"Learn to play a real guitar!"
That's the cry we reliably hear in Screen Play when somebody professes a love for Rock Band or Guitar Hero, "plastic instrument" games that simulate musicianship rather than teaching the real thing.
Rocksmith promises to let you do precisely that. It's a game played with a real guitar, connected to your console (and soon your Windows PC) via the bundled cable - one end in your guitar's 1/4 inch audio jack, and the other in a USB port.
While the game was released in the US almost a year ago, this month is finally getting an official Australian launch. For those who already own a guitar, the game is available on its own, but there is also a bundle that includes the game and cable, an Epiphone Les Paul Junior guitar, a shoulder strap, some guitar picks, and six bonus downloadable songs.
I recently spoke to Rocksmith's producer Jason Schroeder about the upcoming launch, and he told me that the timing of the local release is not arbitrary. "We've just added the bass expansion to the US release," he told me. "The Australian release will not only include a year's worth of improvements and bug fixes, but also bass support out of the box."
Schroeder explained how the game works. "It listens to your guitar. Once the guitar is in tune, it will hear every note you play, and will know if it's correct." Like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, there is a "highway", a scrolling bar with notes displayed on it, and you play the notes as the hit the line at the bottom, but that's where the resemblance ends.
"This is real guitar playing, literally," Schroeder said. "The note highway is sort of guitar tablature in motion. When you start, it gives you the absolute basics, one note at a time, but it keeps adding more as you get it right."
The gradual ramp-up in difficulty is a strange experience for those used to traditional video game structure. You never get a chance to relax and get over-confident, because as soon as you start getting all of the notes correct, it will add more. The first time you play, you might only be playing one note in ten, a super-simplified version of the song you are hearing. The better you are, though, the harder it gets, with more notes being added in until eventually you are playing the entirety of the song. It's not just notes, either. Over time the game teaches power chords, barre chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs, slides, and every other skill needed to play real guitar. Thankfully there are also training exercises and minigames to teach and perfect these skills.
"Rocksmith doesn't turn you into an instant rock star. It makes you eat your vegetables," Schroeder said with a laugh. This refusal to pander to the power fantasies that most games feed into is an interesting decision, and it is reflected in the terms used in the game. Your progress through the game isn't a "career", but a "journey". When you have finished with an activity, you move on by selecting "continue your journey". Schroder echoed this, saying, "Learning guitar is an experience."
"You can really learn guitar playing Rocksmith," he assured me. "It really happens, but you have to work for it. If you want to learn, and you practise and play regularly, you can really learn guitar."
This is the claim I have decided to put to the test. When a review copy of the game arrived in the post this week, including a real guitar, I was baffled as to how I would review it. This isn't your standard game, that I can pick up, play through, finish, and write about.
As such, I have decided that my "review" of Rocksmith will take place over the next several months, as I play the game and see if I can learn to play guitar. I'm calling it the Rocksmith Project. Every week or two, I will post an update, talking about how the game is progressing, if I feel I'm getting any better at it, and if I think I'm really learning to play.
Things look promising so far. I have only played for around two hours, but my scores in the first handful of songs and training exercises have been steadily improving, and the game has already started throwing more notes at me, and even occasional hammer-ons and simple chords. The automatic difficulty adjustment even works mid-song - if you're playing well, the same riff could have three times as many notes in it at the end of a song as it did at the start.
Will I become a guitar god? Keep reading over the next few months and find out.
If you want to join me on this musical journey, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Rocksmith will go on sale in Australia on 28 September. The new PC version will available for download on 16 October, and physical copies will go on sale in Australian shops on 18 October.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez