I don’t recall seeing many video game reviews here, before. And I’m sure that this is my first. But in the spirit of our ongoing alt.GDC coverage, I thought I’d take just a second to talk about what looks, from my humble vantage, to be The Next Big Thing in video games.
MAKE readers, meet Rocksmith. Rocksmith, MAKE readers.
It makes me feel better to point out that Rocksmith is not just a video game. Sure, it has all the trappings of one: It comes on an optical disc that you pop into your console or PC. It has levels, objectives, a point system, unlockable rewards, and a connection to a cloud service that provides downloadable content, multiplayer options, and worldwide competition on various leaderboards. You can play alone or with friends.
The revolutionary part, really, is what comes in the box besides the game disc itself. It’s a cable. It’s kind of magic. Here’s a picture of it:
On one end is a male USB A connector that goes in your Xbox (or your PC or PS3). The other end is a 1/4″ phono plug, that goes into any electric guitar. Even that old Frankenstrat you’ve had gathering dust in the corner since college.
And Rocksmith will teach you to play it. Like, well.
Of course—and I now I’m hearing my EE Dad’s voice chiding me, in my head—the cable is not really “magic.” It’s just a couple of wires. You could make one yourself in a few minutes. (Update: Oops! Maybe not. See discussion, below.) I’d say the “magic,” if you’ll continue to forgive the term, is really in the software. Rocksmith includes an analog-to-digital converter and a spectrum analyzer that can untangle accurate information about what strings you’re fretting, and where, from the wall of sound coming off your guitar pickups. Even if you’re playing chords or performing special techniques like palm mutes, Rocksmith can tell, pretty reliably, if you’re doing it right. In real time.
And that, in my opinion, changes the whole ball game as far as music education goes. Rocksmith is nothing less than a private instrument instructor that’s there, all the time, whenever you (or your child) wants to play or practice. It provides instantaneous, entirely positive, entirely supportive feedback to train the psychomotor skills the instrument demands. I’ve been dabbling with guitar for a decade, and though I’m still no Clapton, two weeks with Rocksmith have made me much better than I ever was before. Kids who are starting on Rocksmith now will be doing unbelievable things with guitars in a few years. And they’ll be having a great time getting there.
Rocksmith gameplay will be familiar to anyone who knows Rock Band, for instance. Notes advance down the screen in time with the music, and are to be sounded just when they fall off the “cliff” at the bottom. The width of the screen is divided as the fretboard, and the particular string to be fretted is indicated by the note’s color. The shape of the note sprite and other markings indicate special techniques like sustain, palm muting, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, and harmonics. Progressing through “journey” mode, you rehearse sets of three to five songs until you can play them well enough to perform them back-to-back in an “event.” Do well enough in the “event,” and you unlock additional tracks to play as “encores.” It’s a pretty effective gimmick.
Besides “journey” mode, Rocksmith includes a shamelessly-named “Guitarcade” full of various delightfully cheesy minigames that train mechanical techniques like moving up and down the fretboard, moving between strings, fretting chords, harmonics, and so forth. These are quite effective. “Ducks,” the most basic minigame, is essentially space invaders across the length of the fretboard. Bad guys appear over random frets, and you shoot them by sounding the low E-string at the right fret. The action gradually speeds up until you can bounce quickly and accurately from one position on the neck to another. “Super Ducks” works on the same principle, but across all six strings. I haven’t unlocked all the minigames yet, but another favorite is “Harmonically Challenged,” which is kind of like Simon, but with sequences of harmonic tones instead of buttons.
There’s also an “amp” mode, which allows you to use your game console like a digital effects box. The various tracks licensed with the game each includes a custom guitar tone, and playing that song well enough unlocks the tone as a preset you can use in amp mode. You can also make up your own tones by mixing and matching filters that correspond to various guitars, pedals, amps, and cabinets. These effects modules are used as unlockable rewards throughout the game, so the further you advance, the more options you have when designing custom tones.
As in Rock Band, the makers of Rocksmith have licensed a pretty sweet collection of popular tunes for you to jam along with, with more being released as downloadable content all the time. Each song is available as a series of “arrangements” of increasing complexity and difficulty, and within each song, particular phrases become more or less difficult, on repetition, depending on how well you play them. Besides the technology, Rocksmith gets the educational psychology just right, too.
Ubisoft sells a bundle that includes an Epiphone-branded Les Paul copy for $370. But if you’ve already got a guitar sitting around, like I did, you can get just the game and the cable for $60. And though I’m admittedly still honeymooning, right now that seems like the best $60 I ever spent.