June 13, 2012

Rocksmith vs. Rock Band 3 – The Pro Guitar Showdown

A quality chess tutorial could have you moving pieces within minutes. A smart guitar lesson could have you playing Smoke on the Water in nearly the same amount of time. However, one does not simply sit down at a chess board and become the next Kasparov, or pick up a guitar and become the next Eddie Van Halen. The path from beginner to expert is a long and winding road, and we stay the path because of the journey; we do it because it is fun.

Can learning to play guitar be turned into a game, and can that process be made fun? That’s what Rock Band 3 by Harmonix, and Rocksmith by Ubisoft both attempt to do.

The Tools

For Pro Guitar mode, Rock Band 3 lets you use an 112-button Fender Mustang controller, or the Fender Squier, a controller that looks, feels, and acts like a actual guitar. (The Squier is, sadly, no longer commercially available, but can still be found used in some places.)

While the Mustang controller is smaller, lighter, and not technically a real guitar, the Squier is absolutely passable for the real thing. In fact, if it weren’t for its neon blue power light and suspicious d-pad, an untrained eye could easily be fooled into thinking it was just another electric guitar. There is no secret to how the Mustang functions; combinations of button presses equate to guitar fingerings, which then register in Rock Band 3. The Squier is a bit sneakier. Since it is an actual guitar that uses real guitar strings, it communicates your command of the instrument in an ingenious way. When you press various strings down against the fret to form a chord, you close a circuit — the equivalent of an on/off switch. By playing the Squier as though you would a real guitar, your fingerings are sent back to Rock Band 3, allowing you to interact with the game by, basically, playing a real stringed guitar.

There is a side-effect to this form of “closed-circuit” playing. The heightened frets prevent the player from physically pushing the strings all the way down to the fretboard. This works against both the beginner and the expert. An amateur could be conditioned to develop bad habits, inadvertently muting all chords, which wouldn’t be audible until plugged in to an amplifier. A novice may also fail to develop the finger strength necessary to play correctly, once with real guitar in hand. Meanwhile, a professional player probably would try to push the strings all the way down to the fretboard, and while doable, it is not easy…and hurts a lot. After only a few minutes of playing some songs on the Squier (especially with barre chords), your fingertips — even calloused ones — feel like they are on fire. This fingertip pain is a side-effect of pressing too hard on the strings. Once you discover this nuance of the Squier, you can adjust your grip accordingly. Unfortunately, the concept of grip, posture, pressure on strings, muted chords, etc., isn’t taught to the player by Rock Band 3 at all. Fingerings are either on or off.

The hardware for Rocksmith, in comparison, involves no controller. Instead, a USB “True Tone” cable is provided with the game, which plugs directly into the output jack of any electric guitar. You can purchase any electric guitar you wish, and it is automatically compatible with Rocksmith. No special fingering tricks are required. The magic is in the cable, which sends the actual tones produced by your guitar to the game. Rather than expecting a multitude of on/off switches and translating them into chords in game, Rocksmith actually listens to the music you produce when you play your guitar.

The result is more natural gameplay than in Rock Band 3, but there’s also a catch: Because Rocksmith detects tones, there is a degree of latency ever present in gameplay. When you strum an F-Chord, Rocksmith must analyze, on-the-fly, if you’ve struck the appropriate strings, and produced the appropriate tone. Since that analysis happens in real-time, there are often noticeable delays. At times, you may feel compelled to play a chord early, but since the game adjusts your scores based on early/late chords strumming, this strategy is often futile — and not a good habit to get into, either.

Which way is better? Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but after trying both, I favor Rocksmith’s approach, which removes the need for specific (and, in the case of the Squier, discontinued) guitar hardware in favor of a simple cable that works with all guitars. It’s worth mentioning that the Rocksmith USB cable additionally works with a PC via ASIO4ALL*, which in turn, integrates with popular effect processing software like Guitar Rig, the value of which is quite significant considering the cost of amplifiers, pedals, cabinets, mixers, and their ilk.

Navigating the Game

You can navigate Rock Band 3′s interface using your game console controller. If you have the PS3 version, the d-pad on the two Fenders work well; for XBox 360 owners, the intermediary MIDI Pro-Adapter provides navigational control. In Rocksmith, navigation is handled via your console’s controllers, since you are already working with an actual electric guitar. Both systems work as well as they can. It’s awkward to be reaching for a game controller with a guitar slung across your shoulder, so players will have to learn to avoid accidentally driving the arm of the guitar through their TV while bending over to pick up a game controller when switching songs.

Choosing a song in Rock Band 3 is easy; you can sort your library various ways, and quickly jump from song to song, either by difficulty, artist title, song title, or one of a handful of other options. Additional filters to remove specific songs from the list (such as ones that are not Pro-Guitar** compliant) make the navigation a breeze. Unfortunately, Rocksmith song navigation is not as flexible. Players must scroll horizontally from one end of the song list to the other. One might have had the foresight to add a “wraparound” feature, letting us press left once, which would hypothetically jump to the end of the list…not the case. The years of work Harmonix poured into refining their games is evident in the Rock Band 3 UI polish, and sadly, Rocksmith suffers mightily in the UI department. But on the plus side, this gives them lots of room for obvious improvement in Rocksmith 2.

Rocking Out

Rock Band 3 and Rocksmith have two vastly different delivery methods for rocking out. RB3 utilizes the traditional, familiar “scrolling highway”.

Players watch multi-colored bars of light scroll toward them, strumming when they cross a line at the base, close to the bottom of the screen. In Rock Band 3, the scrolling highway now displays all six strings of the guitar, and the multi-colored bars of light are replaced with aqua blue “mountains and valleys”. These aqua-colored blobs don’t convey their meaning as concretely as the multi-colored bars did. The player is forced to spend time in the lessons and tutorials to understand their true meaning. Ultimately, the aqua blobs represent a combination of fret placement, finger spacing, strings to strum, and direction to strum (up or down). The benefit of Rock Band 3 is that, when strings are pressed down, the number of the fret lights up in-game on the scrolling highway, telling you where your fingers currently reside, so you can adjust without having to look back down at your guitar.

Additionally, names of chords will display along the side of the vertical guitar arm, so seasoned guitarists can see chords like “Em7” and “Csus4”, and know immediately to play an E-Minor 7th, or a C-Suspended 4th, respectively. The visual chords are immensely beneficial, especially as a learning tool, teaching new players what chords sound like as they are being played. However, there is one important caveat: RB3 only cares about the one specific way the chord should be played within the context of the current song. Experts beware: when the game asks you to play a G chord, make sure you pick the correct one of nineteen different fingerings. Choose the wrong one, and Rock Band 3 logs it as a miss.

Learning what the strange aqua “mountains and valleys” represent takes some getting used to. Harmonix was clearly constrained by trying to fit real guitar into the existing scrolling highway visual interface of previous Rock Band and Guitar Hero-like games, trying their best to come up with an intuitive way of describing fingerings. True, the numbers denote fret placement, but the blobs’ girth only provide generalizations of how far apart your fingers should be. And unfortunately, Rock Band 3 is not a game about generalizations, but pinpoint accuracy. Play the wrong fingering — even if it’s the right chord — and it’s counted as a miss. So, while the tutorials provide the necessary mechanism to learn each song, complete with every specific fingering, the aqua blobs racing toward you in-game are less than adequate to convey the same information. Players will have a very hard time “jumping in” to new songs without first spending significant time in the song’s lessons.

Rocksmith, on the other hand, doesn’t force the player to sit in song tutorials first. The gameplay interface is a new horizontal bar which reflects the arm of the guitar. Using this horizontal representation, every fret can be shown at once, allowing the player to accurately see the exact placement of their fingers for a particular chord. The guitar arm intuitively zooms smoothly in and out during the song as necessary. Every 3rd fret is numbered, matching up with the dots on the physical guitar arm held by the player. This unique interface, once the player is accustomed to it, becomes a joy to work with. It makes matching fingering a cinch. There’s never any guesswork, because it’s clear exactly where each finger should be placed on the fretboard. Rocksmith also displays real chord names alongside the fingerings, too, so as you play you can begin to associate certain hand positions with proper chord names.

The beauty of the Rocksmith interface isn’t just the switch from vertical to horizontal but the constant feedback loop it provides. In Rock Band 3, when you have practiced The Hardest Button to Button to the point where you feel like you’re ready to step on stage, if you botch certain chords or notes, all you get is a “miss” in-game. Your bonus multiplier resets and your score is impacted. That’s it. You have no way of knowing what it is you truly messed up. Did I pluck the wrong strings? Did I have the wrong fingering? Was I too early or too late? Is the game just being a bitch?

In Rocksmith, however, you constantly get feedback from the game on what you’re doing incorrectly as you play the song, so you can repair the damage on-the-fly. Here comes a fifth fret E, but you accidentally play a fourth fret E. In-game, the E string glows bright and an arrow flashes to the left, indicating that you need to move your finger down a fret. If you’re lucky, and it happened to be a sustained note, you might actually be able to fix the note quickly and get a partial score. In Rock Band 3, there is no concept of “fixing” a mistake — you either hit or miss. You’re either amazing … or completely inept. In a game built around the incredible complexity of playing a guitar, something that takes a lifetime to do well, and lots of practice to get better at, Rock Band 3 provides no gray area whatsoever. You either play the song exactly as described, or you get booed off the stage.

The Verdict

Rocksmith is fun to play because its gameplay is completely built around the steep inherent complexity of learning real guitar. It dynamically eases the player into the songs in its library; no one particular song is too difficult to start with, and it provides an interface that is both intuitive and precise. While Rock Band 3 provides multiple levels of difficulty to the player — albeit via a far greater library of titles — there are some songs in the library that an amateur (or even an intermediate) player has absolutely no business starting with. The “easy” versions of the RB3 songs are definitely easy, but even stepping up to “medium” or “hard” is often a massive undertaking that requires concentration, patience, and repetition. The game interface is imprecise, forcing you out of the game and into lessons just to learn new fingerings. Every Rocksmith song you play improves you without the need for separate tutorials or lessons; the gameplay is the lesson, and that’s what you are judged and scored on. Conversely, when you play Rock Band 3, you’re playing a game for a full band that just happens to include great — but not perfect — real guitar support, too. You’ll be judged on how accurately you pluck every string, and play every chord. Though it provides the tools necessary to learn guitar, integration into RB3 gameplay is awkward, and the result often forces you to dump out of the song, restart lessons, pause for correct fingerings — all of which add up to an experience that isn’t nearly as fun as it could be.

* ASIO stands for “Audio Stream Input/Output”, and is a digital audio protocol which accesses audio hardware directly.
** Detailed tutorials on how to play a particular song only exist for Pro-Guitar songs, and only a subset of songs in the RB3 library are Pro-Guitar compliant.

Great and useful article, but I think there’s a problem with nomenclature — if I’ve understood the Squire tech correctly. What you call “the bars between each fret” or “elevated fret separators” are *frets*. On any guitar, the raised metal bars are frets; the wood in between is the fretboard.

You don’t need to press right down onto the fretboard on a real guitar; you just need solid enough contact with the fret to get a clean sound.

If you find you have to press too hard to get a clean sound, this means that the “action” is too high. This is the distance between the fretboard and the string when you’re not fretting. The action can be adjusted — Google it.

John H
June 14, 2012 at 2:33 am

First let me start off by saying I am not a expert guitarist. I only knew some basic chords when I picked up RB3. At first I did go into the tutorials to understand the nuances of the game, but now I only go into the tutorials to maximize my fan score. My point is that every week when I download new DLC and play the song for the first time, I don’t find the highway tab confusing at all. And if the RB way of presenting notes is confusing, there is an option to replace that with all numbers instead of shapes. I have gone from struggling on easy, to staring to play songs on hard. And my focus has been really on drumming.Just one beginner’s observation…

Craig H
June 14, 2012 at 6:28 am

@Aneurysm9:

My goal was to point out that, while difficulties are selectable in RB3, they disrupt the flow of the game, yet are necessary in order to learn the song, while RS handles it dynamically in-game, as you’ve stated. I completely agree that RS’s ability to tailor the difficulty to your skills is its strongest point.

@John H:

You’re correct; I’ve fudged the definition of fret in my article and apologize. Repair commences.

@Craig H

I’m unfamiliar with the option to convert the pro-guitar layout in RB3; I’ll give it a try and see if it makes any real difference. My point with the RB3 highway piece was that it was imprecise *enough* to cause amateur players to misjudge what fingering they needed to use, without having to jump into the trainer. Even the very first set of songs (ordered by difficulty) still warrant trips to the trainer.

sholmes
June 14, 2012 at 7:21 am

I personally haven’t found the Rocksmith delay to be much of an issue for me – I’m not sure why. Maybe I just suck so much it hasn’t been a big factor yet. I have had more issue with Rocksmith mis-recognizing notes – in particular the lowest notes – even when I’m clearly fretting the note correctly.

Other minor complaints are that I’d wish it had bit more basic technique instruction. The technique lessons can be sequenced a little oddly – it’s had me play songs that contained techniques (and their corresponding notation) that it hasn’t introduced yet. Also, I feel like the “event qualifying” scores are low – sometimes you can qualify without much mastery of the song. The auto-leveling is brilliant, but is challenging when I master a song by playing it repeatedly, and then that “skill” carries over to a new song that I can’t play at all yet.

Those are mostly nits though – I think the game is brilliant, and love it. I look forward to what they do with Rocksmith 2.

Kevin Dente
June 14, 2012 at 4:46 pm

A few comments on this review.

You say, “If you have the PS3 version, the d-pad on the two Fenders work well; for XBox 360 owners, the intermediary MIDI Pro-Adapter provides navigational control”. When you say, “two Fenders” I assume that you mean the Mustang and Squier; you don’t mention that you don’t need an MPA to use the Mustang and that its face d-pad and face buttons work perfectly well on the platform that the controller was made for, wirelessly. (The Mustang can be used through an MPA for one of the other platforms–you can bring your Xbox Mustang to a friend’s and plug it into his PS3 MPA).

You say, “when the game asks you to play a G chord, make sure you pick the correct one of nineteen different fingerings. Choose the wrong one, and Rock Band 3 logs it as a miss.” It *is* a miss–only one of those fingerings produces the correct sound–every G chord does not sound exactly the same, though some fingerings would sound close. If you were reading tab (which RB3′s guitar notation is a form of) you’d play the fingering indicated. In actuality, RB3 *will* often accept an alternate fingering; instead of the G Maj barre chord, you can play an open G, and so forth.

You say, “the blobs’ girth only provide generalizations of how far apart your fingers should be”. That’s wrong–they state *exactly* how far they are from the base fret number; no line on the string means play it open, the white line mean’s use the same fret, a thin blue mean use base+1, and there are two further thicknesses denoting base+2 and base+3. Once you’ve played the game for a while you can recognize these. But that’s not the point of the position wave shapes. The point is that there are several movable chord shapes and once you learn to recognize their position waves you can play those chords at any indicated base fret by making the same shape with your fingers. Take the major barre chord for example: “b b+2 b+2 b+1 b b”, where b on the low E string is the tonic (if it’s G it’s a G Major chord, etc). No matter where on the fret board you place your fingers the same relative number of frets from each other and the position wave shape is identical, with the “b” fret number on one of the strings. Beginner can begin to recognize these shapes at a glance a lot faster than they can learn that “3 5 5 4 3 3″ is the same chord shape as “10 12 12 11 10 10″.

You’re correct in observing that RB3 pro g/b’s biggest weakness is not being able to hear yourself play which can result in developing bad habits, such as inadvertently muting strings. (I don’t know about you, but I was *not* taught by my guitar teacher to press the strings down to the fretboard, but to fret lightly just behind the fret. It doesn’t matter on *my* Squier anyway–unless you’re playing the first fret the string is always going to touch the fret below and the game knows that you’re fretting the higher one. It wouldn’t matter if you had fingers on both if you were playing out loud; you’d get the tone of the higher fret).

I play RS and think that it’s cool, particular in that you hear what you’re playing when you play it and that it can hear and judge things like slides and that it doesn’t mind your playing extra notes and chords so long as you play the ones that it asks you to a the same time. (And not every set up will exhibit perceptible lag–mine doesn’t; the game gives you guidelines for eliminating it). I also like it’s plethora of minigames designed to teach you technique in a fun fashion. To my mind, RS’ weakness is that it doesn’t teach you to read music in any form you’ll find it written in. RB3′s notation is pretty close to tab and there were experienced guitarists who were reading it (turning on the feature which displays all of the chord numbers and not just the lowest one) and hitting perfect or very high scores within a few days of the launch of the game. Experienced guitarists tend to find RS’ notation a bit harder to fathom, though they appreciate being able to hear themselves play and being able to improvise some without being penalized. (I had a friend who’s played for over twenty years try both recently–a PhD/MD medical researcher who’s fairly bright :))–and he gave up on RS quickly (I don’t think that he gave it a fair chance). He didn’t care for RB3 either, but he was playing its notation almost instantly (with chord numbering turned on).

mikeyts
June 14, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Kinda late to the posting, but:

I have tried both and for an absolute beginner, _I_ found RB3 easier. I find that being able to see where my fingers are in the games is the BEST part! It allows me to figure out what I am doing wrong. On RS, I can’t seem to catchup between looking at the TV and looking at the frets. It does go away as I memorize the song better though…

Also as a beginner, I would turn off “auto difficulty”. I suck at guitar and want to practice on a consistent difficulty. Once knew how to play guitar, I think it would make it easier to learn the full song…but that is the difference between a total beginner and somebody with experience.

BTW, I always turn on “Chord Numbering” and nearly every RB3 pro guitar video I have watched on YouTube does the same…not sure if you tried it or not…

My goal is to spend 1 year on RB3 and then switch to RS and buy a nice guitar ;-) I need the slower pace that RB3 gives me…

johnmc
August 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm

Great review and it echos my sentiments exactly. I’ve never played the guitar before starting with Rocksmith. I managed to find the last Rock Band Fender Squire in the north-east at some backwater New York shop and they shipped it to me by ordering over the phone (which was amazing since I spent like 10 hours looking for it).

Anyway, I got Rocksmith and played it for a good 3 months — usually about an hour or two daily. I stopped after that and then about 4 months later got Rock Band 3. Luckily, I had the Fender Squire just for that reason — the ability to see what frets you have pressed down is amazing, but the lack of horizontal finger positioning is annoying.

Really wish there was some way for Rocksmith to incorporate finger positioning for MIDI guitars with that functionality as it really has helped my fingering. Overall, I think Rocksmith is a better teaching tool, but Rock Band 3 does have a ton of songs and let’s you play with other people.

Ultimately, it depends on what you want to do. If you just want to learn the guitar and could care less about the other instruments then I’d recommend Rocksmith. However, if you like playing with friends and want to play the drums, keyboard, and sing then Rock Band 3 is a better bet.

The delay you mention in Rocksmith is very minor if you follow the steps to reduce latency. Yes, the system can lag on scoring some notes, but it seems to play the sound almost immediately. Check your settings and hook up external speakers like it suggests; it helps a ton.

Great review and keep up the stellar work!

Stexe
August 21, 2012 at 5:02 am

As Rocksmith did land here (in Europe) only some time ago (october 18th) I have been trying to play with it for the last few weeks. So my reply is a bit late but there was no way to test it here before on my xbox.

I’ve been playing guitar as an amateur for the last 20 years or so and do play RB3 pro with the squier since the guitar is out (something like 1 year ago, maybe more, don’t really remember).

For some reason I really don’t like RS :
- I don’t believe I will manage to adapt myself to the way the music is presented during gameplay, the problem being that every note, is displayed on the same line and that you have to remember which color is which string. And, being used to tablature notation I do frequently move string when you just have to move the finger.
- Chords are given names only when you must play them with all strings, if you play power chords on 2 or 3 strings the name is not given… It would be so simple to tell us it’s a F5 or a D5, with the base string and I would automatically put my fingers on the correct strings, but the way the information is given I have to think to where I should put my fingers, often leading me to miss a strum.
- the automatic difficulty is very strange in its behavior and is very frustrating when you know how to play a part of the song but the notes are not given, or other notes are given instead.
- the UI design is poor, as you said the library is a nightmare to use, I would not imagine using it with 200+ songs !

I could talk of the song library but this is mainly a matter of taste so I won’t.

All in all I’m a bit disappointed, I have been waiting for Rocksmith for one year before it does arrive here in Europe and finally after 3 weeks playing it a lot my pleasure is to switch back to RB3 and to play the music I love, at the choosen difficulty level, and in a way more compatible to tablature reading (as other did mention be sure to activate chord notation in the options, it’s really a must, it’s a shame that the setting is not remembered when you switch the console off).

So for me RS is a no go in this version and RB3 is still the best way to play music games with a real guitar (of course if you do have the Squier, for my part I bought two of them when they where still available and do not regret it…)

treps
November 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm

I’ve put many hours into both rocksmith and RB3 (on the squier). They both have their strengths.

Playing a song on rocksmith is good, the rest of the interface, as you point out, is pretty horrible. The rocksmith song library is also pretty small compared to RB3 … even when you just compare songs with guitar-pro support.

You suggest the rocksmith feedback is good, and it _can_ be, but it is entirely visual and IMHO does not work well as you get more advanced. It took me a number of passes through Rebel Rebel to realize I _must_ be getting it wrong because I the indicators showed I was no-where near mastering it, yet the difficulty wasn’t advancing. As you get into more difficult parts you basically can not be reading the score off the screen, you have it memorized and you start looking at the guitar… now your visual feedback doesn’t work at all.

Crikey, dozens or hundreds of hours in, and I’m not sure if there is a native guitar track. In RB3 you can tell that the sound coming off your guitar doesn’t match the one on the soundtrack… And of course the volume gets muted when you botch it… but the other thing is that the RB3 tablature is much less ambiguous (sp?).

Now, someone with a better ear than I have, might not notice these issues.

The RB3 squire is not a good guitar. That plastic fretboard has some real issues. In theory you’re supposed to play it with that ridiculous string mute on…. and I can get better scores if I do that, but it doesn’t feel right, nor sound right. But if you don’t then you have issues with the strings ringing… seems like it should be simple enough to fix in software.

Anyhow, I have both games, I still play both games, and I still buy DLC in both games. I worry that RB3 pro guitar support will eventually get dropped. I keep looking for alternate sources for alternate pro guitars… that’s how I found this comparison

tom
January 19, 2013 at 6:51 pm

I really wish Rocksmith’s song menu UI was a bit more polished.
A man can only listen to “NO I NEVER WANTED TO CHANGE THE WORLD, BUT I’M LOOKING FOR A NEW NEW JERSEY. BECAUSE TRAMPS LIKE US, BABY WE WERE BORN TO DIE!!” so many times.
Seriously, I cannot bring myself to play that song.

Tegolin
January 26, 2013 at 9:49 pm

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