Rocksmith: This Ultimate Music Game is Better Than Rock Band, Better Than Guitar Hero


I'm not a true video game enthusiast. There is one game, however, for which I have a nearly religious reverence (in fact, I actually maintain a whole blog about it here): Rocksmith.

Admittedly this game is really more of a fun practice tool for guitar players than a regular video game, but it makes playing guitar so easy that virtually anybody can do it.

As a lifelong drummer and wanna-be guitarist, I just never "got" the whole Rock BandGuitar Hero thing. Instead of spending hours pretending to play music with a plastic prop, why not spent that time actually learning to play a real guitar?

Rhythm-based games like Rock Band attempted to bridge the gap between air guitar jams in front of the bathroom mirror and actually knowing how to play a guitar. Still, the gulf between playing rhythm games and playing an actual instrument was huge. Being able to flick a lever on a plastic toy is a long way from playing a guitar. Rocksmith bridges that gap without killing the fun. Half video game, half virtual tabs book with backing tracks, Rocksmith lets even the rankest beginner play along with some big-time hits on a real guitar from day one.

Yes, Rock Band attempted to make the leap into actual instruments with varying degrees of success, but the closest they got was a special, modified guitar which is no longer made and which sells ... used ... for over $300. Rocksmith literally allows players to use any real guitar with a pick-up. I had a $25 no-name guitar lying around and it works just fine with Rocksmith. You can get a perfectly nice, new electric guitar for $150. If you already own a $2500 Gibson LP Studio, you can use it. But, you don't need that to play. There are Rocksmith bundles available which include a decent Epiphone Les Paul Special II for $150, which is like buying a guitar and getting the game free. And, you can use the guitar when you start touring with bands.

Something Ubisoft's developers call Dynamic Difficulty let's you start out playing just the main notes of a song and adds more notes as you learn. This can be frustrating and some Rocksmith players complain that this makes them feel like they're moving backwards. While it may take some getting used to, it's actually a very effective method of working your way up to playing a whole song without being overwhelmed by a flood of notes.

Something else you have to get used to is the Rocksmith Note Highway, a somewhat unique approach to animated tablature. Rather than scrolling traditional tablature across the screen from right to left, Rocksmith presents notes as though they are coming toward you. You play the notes as they cross the staff, which is represented on the screen as a semi-transparent guitar neck.

My kids picked up on these nuances within minutes. Some older friends of mine had a little more difficulty letting go of what they're used to seeing in tab books, which is how a lot of guitar players learn to play.

Learning to play songs from tab books often leaves new guitar players disappointed because they can hit all the notes and still not sound quite right. A big part of playing guitar is learning to play your amp. Rocksmith sets your tone automatically so you sound right without endlessly fiddling with amplifier settings and pedals. When you pick a song to play, the appropriate tone is selected for you. No need to figure out how the original band set up their amps.

Sadly, Rocksmith doesn't tell you exactly how to translate these settings to a real-world amplifier. But, Rocksmith does include a virtual modeling amp and dozens of virtual pedals (think Amplitube) which you can use as a practice amp. This alone makes the game worth the price, since even the cheapest effects pedal for a guitar can easily cost $100. As you earn additional tones and pedals in the game, you can also design your own tones and assign them to any song.

Rocksmith is similar to Rock Band or Guitar Hero in that there's still a true game aspect. It's not a traditional "learning tool" masquerading as a game. The game concept is that you are a new guitar player embarking on your career as an amateur. Set lists are suggested (you can modify them) and when you achieve the qualifying score for each song on the list you are booked to play the set list at an event with an audience. Events are played at larger and larger venues as you work your way up from New Act to International Headliner and eventually to the 11th and highest rank: Rocksmith. Along the way you unlock new guitars, tones, pedals, Guitarcade games, and half a dozen bonus songs.

The game comes with 51 tracks (each of which includes at least 2 different arrangements). New songs are released at a rate of about 3-4 every two weeks and can be purchased as downloadable content for about $3 each. Not a bad deal considering each song provides tablature and backing track for a couple of different arrangements, to include bass guitar. The song selection is limited compared to what the old rhythm games offer ... there's no Metallica or KISS, for example. But, the DLC is a nice mix of everything from Jenny O. to Avenged Sevenfold. Playing Rocksmith has introduced me to some artists I'd never even heard of before while letting me learn to play some classics from my childhood.

I discovered Rocksmith last year when I stumbled upon a fully-functioning demo at my local music retailer. My son played it for about 20 minutes in the store and went home and played the same songs on his guitar. At that time, Rocksmith was only available for game consoles, specifically xBox and Play Station 3. So, I rushed out and bought a game console (xBox, if you must know) just so we could play this game. This month Ubisoft unveiled the latest version of the game for PC, to include the long-awaited addition of bass guitar to the game.And, now you don't even need a game console to play Rocksmith because game maker Ubisoft released it for PC in October.

The PC version is distributed through Steam. (A free demo is available for download but you'd need to buy a Real Tone cable to play it ... might as well just buy the game and get the cable with it.) At $79.99, this isn't the cheapest game you can buy, but you get what you pay for. I recently bought a book of tabs and a play-along CD for bass which included about a dozen songs and cost me nearly $20. Rocksmith comes with a library of 51 songs and over 75 more songs available as downloadable content. Plus, you're essentially getting a modeling amplifier included free. You can use the amp mode to practice anything you want or just to noodle around or experiment with different tones.

If you play guitar but have gotten bored with it or if you always wanted to play but didn't know where to start, Rocksmith is an excellent alternative to backing tracks and tab books. The Technique Challenges and Guitarcade games included will introduce you to pretty much everything you need to know to play. It's not a virtual guitar teacher, but it will get you playing. (It's so much fun I played for 8 hours straight one night!) And, playing is really the key to becoming a real guitar player.