Different videogame genres have evolved over time, but none has seen such a consistent evolution, in such a short space of time, as the rhythm-based genre. From humble beginnings with the likes of Parappa the Rapper and Samba di Amigo we saw the movement from controller-based rhythm games to ones that used a musical peripheral as the controller. The next step from there was the absolute explosion of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, games that further streamlined that notion of indulging musical whims. But the one thing they all had in common was that they were games, they wouldn’t in any shape make you a better musician no more than Sim City would make you a qualified city planner. With the original release of Rocksmith the idea that a game could teach you to play an instrument was realised. And now with Rocksmith 2014 the next-gen console owners have not just a game, but a tool of great value and actual use.
The first major hurdle a player will need to get over will be their a/v setup, as you will spend your life with Rocksmith 2014 frustrated if it isn’t optimised. For vanilla users running the game straight from their console of choice with an HDMI cable, they will experience very, very noticeable lag in the game. Notes will be missed with alarming frequency, and for a game that aims to make you a better guitar player the feeling of being punished for what you know was right tests your patience - your first port of call will be to calibrate the delay until you find the sweet spot. However, if you hook up an optical cable or even a component cable you’ll be thrown into a world of musical precision in which everything is responsive and in which you never feel unfairly punished. That is not to say that you can’t get by with an HDMI output but if you want consistency in your fingerwork and prefer not having to develop an odd type of sight and sound dissonance to succeed then get yourself the appropriate cabling.
To help players get a grasp of proceedings Rocksmith 2014 includes instructional videos by the digital bucket-load with no topic seemingly left covered. Whether you are looking for practical maintenance advice, like refining your restringing technique, or learning how to ‘tap’ like Slayer, Rocksmith 2014 will not let you down. For guitar beginners this is a wonderful library of resources that you can work your way through and revisit, and the clarity of the lessons provides the pupil with no doubt over what is going on or what is expected. This is also useful in helping players adjust to the visualisation of the music, and how to actual play along. Equally well, for those who have experience of guitar playing at varying levels these videos are a nice way to refresh yourself or perhaps pick up some tips that have escaped you. Either way it is hard to fault Rocksmith 2014’s attention to detail or its value to all levels of guitarist.
If you ask anyone that plays guitar what the best way to learn to play is, you will invariably be met with a similar answer - learn to play, playing songs you like. As such the track listing of Rocksmith 2014 is instrumental (see what I did there) to hooking players into the cycle of repetition that is required of an educational game. Thankfully Rocksmith 2014 boasts a large and varied range of songs from Arctic Monkeys to Smashing Pumpkins and Slayer to The Police. One of the joys of games of this ilk is that you will find a new, unknown song, to you that you will obsess over and there’s enough here for most people to make a discovery - Bush’s ‘Machinehead’ led to many playthroughs of imagining being a 90’s rock god. The songs are also well grouped and classified, providing simple playlists that relate to your own ratings or even to the song’s tunings - at which point it was realised that I’d been playing Heart Shaped Box half a step the wrong way. Further adding to the robust list of songs on offer is the ability, for a fee, to import your songs from the original Rocksmith if you are that way inclined and if you are still yearning for more there is a plethora of DLC band-packs for you to consider.
Rocksmith 2014 also features ‘Session Mode’, for those who want to have a jam without the need to go stick up advertisements in local music stores or Gumtree. In Session Mode you will choose various instruments to play along with you, each of these branching out with variations on each instrument such as a standard or double bass. Once you have all your instruments lined up you can then choose a style for them to play in (you can’t go wrong will 12-bar blues) and off you go. Obviously there is no substitute for the real thing, damp practice rooms and hungover musicians, but what you have here is an enjoyable approximation of jamming. Add to this a wide range of amplifiers and tones and you’ll have a reasonably rich experience that while not perfect is highly enjoyable in and of itself.
What makes Rocksmith 2014 something special is everything that goes on behind the scenes, the automated assessment of your playing and how the game decides what will help you progress. When you begin a song from scratch you will be met with a seriously limited number of notes to play, which can frustrate the experienced or be a relief to the uninitiated. As you play however, the game customises what is coming up based on your playing ability, all in real time. If you are more than proficient in your playthrough you will start to see extra notes added, or chords and even embellishments such as slides or a dash of vibrato. It really is seamless and without really sensing it the game will customise itself to your ability. It doesn’t stop there though, after you finish a playthrough of a song you will then be presented with what is essentially a learning journey. Maybe you didn’t quite nail those slides in the song you just played, well the game will recommend a lesson for you to play through. Or perhaps it is looking at the overall trajectory of your progress and it will suggest a chord that you should get to grips to help your improvement. It really feels like you have a benevolent guitar tutor living in your console, always encouraging, always assessing but most importantly always making you better.
That is not to say that you are funnelled through a series of exercises with the end-game being that you are totally rad. In fact Rocksmith 2014 has a wonderful openness that doesn’t restrict you but rather encourages you to dip your toes in whatever mode you want to play. You will be presented with three challenges after every song playthrough that are curated to improve your skill but you can choose to undertake those challenges or poke around the various modes to improve yourself. One mode that has seen a return from the previous Rocksmith is the Guitarcade, but this time it comes with a fair degree of overhaul. The Guitarcade is truly guitar playing ‘game-ified’, and provides an addictive and interesting change of pace, as well as an alternative way to refine your skills. Players will be able to take on challenges, whether it be with scales or chords as the focus, all dressed up in a retro game aesthetic. Taking its cues, quite noticeably, from games such as Tapper and Hogan’s Alley Guitarcade is a ton of fun, and it is the perfect mode to fill out the overall Rocksmith package or even as a singular mode for you to focus on.
The original Rocksmith felt like the logical conclusion of the rhythm genre, moving away from approximating the act of playing guitar to providing an experience to build a real, transferable skill. Rocksmith 2014 obviously carries on where the original left off, but everything on show here is a real improvement. From the little tweaks like the menu being cleaner and more responsive, to the adding of modes that are useful and not superfluous, Rocksmith 2014 is as excellent a prospect that it could ever have been. So if you are interested in picking up a guitar for the first time and can’t afford tutoring, it is really hard to not recommend a purchase here. If you are wanting to blow off some cobwebs and find an enjoyable, and reasonably deep, experience then again it is hard to not recommend this. If games like Guitar Hero were the equivalent of giving a man a fish and him eating for a day, then Rocksmith 2014 is very much teaching that man to fish.