Years ago, my Guitar Hero bundle arrived for review and after getting a feel for the game, I couldn't stomach it. Honestly, I simply didn't like it. And it's not just me, anyone else who plays the guitar agrees - this game is impossible for an actual guitar player to enjoy. The issue with Guitar Hero for people like me is that we're trying to play the actual song, down to the rhythm, as if we were using a real guitar, as opposed to striking one of five buttons with another button acting as the 'pick'. Still, when reviewing games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, we had to be objective (plus, at least the drumming in later iterations was fairly solid), and we saw them for what they were - fun party games. But the guitarist in me always wondered, why can't someone just release a game where you use an actual guitar using an adapter, that detects what notes you're playing and rewards you for legitimate musical skill. RockSmith is precisely that. And what started out as a project that many were skeptical would pan out this well, has ended up being arguably the sleeper hit of the year; so much so that stores are backordered for weeks, and prices of the game have inflated on eBay. Ubisoft has a hit franchise on their hands.
The core of RockSmith is extremely simple, one that any seasoned or even non-seasoned player will grasp - you play along to music in the game. It's what almost every guitar player does right now where they run music through their PCs and play along through their amp. Except the difference here is you get graded, and fairly accurately, might I add. RockSmith is ideal for all types of players, the newcomers, amateurs, experienced, and advanced. Thanks to its dynamic learning curve, the amateur will learn the ropes through a series of tutorials the game has to offer, as well as being treated to simplified note charts for every song they play. So as opposed to being thrown into a song full blast, you will be prompted to hit a note or two every few seconds just to get a feel for the song, your guitar, and what the primary notes are. Once the game sees you are up to par with everything it gives you, it'll gradually add a few extra notes for you to hit. So there's a level of layers you'll go through until you are given the song in its entirety. And speaking of which, when you have mastered a song, you will be allowed to turn the chart off and just play it by ear, which is pretty awesome. Though, you can unlock the song's layers quicker by playing the tune in full from the get go - it seems like the game detects your experience in that regard as well, and will allow you to unravel the more advanced note charts quicker.
The chart is laid out on screen exactly like a guitar fretboard, with the odd numbered frets labeled and the strings boasting individual colors. Personally, the odd numbering could've been executed a bit better, the developer should've figured out a way to display all numbers. Because the chart scrolls upward, it's sometimes a little difficult to see where the next note is...'is it the 7th fret or 8th fret?' It's hard to put into words, exactly, but you'll know what I mean when you actually play the game. It would make more sense to display just the fret numbers that are approaching, instead of having all of them laid out. Furthermore, the color scheme for each string is a little unusual, as well and should've been thought of more carefully. Again, when you're in the middle of concentrating on the song, it can be a little hard to remember which string is the yellow string as the notes for it approach - this is also partly because the other strings will dim into the background. The better design aesthetic would've been to label the strings with a descending color intensity - the darker colors would've been the lower pitched top strings, the lighter colors would've been the higher pitched bottom strings. But again, if you can get around this odd curve, you will still be rewarded with a fantastic learning experience - and if you already have the experience, chances are you won't even look at the screen anyway.
I can honestly say I almost never looked at the screen, since a number of these songs I knew quite well and was able to ace them and earn a number of streak related trophies, as well as a 98-100% accuracy ranking. There is a career mode in the game called Journey (don't get excited, because there isn't a single Journey song in the game), there is also a ranking system based on accumulating points for every performance, and naturally with every rank you earn a trophy. There is also a few mini-games in the Guitarcade, which are good for a quick and fun distraction. Likewise an offline multiplayer mode is present for two, and you have the ability to use a mic and sing along. So there's quite a bit to do beside just playing guitar in the game by yourself. But at the end of the day, what most concerned me is the core of the game and that would be playing the guitar and the game's ability to accurately grade you. What I also enjoyed seeing was that you don't have to play songs precisely as the game wants you to, so if you play some of these songs another way and it sounds virtually identical to the actual recording the game will not penalize you. The detection system is based on pitch and notes, not which frets you're actually hitting.
Having said that, your purchase of RockSmith will depend on the track list. Do you like what you see? If so, get it. If not, don't. What I will tell you off the bat is that there aren't any excruciatingly difficult songs here. No Dream Theater. No Trivium. No Slayer. No Iron Maiden. No Killswitch Engage. The tunes veer on the lighter side of rock, so there's really nothing terrible heavy either - and that's point. Because RockSmith is a new franchise, Ubisoft clearly doesn't want to alienate a massive set of gamers out there who will likely never perfect music from the aforementioned bands. Or at the very least, they didn't want to make songs like that as part of the core experience, which is where DLC comes in. As expected for a game like this, DLC is present...but at $3 a song, it's also very pricey and the costs add up quick. Again, seasoned players are more likely to just stick to playing along with the music through their PCs and playlists. But someone who wants to learn without paying $50 every week for a lesson shouldn't even think twice about it, RockSmith was made for you and you will get a whole lot of satisfaction out of it (slight pun intended as Rolling Stone's hit song is one of the most frequently centered songs in the game, including commercials and such).
Lastly, audio quality is fantastic, though despite what Ubisoft claims, optical out (for the home theater setups) will not always provide the most lag-free experience. In fact, in my experience, my optical Sony receiver had a half-second delay in output which made playing the game impossible, forcing me to use my TV's internal speaker output. Not all optical receivers do this, only a small handful which largely plagues Sony's as their receivers are meant for videogames and movies where this is constant output of sound, as opposed to a game like RockSmith which requires an input of sound to the PS3, then to the receiver, and out from the speakers. It's a minor quip and is not a fault of the game, but rather the hardware I have - so it is not losing points for it. Where RockSmith does lose some points is its inability to fine-tune the audio in the same way you can in RockBand and Guitar Hero, where the volumes of certain sounds and instruments can be toned down or up. I'd have liked to see this level of personalization; it should be a necessity for a game of this nature. Though, what I did love was accessing the amp, unlocking new sounds and tones and just doodling around in the game and practicing.
RockSmith is the real deal, believe the hype. It's a well executed game with superb tone recognition. It is effectively what Guitar Hero should've become after the third or even second iteration. This the proper evolution of the music game genre, and Ubisoft is at the forefront of it. I'm not sure what kind of patents are involved in creating a game like this, though I wouldn't be surprised to see RockSmith remain as the only franchise that allows you to use any real guitar to play the game. I used my ESP Eclipse, Ibanez Iceman, Schecter C1 Classic, and Gibson Les Paul Prototype (a conceptual prototype the company never produced in the 80s) and they all worked. It's also worth mentioning that my Eclipse has a DiMarzio D-Sonic humbucker retrofit at the bridge, and the game has no problems with the guitar (no noise, feedback, etc.). The reason for that is because the game is digitally outputting the sound of your guitar, using tones the game is preloaded with. Likewise, if you plug in an electric acoustic, it'll still sound the same as a standard electric guitar in game - but it has to have an actual pickup, though.
Technical tidbits aside, I really believe that RockSmith is the future of music games and that publishers such as EA/MTV Games and Activision will strive to achieve an experience as close as possible to RockSmith - again, assuming there aren't a slew of patents that Ubisoft has secured. I can definitely see this turning into a massive franchise in the coming years. Kudos, Ubisoft...kudos.
11/10/2011 Arnold Katayev