Rocksmith 2014 – PS3
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: Oct 22, 2013
Genre: Music, Educational
Reviewed by Arend Hart

Review Score: 5 of 5

“Rocksmith 2014 makes learning the guitar enjoyable and rewarding. It might seem a bit pricey at first, but for what it delivers, Rocksmith is a real bargain”.

I hang with a lot of musicians, and I can tell you that during the heyday of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises the musicians’ biggest complaints were that those games “really don’t teach people to play music.” I would argue that while those two games might not have taught people to play an actual instrument (well, maybe the electronic drums, but definitely not a guitar), they did help instill a sense of song structure, timing, and rhythm in folks that might not have had the confidence to pick up a real instrument.

In all honesty though, my musician friends did have a valid point. Then came a game that actually did take a stab at teaching folks to play a real guitar – Ubisoft’s Rocksmith. Employing a specialized ¼” Phono Plug-to-USB cable called the “Realtone Adapter” Rocksmith allowed gamers to connect a real-life electric guitar to their game console, and following a familiar-looking scrolling note staff (similar to Rock Band and Guitar Hero) within minutes were riffing along with the Rolling Stones’ classic hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. And that was only the beginning.

The original Rocksmith proved to be the perfect melding of music and gaming; an experience that was equally as entertaining as it was educational. It offered plenty of challenge for musicians of all levels, and the overall sense of reward was hindered only by an awkward navigation system, a bit of troublesome audio latency (especially on high definition televisions using HDMI), and a steep (yet fair, in my opinion) price point.

Two years later, Ubisoft delivers the first follow-up with Rocksmith 2014. Sporting the tagline “Learn to Play in 60 Days,” the new release aims to up the ante from the original – adding a handful of unique gameplay modes while attempting to address all of the issues from the first game with an improved interface, adaptive difficulty, and a revision for the Realtone Adapter purported to reduce the audio latency.

The pricing structure for Rocksmith 2014 is the same as the original release:

Rocksmith 2014 Guitar Bundle

– Rocksmith Game Disc
– Rocksmith Realtone Cable USB-to-1/4” Audio Adapter
– Gibson/Epiphone Les Paul Jr. Guitar (Retail value $129.00)
– Guitar Strap and 2 Picks

 MSRP $199.99

Rocksmith Standard Game

– Rocksmith Game Disc
– Rocksmith Realtone Cable USB-to-1/4” Audio Adapter

 MSRP $79.99

Once again, the price point – especially the Guitar bundle – might seem a bit steep for most gamers, but considering what you get for the money, Rocksmith is a real bargain. At $79.99, the standard game is roughly $20 more than a typical new release, so one would naturally attribute that extra cost to the Realtone Cable.

Yes, that’s probably a bit on the high side for a single cable, but bearing in mind that most beginner guitar lessons will cost $15 – $30 per hour it only takes a few hours for Rocksmith 2014 to pay for itself. And believe me, the hit song-based lessons that gamers will experience in Rocksmith are infinitely more enjoyable and educational than the customary “Mary had a little Lamb” lessons the folks at the local guitar shop offer.

As for the guitar pack, that’s also a steal considering that the included Epiphone Les Paul Junior guitar runs anywhere between $130 and $150 on the open market, the true newbies to the electric guitar are getting a $10-$30 savings on a quality axe. Sadly, the kit does not include a practice amp other than the various in-game amplifier filters, but gamers can easily find those online or at the local guitar shop for as little as $20.

The most dramatic improvement is in the Menu system. It seemed as though the original installment was trying almost too hard to distance itself from its Rockband and Guitar Hero brethren with an overly stylish horizontally-oriented menu system that only showed one submenu selection at any given time as gamers traversed right and left looking for the appropriate tab. Not only did the menu system make the original Rocksmith difficult to navigate, but it also left some of the game’s best features buried in too deep to be fully appreciated.

Rocksmith 2014 defaults to an industry standard line-item menu system, making it much easier to navigate into and out-of the different options. Gamers still have to pick up and put down a PS3 controller between every song, but the process is infinitely more intuitive than it was previously. Add to that the noticeably improved loading times, and gamers spend a lot more time plucking the strings than they do holding a controller with Rocksmith 2014.

The core music based gameplay is relatively unchanged – other than some visual polish the user interface is nearly identical to the previous installments, and there are no major changes to the note delivery or scoring. What has changed are some options within the gameplay – most notably the Riff Repeater which has been much improved over the original release, making it even easier to understand, learn, and practice the various note sequences in the game. But what’s the Riff Repeater, right?

I mentioned that I hang with musicians, but I am also a musician of sorts myself. I play rhythm guitar, bass, and as of lately the drums – and it’s with the drums where I found it most beneficial when trying to pick up a complicated drum sequence, to slow the temp down to a crawl, get in time, and then gradually increase the speed until we get back to full tempo.

That is precisely what the Riff Repeater is does with the guitar, it allowing the gamer to riff through any part of a song at a drastically reduced tempo. The segments are chosen by the gamer, and can be repeated over and over until the riff is mastered. Gamers can then resume with the full song t full tempo. This is all performed pretty much on the fly and it really helps gamers focus on problem spots rather than having to restart a song constantly because of one particular stumbling block.

Along that same line, Rocksmith 2014 allows gamers to change the difficulty on the fly, with a new slider systems that seamlessly modifies songs by adding or subtracting increasingly complex note structures. Because the gamer is playing along to a backing track, this method allows even beginners to feel as if they are rocking along in a band even if they are just plucking single strings – which is infinitely more rewarding that playing away to a practice amp in the bedroom, if you ask me.

If gamers get particularly good a song segment, the game automatically kicks into Master Mode, where there are no notes listed at all and the gamer is entirely on his or her own. This loosening of the musical noose is simultaneously liberating and fear-inducing, as gamers gain a real sense of accomplishment but newly added responsibility to carry the band through the segment with no visual cues.

A music game wouldn’t be worth its weight if it didn’t feature killer tunes, and Rocksmith delivers in spades. With songs ranging from 60’s and 70’s guitar classics like Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” to and The Kink’s “You Really Got Me,” to 1990’s era Indie Rock with Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” and Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” to newer music by the likes of The Shins’ “For a Fool” and Paramore’s “Splashh.” Gamer’s cannot be expected to love every track in Rocksmith 2014, but with the variety included, regardless of what style of rock appeals to any given gamer, they will find something to connect with in Rocksmith 2014.

And if playing along to someone else’s tunes is not cutting it, gamers can always take a trip to the 80’s arcade styled “Guitarcade” and use their mad guitar skills to shoot down zombies in the House of the Dead inspired Return of Chordead, outrun the police in Spy Hunter inspired Scale Racer, or hunt enemy spacecraft in the StarFox inspired StarChords. And that’s just for starters, as the game features 13 games in all, complete with online leaderboards. Best of all, each game has been developed to place emphasis on improving a different aspect of a gamer’s guitar skills from fingering to chord shapes to overall touch.

But probably the best feature is the game’s Session mode. Session allows gamers to form their own session band using the game as backup for drums, bass and other instruments. The player picks the key and the tempo, sets a basic song structure and simply begins to jam. The game jumps in and plays along – it is simple, rewarding, and most of all a ton of fun. As someone who does a lot of jamming alone (c’mon get your head out of the gutter…) having a backup band to jam really helped make practice enjoyable.

The original Rocksmith was plagued by noticeable audio delay on some televisions running HDMI from the PS3. Yet while reports of this problem ran rampant online, I never really experienced much of an issue myself and I do run HDMI to my 720p television. I personally did not notice much of a difference with the new Realtone cable, simply because I really didn’t have an issue with the original.

In closing, Ubisoft had some big shoes to fill in following up their original Rocksmith. Rocksmith 2014 fills those shoes perfectly. The streamlined menu system, adaptive difficulty, improved Riff Repeater were enough to make any Rocksmith veteran smile from bleeding ear to bleeding ear – but adding in over a dozen Guitarcade games and the fantastic Session mode makes it the perfect package.

If you or a friend were ever thinking about learning to play the guitar, Rocksmith 2014 is the way to go.

Sorry Guitar Center guys – this is how I like to learn.