November 26, 2013
It’s been over a year since I sat down with the original Rocksmith and sunk my teeth into it. The first game in the series offered players a chance to use a real electric guitar as their weapon of choice, and although a bit rough around the edges, the original Rocksmith delivered a solid, memorable experience. I emerged with a new passion for playing the guitar and felt like I developed an actual real-life skill. So, when Rocksmith 2014 arrived at my door a few weeks ago, I was eager to see if they had polished up those rough edges, and if it would re-ignite that spark. This review would have been done sooner, had it not been for the fact that I can’t stop playing. The TLC that Ubisoft has applied to the original Rocksmith recipe has made it both extremely fun and difficult to put down.
The Jimi Hendrix User Experience
Getting to the right song as quickly as possible is key. The original Rocksmith user interface has been cleaned up in 2014, allowing greater flexibility to reorganize and navigate through your tracks. It can get cumbersome to seek a specific track when your playlist grows in relation to the DLC you purchase. Rocksmith 2014 throws a massive new set of sorting options at you. By using the right button (RB on the XBox 360), the basic “sorts” are there: artist name, song title, year, difficulty, song length, source (Rocksmith, Rocksmith 2014, or DLC), even the number of times you’ve played a song. The really convenient options, however, are ones such as mastery (a percentage of how far along you are in your quest to master a song), recommended (what Rocksmith 2014 thinks is good for your particular skill level), and tuning (great for knocking out a bunch of songs without having to adjust strings in between). To round this out, Rocksmith 2014 also lets you mark certain songs as your favorites — and yes, you can sort by favorites, too. As an aside, certain sort orders (eg. song title, artist name, etc.) let you skip sections quickly by using the left and right triggers (LT and RT on the XBox 360). Don’t forget about the left button, either (LB on XBox 360); while RB specifies the sort order, LB flips the entire list forward or back, quickly taking you to the beginning or ending of the list. Navigation is a breeze!
Ubisoft delivered a much better feeling of progression this second time around. Progression is, after all, a measure of your skill growth, but since all songs in Rocksmith 2014 (along with its predecessor) scale appropriately to your skill, hiding parts of the song library as a means of progression feels artificial and, frankly, quite lame. By moving the focus of progression to your “percentage complete” on individual songs, Rocksmith 2014 frees you to choose your path at every gaming session. For those who prefer to explore on their own (like me), you can immediately dive into Learn a Song, picking from the full song list and get jamming within minutes, regardless of the song’s complexity.
Both the old and the new game benefit from its unique tech which adjusts the difficulty of the song on-the-fly (something I raved about in my Rocksmith vs Rock Band 3 Showdown last year). Rocksmith 2014 takes this to the next level by adding in new functionality called the Riff Repeater. At any moment in any song, you can pause the action and drop down into Riff Repeater, then adjust a myriad of dials and switches that let you practice and refine specific parts of each song. Riff Repeater is fantastic; nearly anything in this mode can be adjusted: the current difficulty of the riff, the speed, whether or not you wish to increase difficulty as you perfect your style, how many times you want to repeat a perfected section before advancing, how much error tolerance you want to allow for…the list goes on. You can even have Riff Repeater eject you seamlessly back into the song once you’ve mastered the section. Each song in Rocksmith 2014 is subdivided into many individual sections, and you can control how small or large a section you want Riff Repeater to apply to. For something labelled a video game at the end of the day, its strength as a guitar tutor is quite spectacular.
Other tools are at your disposal throughout the song, including the ability to see all the chords in play (and their respective fingerings), as well as all the techniques the song employs, whether they be bends, slides, vibrato, tremolo, or a host of others that can all be displayed on-screen, ad hoc, without having to dump out to the main menu and search for tutorials. Learning the guitar is an intimidating and monumental task, and Ubisoft has made a concerted effort to ensure that learning the guitar is not impeded by gameplay design decisions.
Quest of the Rad Guitar
Whether slaying internet dragons or making digital drug deals, I love the freedom of a good non-linear world; why should playing a guitar video game be any different? Some players prefer to be led down the right path, however, and Rocksmith 2014 wraps a warm blanket around these folks as well. Enter: Missions, an ever-present set of options, akin to a quest log, providing the aforementioned direction. If you’re still too green under the collar and unsure what is best for you to work on in your pursuit to be the next Eddie Van Halen, missions guide you down this path. At any given moment in Rocksmith 2014, you’ll be provided with a host of various tasks to accomplish, tailored to your skill level. Commonly, these missions direct you to the comprehensive Lessons section of the game. Here, you’ll be presented with dozens of videos, many of which drop you into an interactive trainer to confirm you’ve learned what was taught. Missions aren’t limited to lessons, however; you’ll also be taken to Session Mode, where you can construct a virtual band of various instruments to play alongside you while you practice the fundamentals. Here, you’ll learn jam out free-form style on various scales and roots, and play with varying tempos and styles. Your virtual band listens along and speeds up or slows down based on your own intensity. It’s in session mode that you’ll ultimately begin to form the building blocks of great guitar knowledge and style — skills that you’ll carry with you long past Rocksmith 2014.
Missions will also take you into the Tone Designer, where you can customize your own tones through the mixing and matching of various amplifiers and pedals. Rather than just throwing a bunch of guitar paraphernalia at you, the tone designer missions actually teach you about what produces certain electric guitar sounds and why. Core knowledge of pedals are a staple to all electric guitarists, so make Joey Santiago proud and do your homework in the tone designer. Again, Ubisoft makes education the first-class citizen, as how to play always follows what to play. And yes, you can save all the customized tones you build in the tone designer, even assigning them to directions on the analog controller. Your tones, whether custom built by hand or loaded from the various songs in the library, activate with a satisfying thump as the amplifier drops into the room in the background. When Ubisoft wants you to feel like a guitarist…they mean it.
That Old-School Sound
Guitarcade also returns in Rocksmith 2014, letting you improve specific guitar techniques under the guise of retro arcade games. One such entry is “Scale Warriors”, which tests your knowledge of scales (eg. Pentatonic Major and Minor, Aeolian, Dorian, etc.) in a River City Ransom-style beat ‘em up. Also notable is “Return to Castle Chordead”, done in the style of Sega’s classic gun shooter “The House of the Dead“. Astute gamers should pick up on Ubisoft’s nod to other classic games like Tapper and Track & Field as they meander through the Guitarcade. Parallel to these lessons-disguised-as-arcade-games are the Score Attacks and Leaderboard Challenges. Each song in your library can be played at a specific fixed difficulty in an attempt to amass big points, but only three misses are allowed before you dump out. Additionally, Rocksmith 2014 will issue out individual challenges on both your song library and the guitarcade, looping in other players’ online scores as an added threat…
…which brings me to multiplayer in Rocksmith 2014.
Playing (Guitar) With Yourself
Alas, if there is but one shortcoming of Rocksmith 2014, it is the absence of online multiplayer support. Multiplayer in Rocksmith 2014 consists solely of plugging in a second electric guitar, and playing against another local player on a split screen. Depending on your point of view, this can either be no big deal or a tremendous oversight. For myself, I have several guitar-playing friends that own the game, and it would be nice to have a few online battles with them without driving across the city/country to do so. As I’ve discovered, learning to play the guitar is profoundly a personal experience, and it’s hard to get in front of your friends (particularly of a gamer mindset) and proceed to demonstrate how much you suck. That fact alone means Rocksmith 2014 could benefit from an online mode, shielding you from the embarrassment of your skill, while slowly working towards pwning noobs on the leaderboards in real-time. Besides, until you have local gamer friends that also just happen to be interested in playing electric guitar, how realistic is a local multiplayer mode anyway? Not implementing online play was shortsighted on Ubisoft’s part, a slightly untuned string in an otherwise great rock symphony that is Rocksmith 2014.
The game itself is incredibly fun and horribly addictive, so much so that it was hard to put it down long enough to write this review! I still find it hard to believe that, as a genre, music-themed video games struggle to find an audience. Hopefully, Rocksmith 2014 gives more people an opportunity to think twice about picking up a six-string. I’ve outlined nearly all of the features Rocksmith 2014 brings to the table, but my review doesn’t even begin to address the fact that all of the game’s features support bass as well as lead guitar; a fact well worth the price of admission. Did I mention you walk away from the game with a real-world skill? Or the fact that the USB cable can be carried over to your PC, allowing you to hook up your electric guitar to professional software mixing/effect applications? Check out Guitar Rig if this is an interest of yours.
I’ll leave you with what is often the first thing most gamers think about when they hear about a new music-based game: the track listing. As with most games of this genre, the licensed tracklist is very much subject to opinion, and I will say that there is a healthy amount of stuff for just about anyone, old or young alike. The good news is that Rocksmith 2014 is compatible with the DLC you’ve already purchased for the first Rocksmith game, and for a small fee, you can import the library from the first Rocksmith game as well. For your perusal, the complete tracklist is below, and I’ve taken the liberty of starring a few that I found particularly fun to play. Don’t forget: DLC continues to flow in, allowing you to slowly build a set of music you wish to play over time.
And you will really play it. Yes, you will. Any guitar will work; why not give it a try?