As a lapsed guitar player, this wannabe rockstar was eagerly anticipating the release of Rocksmith 2014 Edition on the PlayStation 4. With two mistreated instruments decorated in dust, Ubisoft’s tutor promised a much needed excuse to wipe them down and get them back into action – but does this next-gen port squeal like Slash or hit a bum note?
Well, it turns out that after an eight or so year hiatus, pentatonic scales aren’t especially approachable – but the release can’t be held accountable for that. It’s worth stressing up front that this is not necessarily a game, and even though it does attempt to ‘gamify’ aspects of real tuition, we don’t recommend that you treat it as one.
Indeed, if you’re looking for an experience where pushing a few buttons makes you feel like Muse, then you’ll be better served by the copious Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles already available on the PlayStation 3. This game requires a real electric six-string or bass guitar, which should automatically give you a rough idea of what to expect.
Using the supplied Real Tone Cable, you’ll plug your instrument into one of your console’s USB slots, which will act as a kind of virtual amplifier – much like one of the many Line 6 products on the market today. Of course, in addition to changing the tone of your guitar, it’ll also be able to detect the notes that you’re playing – and that’s where the tuition comes in.
There are over 50 songs available on the disc, spanning rock artists like Iron Maiden all the way through to pop acts like The Police. At its simplest, each song can be played across a variety of difficulties in order to obtain a high score – much like one of the abovementioned brands – but unless you’re already an accomplished musician, you’re going to need to learn how to play first.
This is perhaps the first area where the product falls short, because if you’re a rank newcomer, you’re going to find the game pretty impenetrable. Despite boasting interactive lessons on everything from chords to changing strings, it’ll prove almost impossible for a fledgling shred master to absorb the required information to perform adequately from this package.
It’s best as an accompaniment to real, professional guitar lessons, then – or for a former player like this scribe, who already has a hazy understanding of the fundamentals, but needs to sharpen up their skills. Whichever camp you fall into, you’ll likely be spending the majority of your time with the game in the Learn a Song mode.
This essentially sees you build up the confidence to play a tune from beginning to end as it was recorded by the original artist. A mastery percentage keeps track of your progress, while the game will constantly analyse your performance, setting missions based on areas that you need to improve – and even directing you to lessons if you need to brush up on your technique.
It’s really well done, and only your own personal patience will prevent you from investing hours and hours into mastering each song. You’ll start out by simply playing the root notes, but as you complete the title’s set goals, you’ll eventually find yourself tackling all of the track's riffs and chords, with the emphasis on which dictated by whether you want to play rhythm or lead guitar.
The notation fuses the ‘highway’ from Guitar Hero with tablature, with colour coding used to depict strings. Those used to reading real music may find it a bit backwards, but there’s plenty of customisation, and we actually thought that it was quite approachable – there are even finger indicators to show the optimum position of your digits as you cycle between chords.
What it’s most successful at, though, is seamlessly implementing useful tools. For example, as simple as it sounds, the game’s tuner will always ensure that you’re setup correctly for the track that you’re trying to play, while the Riff Repeater allows you to hone in on certain phrases or sections of a song so that you can practice challenging bits.
This is especially useful because it enables you to change the difficulty, speed, and much more in real-time; you can even tell it to increase the challenge each time that you succeed, so that you slowly build up to playing all of the notes at full speed. While you can technically do all of these things on a computer or an iPod, it’s much more elegantly handled here.
And then there are the minigames, which make practicing an entertaining pastime. String Skip Saloon, for example, adopts an 8-bit Western theme, and sees you hitting different open notes to shoot down bandits, while Star Chords assumes the role of a first-person sci-fi shooter, in which you must play power chords to gun down enemy ships.
The presentation in these extras is exceptional – Scale Warriors is a full-blown Double Dragon-esque beat-‘em-up with cut-scenes – and, with the addition of leaderboards and challenges which multiply your score, it helps you to numb the tedium that usually comes with fretting exercises, and focus on trying to top the online leaderboards.
If there’s any problem, it’s that the detection is not always flawless. We found that we needed to pick certain notes in a specific way – we had particular difficulty getting the game to detect an E note when played on the A string on both bass and guitar – which can cause you to fail songs and minigames when your playing is not necessarily to blame.
Moreover, the notation is vague when it comes to rhythmic elements, as there’s no real communication of strumming patterns. While it’s possible to determine these by ear, should you be even the slightest bit out, you’ll fail the songs – even if your performance sounds more or less identical to the original recording.
It doesn’t help that, without an optical out cable, you’ll experience a little delay between playing a note and hearing it through your television if you’re hooked up by standard HDMI. This isn’t exactly game breaking – the game seems to detect your inputs immediately when calibrated correctly – but it can be pretty off-putting at first.
Similarly unsuccessful is the Session mode, which allows you to jam along with four other virtual musicians – the performance dictated by your own playing. While it’s a great idea in theory, because you’re not performing with real people, it all feels a little too reactive, so you may build into a solo, only for your accomplices to ease off as your first note rings out.
Those with zero existing understanding will find that Rocksmith 2014 Edition will cause their guitar to gently weep, but when used as an accompaniment to real lessons, the software really sings. With a wealth of songs to learn and excellent arcade minigames that make typically tedious practice exercises actually entertaining, anyone with the right attitude will find real value here.