When Guitar Hero was the biggest thing in the world, real guitarists used to say things like “this would be amazing if you could use a real guitar instead of this plastic thing… which reminds me, we really need to get the strum bar repaired”. Well, Rocksmith allowed everyone to do just that. Play real guitars I mean–the strum bar was beyond help. Then there was a last-gen 2014 version that made it all more accessible and introduced more of a gaming element to the mix. Now that version is here on Xbox One and PS4, meaning I get a chance to answer the all-important question: Will this melt your face, or not?
The answer is sadly ‘not’, but it might melt your mind. Despite coming in game box packaging and loading up on your games console, this is more of an interactive guitar tutorial than a video game. And in that sense, it’s ostensibly a magnificent product. It helps you get your guitar in tune, and allows you to customise your own guitar sound via extensive amp simulations and virtual microphone placement. You can even slow down the tempo of its included songs, maintaining beautiful sonic clarity while giving you time to find the frets on the crowds of notes that fly towards the baseline in that familiar Guitar Hero/Rock Band manner.
The difficulty levels are nicely weighted, allowing beginners to just play the root notes of a song, intermediate players to play every note with full instruction and master players to just play along with the song with very little on-screen help. Master only unlocks when you’ve passed the previous skill level, but it’s a huge reward to just blast through a song like you’re playing it live, only you’re playing along with the actual track and being graded. Superb.
Those video game elements are found in the pleasantly retro-themed ‘Guitarcade’, which gives you some neatly-designed minigames to play based around mastering guitar techniques. So you might be hopping across poles as a ninja by sliding from one designated fret to another without dropping the note, or shifting lanes on a freeway by plucking different notes in a musical scale.
All of this threatens to be absolutely brilliant (and it would be) until technical issues let it down. For starters, it doesn’t always recognise notes even when they’re played correctly. I’ve been playing real guitar for 20 years, so seeing a perfectly-executed harmonic go unrecognised is frustrating. Especially when you try each of the three main harmonics on all six strings with nothing registering as correct. Hello? Is this thing on?
Then there’s the worst problem: The monitoring lag on the guitar input. When you slam a power chord on the start of You Really Got Me, you want it to come thumping through the speakers. And it does… just a bit later than you played it. Out-of-time guitar parts don’t sound very nice. If you’ve got a digital audio connection going straight to some speakers, the lag is reduced, but it still won’t feel like playing through a ‘proper’ guitar amp. It doesn’t affect your scoring, but it does affect the experience.
This is highlighted by the otherwise excellent jam mode. In this part of the game, you choose up to four virtual bandmates to play with you. In addition to style and tempo instructions, you can select a drummer of rock, metal or 80’s electric kit persuasion, a keyboard player, a bassist (and you can tell him whether to use his fingers or a pick) and more. Pick a musical key and away you go. Your virtual bandmates react dynamically to how hard or delicately you’re playing, allowing for what would be a sublime improvisational practice tool… but of course everything you play comes back through the speakers late, undoing all the good (nay, great) work.
This is the most subjective point in this review, but the track list isn’t anywhere near as good as Rock Band’s, with some standouts like Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, Def Leppard’s ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and Foo Fighter’s ‘Everlong’ representing the best of an uninspiring bunch. The new-gen version does recognise DLC songs purchased for the old-gen releases at no extra cost, which is welcome.
Rocksmith 2014 on PS4 or Xbox One represents a significant investment of time if you want to get the most out of it. And it’s definitely more for those who like to do things ‘the right way’ and get punished when they deviate from the exact notes on the original recording.
Does that kill artistic expression? Of course it does. But that’s because this is the gaming equivalent of an exam. It’s still an exam about rock and freakin’ roll, so of course there’s fun to be had along the way. But it also means a lot of hard work and dedication. And putting up with an examiner who is a little bit mental sometimes. And the fact the ink comes out of your pen a couple of words behind where you’re writing. But still… ROCK AND ROLL.
This game was reviewed on PS4.