw the kitchen sink at you right away.

Rocksmith‘s gameplay screen can look pretty intimidating, but I have to give the devs credit: trying to translate all the nuances of modern guitar playing into a live videogame is a daunting task, and they did a pretty good job of it. After playing just a few songs, it starts to make sense: obviously, the guitar’s six strings are represented, frets are numbered to help you navigate and there are highlights where your hand should be positioned at any time. Different notes have markings for mutes, bends, slides and sustains, chords are marked with both fingerings and names, and I can tell you that when there are 60 notes flying at you, it’s pretty nice to see that “C#m” next to a chord. (Rock Band 3 Pro Keys: I’m looking at you!)

The most remarkable thing about Rocksmith, and what it should be most applauded for, is the way it detects how good (or bad) you’re doing, adjusting the difficulty of each phrase on the fly. The first time you play a song, you might only have to play 2 notes of a 10-note riff, or just the root notes of a chord. But as you play those phrases correctly, the game gradually adds more notes, getting more complex until you’re playing parts note-for-note. It’s done in such a subtle, seamless manner that I worry reviewers who aren’t guitarists won’t realize how deftly this is handled: it’s clear that talented and insightful musicians were involved in creating the charts, creating simplified versions of every part that beginners could easily pick up and then build upon.

The thing I was most concerned with heading into Rocksmith was the lag factor. Lag has always been a bugaboo in rhythm games, and that’s especially true for Rocksmith, where you’re using not digital controllers but analog guitars. The software and included cable basically combine to interpret the sounds coming out of your guitar and try to match it to what it’s expecting, and the developers have stated that the cleaner the sound your guitar produces – which often depends on the quality of your guitar – the better Rocksmith will be able to interpret it.

From what I’ve played so far, there’s definitely a bit of lag between playing the guitar and the sound coming out of your sound system (and trust me, as a hardcore GH/RB player, I’ve spent years eliminating every bit of lag possible from my setup), but it still falls into the “playable” range. And to its credit, Rocksmith seems to grade on a curve and allow for some sloppiness: you can’t get away with playing incorrect chords, but the timing windows seem generous and you can get away with a few extra strums or playing 3 notes in a 4-note chord and not get docked for it.  And to be honest, that sort of captures the spirit of being a real musician — in any live setting, there’s a small level of sloppiness you can get away with, and it’s nice to see that reflected here.  

One of the cool features of Rocksmith is that it includes a toychest of virtual amps and digital effects for you to play with. Every song seems to have a custom effect applied to your guitar, and once you beat a song, that effect becomes available for you to play with in a rehearsal space where you can just noodle around on the guitar and have fun. There’s also a suite of arcade games that all basically boil down to whether you can hit the right notes fast enough, which can be a fun diversion. 

My biggest gripe with Rocksmith is something I feel guilty about, because it’s a complaint I consider lame when directed at Guitar Hero or Rock Band games: the song list. With plastic guitar games, it’s easy to have fun with songs you’ve never played before, but Rocksmith is a different animal where you’re supposed to play songs over and over until you know them inside out. So it’s a problem that so much of the Rocksmith setlist falls into obscure indie territory. Sure, there are a few classics like “Satisfaction,” “Rebel Rebel” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” but odds are you won’t want to play most of the songs in the game more than once, which sucks a lot of fun out of the game. Help is on the way in the form of DLC, with an upcoming pack featuring “More Than A Feeling,” “Smoke On The Water” and “Jessica,” and Rocksmith will need a lot more DLC of this caliber, fast, to keep from becoming a quick footnote.

My other big disappointment, one that I’m shocked about, is that Rocksmith has no in-game leaderboards for individual songs or career score. When Harmonix released Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, community sites like stepped up and provided a place for people to post scores and gauge their progress against the rest of the world. And while it was understandable that a PS2 wouldn’t have that functionality in 2005, it’s inexcusable for an Xbox 360 or PS3 game in 2011. As it stands, I’m going to be done with the setlist in a day or two, and then what? 

I think Rocksmith can be a nice teaching tool, and there’s some wonderfully innovative stuff here. But there’s not a lot of “game” here, especially if you already play guitar. Which is why the lack of leaderboards is a huge missed opportunity: they’re an easy way to add replay value and encourage people to keep improving without affecting your gameplay in any way. As it stands, it’s hard to imagine how much time I’ll want to keep playing once I blow through the setlist. 

Sluggo’s Score: B.