Review: Rocksmith 2014

tl;dr Pick this up if you want to learn to play guitar and not sure if you want to keep going. It’ll save you money on lessons if you don’t take to it

Always late to the party, my brother recommended I pick up Rocksmith 2014 about a year ago. I procrastinated because of the cost and associated hemming and hawing about it. Well, a year later and I plunked down the cash with some other purchases and all I can say is… wow.

I’ve owned guitars for quite a while. My first was an Ibanez that I sold for rent money. My second guitar (that I still own) is a Vaccaro Generator X that looked pretty sitting in the corner for a long time, collecting dust. And I bought another guitar for a girlfriend who promptly returned it when we split. So two guitars, no talent.

I took a few lessons but they were expensive and “slow”. You get some small amount of material to practice on for a week and then go back, let your teacher hear what you’ve done and then get a little more. It’s like baby steps. Long, expensive baby steps. No disrespect to music teachers. This is the general process you go through with formal lessons.

So going into this, I knew a few power chords and a couple of others. I knew how to hold my guitar and tune it. But that was as far as it went – I didn’t know any songs at all. Now here I am at 37, with a copy of Rocksmith 2014 and I’ve already made more progress in 4 days than I have with three times as many days with teachers. Of course, I’ve already put in over 24 hours of actual in-game practice (it hurts).

If anyone ever wants to find a good focal point of gamification, they need look no further than Rocksmith. It breaks songs down into little bits and looks a lot like Guitar hero with a “streaming highway” of notes coming at you. The notes use different symbols to tell you what needs to be done like a sustain has a trail, single notes are little Pez tiles that come in several variations depending on what you need to do (mute, hammer on/off, etc.)

Pivotal to the game is the Riff Repeater tool. You can go into a song and tweak the playback to slow it down so you can get specific riffs down. It also has features that once you hit a specific riff, it will bump up the speed. You can also set it to auto-continue the song from the point you are practicing so once you hit 100% with 0 missed notes, you move on. There are a host of features within the Riff Repeater that I’m still exploring but it is an indispensable tool and key to learning.

Rocksmith 2014 also comes with some loose instructional guidance. When you play a song, RS will analyze your performance and give you suggested actions such as Riff Repeater, or review a lesson, play an “arcade” game, etc. One little bit I get tired of though is the constant suggestion to review the “Chords 101″ lesson as I have 100% in it and I get what is going on with chords.

There are also “lessons” that run somewhat similar to the actual song play where they show you certain things and you have to repeat them before moving on. After reviewing the forums, it appears the lessons may be used a little less by players – however I have found the lessons excellent, if not challenging. For example, I’m having a horrible time with palm mutes (or the speed at which you have to play them) and bends. As an aside – for those having issues with the Bends 101 lesson, hit the string and then bend – i.e. let the note ring just a little before actually bending the strings.

And just like they used to say on TV – BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

You also get a tone designer where you can play with different amps, pedals, speaker cabs. Oh, and there’s a built-in “session” feature where you can put together a band with varying styles if you just want to play guitar freely.

And then there’s the arcade games. At first I thought these were a stupid feature. But then as I played a few of them, I noticed that they were helping significantly in terms of my playing speed and recognition of the fret board. There are games to practice chords, bends, fret traversing and more. Don’t take these for granted.

There’s also a Free Play feature that lets you set up a set list and then you can play through without stopping for the interface/suggestions/etc.

I even got so excited, I bought the original Rocksmith and the import tool and brought in the older licensed music into the new version. Now this may be a blessing and a curse – one which I will have to find out. The blessing is that you essentially double your material. The curse is that I might end up taking longer with the game because the difficulty level is probably more smooth and I will have more content to work through.

At any time, you can compete by playing songs and getting scored in the Score Attack game. You can then compare your score with others.

Oh, and did I mention there’s two modes for guitar – lead and rhythm? This affects how the songs are played and pay special attention that not all songs have a rhythm mode.

Oh and another thing, you can also play bass. (although I don’t have a bass guitar)

There is also a little system you’ll find with a pick icon. You can unlock badges and new gear/equipment/skins.

Neutrals:

The system isn’t perfect. As long as you play a note, or the game picks up the note being played, it might get a hit as accurate. It doesn’t really care about other notes in the Play A Song mode. Your playing can also sound sloppy and you’ll wonder why your percentage of completion goes up. You can get a song to 100% completion and it may sound like crap.

Think of this as more of a rough guide to your comprehension of a song – you might be a little sloppy but you understand the fundamentals of the song and what to do – that is the key part. You can go back and clean it up as much as you want or perfect your skills doing the Skill Attack game where you’re scoring points.

Downsides:

If you haven’t been on youtube yet, you can find a lot of videos about the “60 day challenge”. The challenge itself isn’t a negative at all. A lot of people seem to find it works for them and I am participating. However Ubi’s site leaves a little bit to be desired. There seems to be chatter on the forums that there is latency with updates to your stats. The numbers are might also be a bit skewed although mine appear to be up-to-date (I’m using the PC version)

Your profile also contains a little chunk of banner code which appears to be horribly out of sync with your playing. They give you a little code snippet to post in forums that looks like:

Note that the stats above (when posted) are wildly off. Below is a more accurate image:

Found in the RS2014 forums, you can “fix” the issue by going into your profile and scrolling to the bottom of the page. At the bottom you will see your forum banner image. Right-click on the image (not the text snippet) and “view image” in separate window or tab. In the URL bar, you will see a link to your image. At the end of the URL, put ?1 and then hit enter and you should see an updated version of your banner.

Another gripe about  the site that I found peculiar – they content filter what you can put in the fields for “your favorite song”. For example, my favorite song in this instance was “Prayer to God” by Shellac which appears to be verboten. I would guess the mere mention of God might hurt some people’s feelings but it is a tad bit ridiculous.

As I may have also mentioned, the suggestions can get a bit redundant. There are only a limited number of times I really want to review the same lesson again and again and again. So you’ll often see many lessons you’ve already completed (and have 100% on), the same games offered as suggestions, etc.

I also don’t like the sorting system – and this is especially notable if you have no idea what you are doing and staring at a song list. Maybe I missed it but you hit [tab] to sort the menu by different means and then click this little up/down arrow icon to sort them. But there’s no indication of whether you are looking at the list in ascending/descending order.

For example, probably the best sort order to use is the Difficulty sorting. But how do you know what is the easiest and what is the hardest if you don’t know the music. Here’s a hint: if Blitzkrieg Bop is towards the top of the list, it is sorted in ascending order of easiest to most difficult.

The easiest song is probably Blitzkrieg Bop which is, in my opinion, way too fast for the first song to learn. It is a very easy song, but a very fast song for someone without playing experience. As a new player, while getting used to the instrument, you need to build up finger strength, apply the proper pressure to the strings and get your strumming down. My personal experience is that I (still) am tensing up while playing to the point of my fretting hand is killing me. A new player is trying to syncopate left and right hand and it is very hard to do when the song is moving so fast.