September 12, 2011

Rocksmith Hands on Preview

After writing about Rocksmith back in July, I was invited to the Ubisoft offices in San Fransisco for a hands-on preview of the game. How could I turn that down?

I took the opportunity to invite a friend of mine, Martín Marconcini, who happens to be a decent novice guitarist, far far beyond my meager guitar skills. Together we spent about an hour playing the Xbox 360 version of the game.

The official Rocksmith bundle guitar, the Epiphone Les Paul Junior ($129 MSRP) was the guitar we used to play the game — you can see Martín holding it in the picture. Remember, this is a 100% real guitar, no game elements whatsoever! (In fact, the game comes with fret number stickers to place on the top of the fretboard, and our guitar had them applied.)

I was a bit skeptical going in, but I have to admit: Rocksmith definitely works as advertised!

Rocksmith truly does reliably detect what you’re playing on an analog guitar, and in real time. Both Martín and I agreed on this; at no point did we think the game was screwing up, any time we made a mistake it was clearly us playing the wrong notes. There was no real compromise that we could see with the analog detection approach. Even subtle little mistakes like being off by one fret or one string were displayed correctly.

Because of the analog approach, you get a significantly different and arguably more musical experience compared to Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar mode:

  1. You can’t even play the game without begging, borrowing, buying, or stealing a real electric guitar. Everything starts with putting that electric guitar in your hands and plugging it in to the provided USB interface. It feels good!
  2. Every time you touch the guitar, you are making actual guitar sounds. This is in stark contrast to almost every other rhythm game where if you play correctly, you get the original audio track, and if you get it wrong, you hear generic guitar mistake noises. What really, really struck me when playing was that I was learning to hear when my notes sounded wrong. I wasn’t just learning about finger positioning, there was a very direct correlation between what my ears heard and what my hands were doing. Once I got a good basic pattern going, I could tell when I screwed up because I heard it before I saw it. That’s HUGE!

(Also, I was concerned that tuning the guitar, which is required before each new song, would be a tedious chore. But I was fascinated to discover that these pre-song tunings were kind of, dare I say, fun? Or more like … something I needed to learn to do properly because as a musician, of course you want your guitar to sound in tune!)

I was very worried about latency going in, and I’m happy to say that latency of note detection was not a problem. But there is a latency issue — it’s just not what I thought it was. When you play electric guitar in Rocksmith, the console is your amplifier. That is, the signals have to go from the guitar, to the console, and then back out through your sound system. It’s no different than the latency problem in vocals in Rock Band 3 which have to go through the same path: out of your mouth, into the mic, through the console, then back out of the speakers. This takes time, and you’ll notice a bit of lag between “playing a sound” and “hearing the sound you played”. But the advantage is that your console is in some ways the ultimate super flexible guitar amp in Rocksmith. You can apply effects, pedals, different guitar sounds, etcetera. It’s really cool and it even works during loading screens in the game, you can noodle around on the guitar while you’re waiting. Great stuff.

One permanent workaround for the audio latency is to get a real amplifier and hook it up, like for example the Roland Micro Cube Guitar Amplifier I have. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s definitely authentic, will solve the audio playback latency completely, and heck — shouldn’t you have a guitar amp anyway for your electric guitar?

Another thing I was very interested in is the automatic difficulty scaling in Rocksmith. That is, the more notes you play correctly on the guitar, the more notes it will give you — if you’re totally nailing the song on beginner mode, it will eventually scale you on up to medium and hard and beyond completely automatically. This also worked seamlessly for me, as I mastered the very simple beginner phrases they slowly got a tiny bit more complicated and more representative of the actual song. This did not last, because I truly suck at guitar, but the scaling up and down of difficulty was very gradual and smooth; not disruptive at all.

Now, not everything I saw in Rocksmith was great. For example the navigation UI in the game was pretty darn abysmal in my opinion, and the track list was solid, but can’t possibly compare with the hundreds of Rock Band 3 tracks available even if you just limit to the Pro Guitar capable tracks. There’s definitely enough room for improvement that I can see a Rocksmith 2 in there already. But the important bit is that Rocksmith does what it says it does and it is a very satisfying experience when playing the songs. For any music game, that’s really the only thing that matters in my book.

I also learned a few nuggets of news worth mentioning:

  • Two player guitar will be supported though I didn’t get to see it; it will be a splitscreen top/bottom sort of affair and will of course require two real guitars and two USB interface cables. Definitely looking forward to that.
  • An aggressive weekly DLC schedule is planned, though details on specifics were scarce. That’s very encouraging to hear.
  • The obvious where’s the bass guitar support? question came up. Apparently they have special plans to deliver bass guitar support through DLC and this may include unlocking bass guitar charts for the existing songs in the game.

I was already tentatively excited to play Rocksmith and had it pre-ordered before I got hands-on time with the game. But now that I have, I went back and pre-ordered the full guitar bundle, which is now available for $199. (That bundled Epiphone Les Paul Junior we got to try is a surprisingly solid axe, and the game is $79 alone … so I figured why not.)

Bottom line, Rocksmith rocks! It offers a uniquely musical, hands-and-ears-on approach to the rhythm genre that we haven’t seen before. It isn’t perfect, and it’s no party game, but it totally works as advertised for learning guitar and having fun while doing it, too. I have no problem recommending it highly to anyone who has an electric guitar gathering dust somewhere in their house — or anyone who is serious about learning electric guitar in general.

Rocksmith should be available later in October, and comes in either a $199 full guitar bundle, or a $79 game and USB adapter bundle for Xbox, PS3 and PC.

How significant is the delay between plucking a string and hearing it out of the 360? It would seem from your impression that it’s not enough to ruin the experience but is it enough to make playing feel unnatural?

September 13, 2011 at 3:15 am

Davesbeard: it depends. For example from this epic 100 page Rock Band forums thread (who READS all this stuff?) a good, clear post near the end:

I had an HDMI connection from my PS3 to my Sony TV and then analog output to Logitech X-504 speakers. I always noticed a big lag in drum fills, so much that it threw me off during faster songs. I typically play on Expert with my Ion Drum Rocker, using the cymbals as much as possible. If I drummed very quickly on fills it wasn’t so noticeable but it would still occasionally screw up my timing. I checked my calibration settings and there was about a 75ms delay for audio.

I went and got my analog out cable for the PS3 and connected it directly to the speakers, taking the TV out of the equation, then went through the automatic calibration in RB2. The delay went from about 75ms to -3ms. Testing in Freestyle Mode, I couldn’t detect any lag between pad or cymbal strikes and when the sound came out of the speakers.

I believe that many of the lag problems discussed on this forum are introduced by signal processing in one of the components. In my case, it was the Bravia taking the digital output from the PS3, converting it to analog, and THEN sending it to the speakers. Take the TV out of the equation and there’s virtually no lag whatsoever.

Note that a drum fill would be exactly like a “guitar fill”, that is, you activate the instrument triggering the signal, and the game provides the “amp”.

Jeff Atwood
September 13, 2011 at 4:26 am

Great thanks Jeff, currently got my 360 plugged directly into an AV receiver so hopefully it’s not an issue!

Thanks for the article, fingers crossed the release is region free so I can play it in the UK!

September 13, 2011 at 5:20 am

Well, I might have to step on my ego for this one. I vowed not to buy any Ubisoft games, because of their DRM stand.
But This is the ‘game’ I have been waiting for and I’ll be damned if I miss this.

I feel dirty, but anxious to get playing! :p

September 14, 2011 at 8:14 am

One thing I’d love to know is how well it works with the Rockband Squier guitar since I plumped for that earlier this year. I’m assuming it’s fine, but suspicious.

September 20, 2011 at 6:06 am

I guess my question would be is the latency just in the sound response or does it cross over to the game registering your note playing? If it’s just sound, then yeah, incorperating an amp would solve that issue, or like me and Davesbeard, who have dedicated sound systems in the mix, may have less latency. Can anyone provide any additional insight to this?

September 22, 2011 at 8:20 am

What I want to know is if there will be a true freestyle mode offered where you can play whatever you want without a preset song getting in the way. It would also be interesting to know if the game will support slides and string bending.

September 24, 2011 at 4:32 am

“What I want to know is if there will be a true freestyle mode offered where you can play whatever you want without a preset song getting in the way.”

Yes, it’s called Jam Mode.

“It would also be interesting to know if the game will support slides and string bending.”

It sure does!

Cool name btw

September 27, 2011 at 11:13 am

Leave a comment