Review: Rocksmith – like Guitar Hero, but for actual guitars

It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, but this game makes it feel like less of a struggle

Glancing over at my safe plastic and colour-coded Guitar Hero instrument, I found myself clutching the genuine electric guitar a little tighter. I had a feeling Rocksmith was going to be quite a different creature from Guitar Hero. I actually hoped it would be, and I was right.

Rocksmith might use the same kind of road of oncoming notes interface as Guitar Hero, but it feels much less like a game, and more like a digital guitar lesson with gaming elements. There’s a pretty big difference, it turns out, between 5 buttons and a string and a real guitar.

If you have any inclination to learn guitar then this is the game for you because although the game doesn’t necessarily make the process any easier, it does bring a bit more fun to it. It’s impossible to say really whether or not it is indeed the “fastest” way to learn guitar as it claims, but it’s definitely a good way if you’re willing to invest the time and effort required.

It should be noted that I haven’t touched a guitar since I was around 11, so I was essentially going into the game as a complete novice with ridiculously high expectations of how quickly I would pick things up. I had the initial frustration of realising just how little I know, followed by the usual overwhelming feelings of failure and certainty that everything I touch turns to ash. That’s normal, right? Fight through it.

After a few weeks of playing Rocksmith I’ve become significantly better at playing the guitar; that doesn’t mean I’m actually good, or even decent by any means, but I’m definitely better and that shows the game is fulfilling its promise. Besides, I’ve enjoyed the process a lot more than I enjoyed the guitar lessons of my childhood and that’s got to be to its credit.

Rocksmith’s difficulty is adaptive, starting you off playing only a few notes of a song that’s playing at full speed. If you grasp playing those notes, the game will introduce more until before you know it, you’re playing the whole song. This is fairly good system, but as the songs themselves become more complex it can be difficult to feel like you’re progressing smoothly. Thankfully, there’s a helpful feature called Riff Repeater. This feature allows you to take sections of a song that are specifically challenging you and slow them down to a pace that’s a bit easier to handle. There’s also the option to gradually speed the section up, helping you get to grips until you’re playing it at normal speed.

The game has plenty of instructional videos that will teach you the basics (and I mean basics) of holding a pick and attaching the strap through to more advanced features. The game is great in terms of automation, identifying sections of songs you’re struggling with and holding your hand through them.

Guitarcade is an excellent section of the game which brings in traditional style mini games to teach you some of the fundamentals of playing guitar. String Skip Saloon will train your hand to jump between strings by having you shoot cowboys whilst Harmonic Heist will teach you some harmonic skills by having you steal gems. The silliness of these games are part of what makes Rocksmith so fun as a learning tool; it’s really taking advantage of its video game nature to offer something a typical guitar tutor can’t.

The game really allows you to learn at your own pace, not blocking you from playing any songs, which incidentally aren’t bad. I imagine the tracklist is selected for the quality of guitar playing which ought to act as a kind of incentive to learning, but it does mean the songs aren’t massively varied and although there are some big bands, I feel like their more interesting songs to play weren’t given attention.

Session Mode is by far the most free section of the game, letting you set up a band, choosing the tempo and key to play in, and off you go. Your backing band will play behind you, matching your tempo and key whilst the game lets you know which notes might sound good. I found this mode pretty helpful in terms of getting actual enjoyment out of playing music, simply because I was given some freedom to create it. I just let the music flow through me, like, y’know? *hair flick*

What I will say is don’t rely on this game alone to teach you how to master guitar. If you want to get the most out of it you’ll probably have to back it up with some actual teaching, or at the very least another course.

I’m also not sure how frustrating Rocksmith would be for people who already have a decent grasp on playing guitar. The game very much has a focus on doing things the “right” way (the game’s way) so if you’re beyond the basics and would like to exercise some creativity in your playing, you might find yourself frustrated when it tells you you’re wrong for something that’s pretty subjective.

Overall, I found Rocksmith an excellent re-introduction to the guitar. It managed to make learning the basics feel less tiresome and more like fun. It’s not a game in the most traditional sense of the word, but adding a gaming element to what feels more like particularly inspired teaching software works wonders and if you’re at all interested in learning guitar I would absolutely recommend it.

Rocksmith 2014 is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, XBox 360, and PS3 now. You can get it on Amazon for £42.98 on PC, including the unique required cable that doesn’t come with the Steam store purchase.

Main Image: © Ubisoft