GOTY: Rocksmith 2014

Not much weight should be put on Game of the Year. Just ask Griffin McElroy. And for a guy who obsesses over the industry, I’m ashamed to say that I had only played a handful of last year’s releases. While I played the best of the best, Mario Kart 8, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, and Broken Age to name a few, nothing has kept me coming back like Rocksmith 2014.

Apologies for the late review. I had only started playing days before the New Year.

Gameplay

I was a latecomer to the plastic-partying hysteria of Guitar Hero. My brother talked me into picking up Rockband (Guitar Hero with drums and a microphone for those unfamiliar) as a family activity. We had a blast, but I was never able to pry myself away from the drum kit. With a small background in music, the five-button toy guitars never satisfied. The drums were the closest I could get to a life-like experience. After leaving my high school rock band days well behind me, an itch for the satisfaction in controlling a real instrument began to percolate.

At it’s core, Rocksmith is built around the iconic Guitar Hero design: A reverse Star Wars crawl of notes streaming toward a fretboard with the player expected to strike said note at the right time. Where Rocksmith differs is the use of a real guitar; 138 notes vs. Guitar Hero’s 6.

From the get-go, I was extremely impressed by Rocksmith’s accuracy of note and chord recognition. Honest strikes and near misses are fed back in real-time just like Guitar Hero. Inaccuracies happen but typically err on the side of the player. Sure, there are inconsistencies here and there. If I missed a note in a chord, Rocksmith generally let it slide. However, when I can feel and hear exactly what I am playing, I know I am a cheat. (No amount of “gimmes” could extinguish my weight of guilt.) I didn’t need Rocksmith 2014 to tell me I was wrong. I was just as eager to jump back into the ring.

The player is offered three paths: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and bass. In the instance of lead guitar, techniques are slowly introduced during the “Learn A Song” mode. They are also readily available in “Lessons”. The player starts by playing along with a songs using well spaced single notes. These notes slowly advance into chords, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, etc. The scale of techniques offered by the game is shocking, not to mention the depth of the lessons and range of songs that utilize each technique.

Core

Where Rocksmith shines is the Learn A Song mode. There is a surprisingly vast array of songs in the catalog: from The Ramones to Rush to The Dear Hunter to Minus the Bear(!) to Mastodon. The player fas the choice to play each song straight through or focus on objectives such as mastering a bridge, finishing with a certain level of accuracy, or playing a mini-game that teaches a technique used in the song.

The killer feature, however, is Rocksmith’s ability to scale the difficulty of each song on the fly based on how well the player is performing. As I coolly played through La Sera’s “Love That’s Gone”, strumming full E5s and delicately plucking scattered notes, I was sure I had mastered the patterns. I was then caught off guard by a C#m that, at first, had only included A-flat and D-flat. After a few play-throughs and a headfake chorus, the chord had evolved, incorporating an E and another A-flat. Replaying the same song over and over without having to manually change difficulty is great. But more importantly, scaling the difficulty between individual sections previously mastered is brilliant. Imagine every time you played through World 1-1, new obstacles were introduced in the areas you excelled in.

Extras

In addition to learning songs, Rocksmith 2014 is packed with a plethora of supplemental modes, all serving individual importance and, quite possibly, to different audiences.

“Lessons” focus on individual techniques with accompanying videos and monitored playback that end in full songs. Lessons are repeated until mastered and are fairly enjoyable to revisit. Even the simple ones taught me something. And yes, the videos can be skipped.

“Guitarcade” focuses less on technique and more on music theory. Numerous surprisingly well designed games teach core skills in volume control, scales, and chord changes, among others. Be it the Streets of Rage style “Scale Warriors” or the Star Fox homage “Star Chords”, the level of detail in design, music, and art is top-notch.

That said, I have yet to jump at playing any of the “Guitarcade” mini-games. I don’t find them quite as engaging as the core “Learn A Song” mode or “Lessons”. Their presence within the greater Rocksmith game are a prime statement on edutainment; layering education on top of existing games (or vice versa) rarely produces a great experience. (Guitarcade) Building them together generally produces a far more engaging product. (Learn a Song)

To round out the list of features, “Session Mode” allows the player to build a band for an endless jam session. Similar to Apple’s GarageBand and Logic drummers, the band members the player chooses work for the player, not separately from the player. The AI play styles dynamically shift based on the player’s strumming patterns and rhythms.

Even with my lukewarm response to the “Guitarcade”, I can see a universe in which each of these secondary features are shipped as fantastic stand-alone products. To bundle them into the same package as the already fantastic core game is without a doubt a triumph in its own right. There is a level of finesse, execution, and love put into “Lessons”, “Guitarcade”, and “Session Mode” that seem to have be missing from major releases of late.

Falling Short

Where Rocksmith falls short is in guiding the player through recommended songs, lessons, and mini-games. It is clear that there was a desire to emphasize recommended paths, but it feels poorly executed. Rather just pressing “play” and letting Rocksmith 2014 take the wheel to automatically jump from song to mini-game back to the same song with an emphasis on a single verse and so forth, the player is forced to manually jump around in hopes that the recommendations are truly applicable.

In the case of playing “recommended” songs, I felt like I was playing through the entire catalog rather than focusing on where my skills needed work. In no time, Rocksmith took me from Johnny Ramone to Alex Lifeson before I could handle Dave Grohl. It took about 4 hours of play to realize sorting by “difficulty” rather than “recommended” was my desired style of play.

Conclusion

It’s been nearly 15 years since I began playing in a rock back. Nearly 15 years since the dream of becoming a rock star ever surfaced into my consciousness. Time, money, space, studies, work, responsibility: These things began to take priority after high school. The thing that made me feel most alive was put aside. It’s a shame that more effort was not made, that I lacked the confidence to perform on my own, or that I wouldn’t set aside a few hours a day to practice. (Also, I was never that good.) The older I got, the more I watched my rock ‘n roll glory days fade away.

Rocksmith 2014, through it’s brilliant use of familiar design, great song catalog, and level of detail, is quite possibly the best piece of edutainment software out there. Not only is it engaging, it is educational and addicting.  It is by no means perfect, with “recommendations” being a botched effort on potentially the strongest feature. But what it gets wrong pales in comparison to the core features it gets right. With surprise after surprise, “wow moment” after “wow moment”, Rocksmith 2014 kept hitting me in all of the sweet spots. And most importantly, it brought me back to my guitar.


Amazon | Rocksmith 2014 requires a guitar and a specialized 1/4 audio to USB cable.

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