From the moment Guitar Freaks had gamers wailing on plastic peripherals back in 1998, there has been a steady march towards a game that can effectively teach noobs how to properly weild an axe. Rock Band 3’s half-breed Pro Guitar controller was the most significant step forward until last year’s Rocksmith finally introduced actual guitars into the equation, but it is only with Rocksmith 2014 that the game-as-guitar teacher dream has actually seemed within reach.
In fact, Rocksmith 2014 is so good, it’s difficult to see it being topped by much short of motion sensing technology that can provide a detailed critique on a player's posture and playing technique – stuff that goes well above and beyond the current tech's “you hit that note at the right time” feedback.
Rocksmith 2014 does almost everything better than its predecessor, but its menus remain confusing. As such, new players are advised to stick to the learning curve offered by the My Path section of the game, which offers up a cleverly-assembled mix of the game’s modes, all arranged into incrementally more difficult missions. The mix of quality video lessons, exercises, songs, challenges, and games here keeps things nicely varied, and overall it’s an extremely well-implemented mode that still offers some choice to the player while leading them through a series of easy-to-follow and logically-ordered lessons. The game’s obsession with charting even microscopic improvements via scoreboards and achievements is a great motivator too.
Those wild enough to step outside the confines of My Path are spoiled for choice. Most with anything more than zero guitar playing experience will jump excitedly into Learn a Song mode, where they can shred through a list of 50 new tracks which may be favourited or sorted in a variety of ways including difficulty, tuning, times played, recommended, and more.
And while there is no pleasing everyone, there is a good variety of bands and styles on offer, from Aerosmith to Avenged Sevenfold, Mastodon to Satriani, The Kinks to White Zombie – all songs clearly chosen for their delicious guitar lines. The game’s store expands things further for around AU$3.50 a song (or less if part of a bundle), notably adding classic riff-fests like My Sharona, Black Betty, Bohemian Rhapsody, and 20th Century Boy.
A player’s competence on each song is expressed by a Mastery percentage and the game continually recommends three courses of action for upping this, which range from simple things like looking up a chord in the chordbook to hitting a five note streak, to nailing a complete section of the song.
Working through a song in this manner will be effective for newbies, as things start very basic and the difficulty curve is gentle. However, what’s missing is a simple option that detects a player’s competence and aggressively ramps things up as a song progresses in order to immediately challenge experienced players. Last Year’s Rocksmith implemented this feature imperfectly, but it’s still disappointing to see it discarded.
On top of that, the experience level a player selects the first time the game is played – which, incidentally, cannot be changed without deleting all progress – seems to have no influence on how challenging a song is from the outset. I told the game I was an expert rhythm player, and yet it still put me on a beginner’s learning trajectory for each and every song. On the other hand, perhaps it was trying to tell me something.
Fortunately, there are workarounds for these bugbears in the form of the excellent Riff Repeater, which for some reason is only accessible once a song has been started. This is where those who can already play a little (or a lot) may find a challenge appropriate to their experience level.
Vastly improved from last time, Riff Repeater's flexible and intuitive options allow a player to finely tune a song’s difficulty and speed and the system’s error tolerance, as well as specify the chunk or chunks of the song to be practiced. Play that portion of the song with an error count below that targeted and the game rewinds, speeds the song up a smidge, and throws in a few more notes. The error tolerance option in particular is an utter godsend not only to combat any lag, but also to even out the misses that creep in during faster rhythm playing which seem to be more detection- than playing-related.
Elsewhere, Guitarcade returns and this time consists of 12 surprisingly clever and mostly entertaining arcade game homages. Each of these attempts to stealthily teach players a fundamental guitar technique such as string skipping or scales by having them play Streets of Rage or House of the Dead clone using their guitar. It sounds preposterous but thanks to some inventive game design it somehow works in the majority of cases, and it’s amazing how motivating it is to play when each pluck of a note equates to a punch in the face for an onscreen enemy.
Completely new to Rocksmith this time out is the much-advertised and very cool Session Mode, where up to four instruments jam along with the player in a predetermined style. Accompanying instruments are selected from a pool of drums, basses, synths, pianos, and guitars, but there is even a banjo, kazoo, mandolin, ukulele, and more to choose from. From there, the jam session’s key, scale, complexity, tempo, and groove looseness may be tweaked, and then anything goes! The AI is pretty good about matching playing intensity too, its arrangement getting sparser and quieter as the player backs off, but cranking up as the player does the same.
The most useful feature here is the fretboard diagram, which dynamically displays which notes traditionally fall within “acceptable” (some would say “pedestrian”) for the current backing chord, and it’s easy to view the whole fretboard or zoom in on a particular section to get really familiar with its note placement. The only thing missing here is the ability to modify the selected guitar tone, but three presets may be assigned to a controller’s right analogue stick, which is a nice touch.
Deeper tone modification is available in Tone Designer, which provides impressively extensive options for shaping a guitar’s sound, from pre-amp effects right through to post-amp PA rack settings. Some licensed properties from Orange and Marshall are here, but the Rocksmith-labelled amps are all pretty obvious nods to other big brands and sounds that all guitarists will be familiar with. Changing the sounds by dipping in and out of menus is obviously much more fiddly than turning knobs on a physical amp, but the emulation quality here is high, and real amps take up space and cost money.
Rocksmith 2014 is held back slightly because Ubisoft still hasn’t figured out a decent menu system, and because the Kinect seems to interpret any guitar noise as “exit please”. The absence of proper guitar tablature notation – or even the option to include it – is also baffling, and my console locked up twice mid-song in the first four hours of play. However, the depth and variety offered by Rocksmith 2014 remains astounding, and it's a great teaching tool.
It’s pleasing to see its predecessor’s problems with loading times and inadequate fret notation addressed, and most of that game’s songs can be imported into the improved system here too. Colour blind players are catered for, and if there is any justice, the option to jam along locally with a mate will be the catalyst for the formation of many first-time bands.
But what Rocksmith does best is provide players of any ability below “accomplished” with the ecstatic feeling of nailing a tasty riff, jamming along with a favourite band, or simply noodling aimlessly while the world’s most patient backing band vamps enthusiastically. It cannot replace the attention of a good guitar teacher, but it's a brilliant supplementary aid that actually manages to make learning engaging and fun. And really, what is more rock 'n' roll than that?