Review: Rocksmith 2014 from Ubisoft
When Rocksmith was released in 2011, it had all the ingredients of a gaming pie capable of satisfying kings of Guitar Hero and Rock Band controllers wanting to learn how to play a real instrument in a familiar digital environment and new six-string slingers looking for an entertaining, full-featured learning package. The platform has now been refreshed for 2014, and Gizmag has spent some considerable time in the company of Rocksmtih's infinitely patient, always available virtual guitar teacher on Ubisoft's note highway to callus hell.
Rocksmith 2014 is available for PC, Mac, Xbox 360, or PlayStation 3, and comes with or without an instrument interface called the Real Tone cable, which has a USB 2.0 connector at one end and a 0.25-in instrument jack at the other. Ubisoft says that only the proprietary cable works with the software, so even if you have a guitar interface kicking around, you'll need the proprietary cable to rock this game.
The package also includes two sets of stickers marked 1 - 15 that can be placed at the appropriate fret along the top of the neck. As an aide mémoire these are great, but the pointy edges do have a tendency to come away and stick to palms as you slide up the neck.
Though I had been sent the French PC/Mac version of the game for review, I was offered the option to choose English as the default language during install, which I did.
I actually found much of the install process somewhat cumbersome and drawn out. For instance, though the Rocksmith package I was sent included a setup DVD, I found myself unable to load up the game unless I had an active internet connection. Before the installation proper began, the Steam platform needed to be installed and updated, and then a user account created. There is a small print notice on the bottom of the package box and on the DVD case, but it might have been helpful to include the need to go online and the Steamworks info in the system requirements section.
"The installation of Rocksmith 2014 will require an one-time internet connection initially," Ubisoft told Gizmag. "Following installation it’s possible to set Steam to offline mode so that future playing can be done offline but the installation will require an online connection. The optical media is provided because users can install from the disc to possibly save some time if their internet download speeds are not as fast; however, there is always some amount of data that is downloaded during the installation as updates and patches since the disc was pressed, [which] are applied to make sure Rocksmith 2014 is up to date. The disc installation is not a required aspect of the installation as the included game key in the packaging allows the user to activate the product and perform the entire installation and download through Steam directly."
The installation process took about an hour from start to finish, including setting up the Steam account and loading in the Steam engine, the Rocksmith 2014 software and the Uplay portal. Call me stuck in my ways if you like, but this review was undertaken using a Windows 7 computer. I was curious about whether Microsoft's latest OS was supported though, and a quick search in Ubisoft's forum appeared to suggest that Win8 users are a bit of an unknown.
"Rocksmith 2014 supports the majority of Windows 8 PCs although as is the nature for PCs we may not support every possible configuration of people’s systems," said the company. "As the forum thread notes, we did develop and perform most testing on Windows 7 but there is nothing about the software that is unsupported with Windows 8. As we receive feedback from our players, we constantly update Rocksmith 2014 so that we can support as many different configurations as possible."
Ready for launch
Each time Rocksmith 2014 is fired up, it tries to go online via Steam. If it can't find a network connection, a prompt will appear asking if the user wants to retry or play offline. Though the connected option allows the player to share learning progress with the Rocksmith community, download new songs, get updates and news, and so on, I selected the latter and decided to keep my learning curve very much to myself.
Bizarrely, even though I selected offline mode, the Uplay portal still tried (and failed) to get connected. Once through the persistent attempts to get online, welcome screens guide the new player through various important aspects of the game, including missions, tutorials and bonuses.
The new profile setup process probed me for answers to such things as whether I'd played Rocksmith before, what sort of guitarist I wanted to learn to be and how good I thought I already was. Ubisoft told me that players who are already familiar with the software can skip past the opening tutorial and head straight to instrument calibration and tuning. Even though I'd selected to play offline, Rocksmith once again tried to connect to the internet when I launched my profile.
I chose to learn lead guitar and, as I was new to this game, opted for the beginner level, which proved a wise move and is something I would recommend for anyone new to this learning environment. I guess the main reason for such a recommendation is that outside of this game, my usual shortcut to learning a new song involves going online for guitar tablature.
Tab shows the thick E string of the guitar at the bottom of the notation, and the thin E string at the top. Despite Rocksmith displaying finger and fret positions in a similar fashion, the strings were displayed with the bottom E at the top, which took a bit of getting used to.
This configuration can be changed by diving deep into the options, specifically Tools > Options > Play Settings > Invert Strings (thanks to reader Rick Dorsey for the tip), but given the popularity of guitar tab among players, perhaps this preference could have been included in the new profile setup process. Doing so certainly would have saved me some time and effort. But I'm jumping ahead of myself.
Having been guided through the profile setup process by the software's virtual teacher, my efforts were rewarded with the presentation of the main menu.
Learn a song
Choosing this option takes you to a selection of over 50 rock songs from the last five decades, including Blitzkrieg Bop from the Ramones, Knights of Cydonia by Muse, Paint It Black from The Rolling Stones, The Spirit of Radio by Rush, Mastadon's Blood and Thunder, and We Are The Champions from Queen. More on this aspect a bit later.
Here, players are allowed to create a custom band to jam along with. There are four instrument slots to the top, which can be filled up with your virtual band members, such as drums, keys and bass. You can also decide on the root key, scale type, tempo and the kind of feel you'll experience when the groove gets going. When you're ready to rock, scale shapes are displayed onscreen, and the backing band will follow along to your noodling. Great fun.
With this option you can build a playlist, set a time and enjoy uninterrupted play from 5 to 90 minutes.
This section has a large number of video tutorials ranging from the very basic (attaching a strap, for example) to the quite complex (two-handed tapping), and includes some special topics (how to restring a guitar, presented by Ernie Ball). The video and audio are top notch. It's rather like having your own guitar tutor on call whenever you feel like plugging in, with the added bonus that your virtual teacher has infinite patience and will stick around for as long as is needed at no extra charge.
Clicking on this menu item will get you to a number of guitar-based games aimed at improving skill sets. They're by no means graphically-rich, in fact they brought back many a fond memory of hours spent in front of my Atari games console, but they do offer a fun way to nail important playing techniques such as strumming/muting, string skipping, bends and harmonics.
There's nothing quite like the challenge of trying to beat someone else's score to speed up your learning curve. With this option, two players can learn a song together, jam along to a virtual session band, or go one-on-one, Guitar Hero-style. I suspect that you'll need to prepare for sessions to get quite intense, so much so that you probably won't even notice when your finger ends start to throb.
By default, Rocksmith will provide you with a distorted, reverbed sound with rack effects and a Marshall head. This feature allows you to tweak the digitized guitar tone to your heart's content. You can opt to manually create and save your very own tone, or load in the guitar sound of a favored artist from one of the available songs.
Shop and Uplay
You won't be able to load in just any song like you can with Riffstation, for example, but buying extra songs and DLC packages from the Rocksmith Shop or heading to Ubisoft's Uplay will reward you with accurate transcriptions and a package that provides the tools for learning how to play the track yourself. You will need to be online to use either of these menu options.
There are also a number of buttons along the bottom of the screen. Selecting Tools takes you to a sub-menu where you can get direct access to the tuner function, mess around with software configurations, and have a skip through some common chords and the technique guide. Choosing Options will allow you control over audio and visual settings, and gives access to the user manual. The technique guide is a very useful starting point for those new to the software as it details how such things as vibrato, slide and mutes are displayed in the game and played on the instrument.
Going back to Rock School
Even though I'd decided to go easy on myself by choosing the beginner level, I also thought that it might be good to start with something I already knew how to play. With some degree of confidence, I launched into You Really Got Me by The Kinks, one of the first songs I learned and something I've been playing for a number of years.
The song is presented as a rolling fretboard (or note highway) that constantly moves towards you. There's a face-on version of the neck to the bottom which sports colored strings and indicates finger position. When the required chord shapes or note positions hit the mark at the front of the display, you play the corresponding notes on your guitar.
Rocksmith starts with just a few notes that follow a song's basic rhythmic structure. As mentioned previously, getting used to how the software represents the fretboard onscreen did present a few problems for a tab-head like me, leading to a few misses and a few late or doubled-up picks. Hitting the Esc key at any time during the song offers the opportunity to nail difficult sections with the help of Riff Repeater (where you can control a section's difficulty level and tempo, and repeat until you get it right), or access tools like the tuner and chord book before returning to, or restarting, the song.
The software determines how well you've performed during each run through of the song, and gives a summary at the end. Should you hit more notes than you fluff, the software adds more notes for you to play the next time and so advances you through the song until you master it. When you get to Master Mode, the onscreen prompts along the note highway will fade away so that you're encouraged to play the song from memory, which is very cool.
Frustratingly for me, despite knowing my first choice inside out, I kept being told that I'd missed notes. I asked Ubisoft whether this could be a tuning issue, whether the software allowed some give or take during a performance or whether it required pitch perfection every time.
"Although we have a bit of leeway on our note recognition, it’s designed to be dependent on pitch recognition, it's even more accurate and precise than the first iteration of Rocksmith," the company answered. "As a result, being in tune is very important and falling out of tune or having a guitar with incorrect intonation can result in missed notes. The timing of the note is also taken into account so notes played outside of the window for detection may not register. Sloppy technique can also result in missed notes if the note is not being played completely cleanly or clearly."
Though I could bluster on proudly and lay the blame on calibration or intonation problems, latency issues and such, I guess sometimes you just have to suck it up and surrender to unerring digital accuracy and keep practicing. Happily, this outlook seemed to pay off on subsequent song excursions, where my picking and fretting seemed more in tune with what Rocksmith had in mind.
Tackling songs I didn't know proved more valuable and more enjoyable experiences, and even led to greater appreciation for the work of Takahiro Matsumoto from B'z, Fang Island's Chris Georges and Jason Bartell and Tom Scholz of Boston.
One thing that I must mention is that when first using the software, I found the frequency of post-game popups alerting me about special features rather annoying.
"When starting out in Rocksmith 2014 these info windows which display information about new missions and the various features will naturally pop up more frequently to guide the new player through aspects of the game," Ubisoft told me. "They will diminish in frequency as you play on, although Rocksmith 2014 continues to inform players when they’ve completed missions or unlocked new rewards so they can be constantly motivated and encouraged in their guitar learning journey. As players play for longer, the majority of these popups are mission completion and unlock notifications. The unlocks include new equipment/skins/inlays, and even new songs."
The bottom line
Rocksmith 2014 is a very powerful learning package for all students of the guitar. It's full to the brim with useful features and functions, the tutorials are first class, and the ability to modify the digital tone that plays through the computer's speakers is a welcome touch. Game play can take a little getting used to, but I'd recommend sticking with it as the rewards definitely outweigh any initial misgivings.
Progressing through a song very much depends on player ability, and offers the kind of experience you might find in real world lessons, but is much more entertaining. I feel that I must warn that this package can seriously eat into your free time, and make your finger ends burn.
Like most things worth doing, you'll only get something out of Rocksmith 2014 if you're prepared to put the work in. Ubisoft says that players who spend at least an hour a day with Rocksmith 2014 can learn to play a new song in as little as 60 days. Throw a competitor into the mix and I think that you're looking at a pretty fast learning curve for many of the titles on offer, which cover most rock tastes.
I highly recommend this edutainment platform and think it well worth the US$79.99 price of admission (though if you already have a Rocksmith Real Tone interface cable, the cost is even less).
The video below details what's new in Rocksmith 2014.
Product page: Rocksmith 2014