November 26, 2013

Rocksmith 2014 – Shredding for Dummies

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.

Rocksmith 2014 - Navigation Menu

New navigational options make it easy to find a song quickly in Rocksmith 2014.

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!

Rocksmith 2014 - Riff Repeater Interface

Analyze and perfect any part of any song with Riff Repeater.

Repeat Performance

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.

Rocksmith 2014 - Session Mode Interface

Session Mode lets you customize and jam with your own virtual band.

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.

Rocksmith 2014 - "Scale Warriors" screenshot

Scale Warriors challenges your memory of guitar scales with hot 8-bit beat ’em up action.

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.

Rock You

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?

  • Aerosmith – “Walk This Way”*
  • Alice Cooper – “No More Mr. Nice Guy”
  • Alice in Chains – “Stone”
  • Arctic Monkeys – “R U Mine?”
  • Avenged Sevenfold – “Bat Country”
  • Bob Dylan – “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
  • Boston – “Peace of Mind”*
  • Bush – “Machinehead”
  • B’z – “Ultra Soul”*
  • Def Leppard – “Pour Some Sugar on Me (2012)”*
  • Deftones – “My Own Summer (Shove It)”
  • EarlyRise – “Wasteland”
  • Fang Island – “Chompers”
  • Foo Fighters – “Everlong”
  • Gold Motel – “Brand New Kind of Blue”
  • Green Day – “X-Kid”
  • Iron Maiden – “The Trooper”
  • Jack White – “Sixteen Saltines”*
  • Jaws – “Stay In”
  • Joe Satriani – “Satch Boogie”
  • Kiss – “Rock and Roll All Nite”
  • La Sera – “Love That’s Gone”
  • Magic Wands – “Black Magic”*
  • Mastodon – “Blood and Thunder”
  • Minus the Bear – “Cold Company”
  • Monster Truck – “Sweet Mountain River”
  • Muse – “Knights of Cydonia”*
  • Nirvana – “Heart Shaped Box”*
  • Oasis – “Don’t Look Back in Anger”*
  • Pantera – “Cemetery Gates”
  • Paramore – “Now”
  • Paws – “Sore Tummy”
  • Queen – “We Are the Champions”
  • Radiohead – “Paranoid Android”*
  • Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop”
  • Ratt – “Round and Round”
  • Red Fang – “Wires”
  • R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
  • Rise Against – “Savior”
  • Rush – “The Spirit of Radio”
  • Screaming Females – “Rotten Apple”
  • Slayer – “War Ensemble”
  • Splashh – “All I Wanna Do”
  • System of a Down – “Hypnotize”
  • Tak Matsumoto – “Go Further”
  • The Dear Hunter – “Stuck on a Wire Out on a Fence”
  • The Kinks – “You Really Got Me”*
  • The Police – “Every Breath You Take”
  • The Rolling Stones – “Paint It Black”
  • The Shins – “For a Fool”
  • The Smashing Pumpkins – “The Chimera”
  • The Who – “My Generation”
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”*
  • Weezer – “Say It Ain’t So”*
  • White Zombie – “Thunder Kiss ’65”

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.

October 19, 2011

Rocksmith Lag Instructions

I received my copy of Rocksmith and guitar today!

Inside, I noticed there was a little flyer about dealing with lag, which I thought was important enough to share. Click through for a larger, more readable version:

Before setting up the game, you should first follow these steps to ensure your HDTV system is optimized for Rocksmith:

  1. Follow the Display Lag Correction instructions found in the in-game manual.
  2. Make sure your console is set to match your TV’s native resolution (1080p, 720p, etc.) and your TV is set to match your console’s native resolution.
  3. If your TV has a PC or Game mode, select it. For more information, check your TV’s manual.
  4. If your TV does not have a PC or Game mode, access your TV’s Options menu, disable image scaling, and turn off all processing effects. (This is effectively what “Game mode” or “PC mode” does.)

We never recommend using HDMI as your primary sound source. If you are experiencing lag and are using HDMI for audio, try switching to Component cables. Alternately, you can use the appropriate Audio Adapter Cable for your console with an external audio source like speakers, headphones, stereo, or home theater system. If HDMI is your primary sound source, we recommend that you do not use your TV’s speakers for sound.

Note that for best results, you need to have discrete audio and video outputs from your console — and the worst results are from a combined input to a single television.

I thought you could also use a Y-splitter on the 1/4″ guitar output — routing one side to a real guitar amplifier, and the other side to the Rocksmith USB adapter and your console. However, it appears you need a true powered / buffered signal splitter device for this to work, and those are not cheap…

October 15, 2011

Rocksmith Full Track List Revealed

I had a great time with Rocksmith during my hands-on preview; I came away convinced the game is going to actually work. A few of my thoughts are captured in this brief 2 minute video, below.

They were still coy about exactly which songs would be in Rocksmith at the time, but now that the game’s on the verge of release, here’s the full track list, courtesy of the gaming vault.

The Animals — House of the Rising Sun
Best Coast — When I’m With You
The Black Keys — Next Girl
The Black Keys — I Got Mine
Blur — Song 2
The Boxer Rebellion — Step Out The Car
Cream — Sunshine Of Your Love
The Cribs — We Share The Same Skies
The Cure — Boys Don’t Cry
Dan Auerbach — I Want Some More
David Bowie — Rebel Rebel
The Dead Weather — I Can’t Hear You
Eric Clapton — Run Back To Your Side
Franz Ferdinand — Take Me Out
The Horrors — Do You Remember
Incubus — I Miss You
Interpol — Slow Hands
Jarvis Cocker — Angela
Jenny O — Well OK Honey
Kings Of Leon — Use Somebody
Lenny Kravitz — Are You Gonna Go My Way
Little Barrie — Surf Hell
Lynyrd Skynyrd — Sweet Home Alabama
Muse — Unnatural Selection
Muse — Plug In Baby
Nirvana — In Bloom
Nirvana — Breed
The Pixies — Where Is My Mind
Queens of the Stone Age — Go With The Flow
Radiohead — High And Dry
The Rapscallions — California Brain
Red Fang — Number Thirteen
Red Hot Chili Peppers — Higher Ground
The Rolling Stones — The Spider And The Fly
The Rolling Stones — Play With Fire
The Rolling Stones — (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Sigur Ros — Gobbledigook
Silversun Pickups — Panic Switch
Soundgarden — Outshined
Spoon — Me And The Bean
Stone Temple Pilots — Between The Lines
Stone Temple Pilots — Vasoline
The Strokes — Under Cover Of Darkness
Taddy Porter — Mean Bitch
Titus Andronicus — A More Perfect Union
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers — Good Enough
Velvet Revolver — Slither
White Denim — Burnished
The White Stripes — Icky Thump
The xx — Islands
Yellow Moon Band — Chimney

Click through to see YouTube videos of any song, if you’re not familiar with it. There’s also DLC planned, of course. Two DLC tracks have been pre-announced, Free Bird and Radiohead’s Bodysnatchers.

A good song list, but a bit … obscure at the edges. Some of these artists I’ve honestly never heard of, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but probably reflects the licensing difficulties they had. On the other hand, picking up not one but two Muse tracks stings a little because of the running “more Muse please!” joke within the Rock Band community for the last year.

Rocksmith will be available in just a few days on October 18th, and comes in either a $199 full guitar bundle, or a $79 game and USB adapter bundle for Xbox, PS3 and PC.

I’m looking forward to getting my copy this month!

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.

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