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Rocksmith: the axe-man cometh

It's hard to classify Rocksmith, Ubisoft’s Guitar Hero-like offering which requires you to plug a real guitar into your console (or PC) as a controller.

The standard pack comes with a lead with a standard guitar jack at one end and a USB at the other. You’ll need to provide your own guitar – unless you can find one of the far more expensive versions which come with a guitar.

It was released with very little fanfare in October. I bought my copy at Christmas, and I’ve spent many hours playing it since. It has immense replayability.

Ubisoft pitches Rocksmith as a game. It has unlockable achievements, awards marks, levels you up and gives you the chance to earn encores with good in-game ‘performances’.

But the developers also make an interesting claim: Rocksmith will improve your guitar skills. This moves it well away from the music game and into the realm of instructional software.

That’s all they claim. I’ve scoured Ubisoft statements for a claim that Rocksmith will actually teach you to play the guitar. I can’t find one. And that’s wise of Ubisoft, because it doesn’t – not completely.

Rocksmith is excellent at teaching and building techniques, including hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and string bends, and at improving rhythm and speed.

It’s extremely weak on musicianship: dynamics, expression, tone, mood and individual style.

Nevertheless, if you want to use it to learn to play, the techniques it teaches will give a very solid foundation. And isn’t just the best guitar-trainer on the market, it’s the only one.

It’s also important to realise that Rocksmith is so named for a reason: it emphasises flat-picking rock lead guitar and rock bass. Aside from a handful of older tunes – notably The Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun – its tracklist focuses primarily on alternative and hard rock of the ‘90s to the present, though extra downloadable content includes classic rock and metal (mostly Megadeath, and no Maiden - meh).

I’ve been playing the guitar since I was a teenager, more years ago than I care to think about, but I’m an acoustic fingerpicker with a passion for folk revival. Rock lead is a very different style to my usual repertoire.

That’s a good thing. We need to be taken out of our comfort zone if we’re to learn anything.

And while I like a good number of the offerings in the standard tracklist, even ones I hadn’t heard before (hey, Titus Andronicus are good!), age means I downloaded the classic rock pack immediately: I’ll take Queen over Queens of the Stone Age.

Being a folkie I lack an electric guitar, but all my acoustics have built-in pick-ups. Rocksmith happily accepts my six-string, though my 12-string confuses it, and it refuses to have anything at all to do with my mandolin.

The way it works is similar to Guitar Hero – a series of notes come down the screen towards you, their position marking the fret and their colour marking the string. It can take a little while to attune to it if you’re more used to working with musical notation or tablature.

Tracks are played at full speed, but initially you’re only given a handful of notes to play. Hit enough of them, and the number of notes increases; miss them and the number decreases.

The software’s sensitive enough to pick up which string you play a note on, so if it wants you to hit a D on the fifth fret of the fifth (A) string, it’ll mark you wrong for picking it on the open 4th (D) string or the 10th fret of the bottom string.

As you progress, it’ll throw more techniques in, expecting you to hit hammer-ons, slides, mutes, string bends (that’s where an electric guitar would be easier) and sometimes chords or partial chords. One or two tunes carry alternate tunings (tuning your guitar is the first step of any song) – for example, Fat Bottomed Girls, included in the classic rock pack, uses a drop-D tuning.

Excellent as the technique building is, though, it doesn’t get you to listen to and work with the song: in practice it becomes an effort to hit notes rather than play a tune.

You can earn points by playing songs you choose from the track list, but the way to really rack points up is to play the career mode. In this, you’re given a two-tune gig at some seedy little dive; rehearse the songs, play the gig and, if you hit enough notes, you’ll be thrown a curve ball with a random encore which you may not have rehearsed.

Do well enough at that and you’ll unlock a bonus and/or get a better gig next time.
As you progress, the set lists get longer, the venues get better, the crowds get bigger and the grotty apartment where you rehearse gets better decor.

Unlockable bonuses include tutorials on specific techniques and some arcade-style games which use the guitar as a controller, which are designed to make you more familiar with the fretboard.

You can also unlock particular guitars for your onscreen avatar to play, and different amplifiers and effects pedals which you can experiment with in free play – this is one of the coolest aspects of the game: what will my guitar sound like if I run it though wah-wah pedal  with a touch of chorus and play it through a 1950s Marshal valve amplifier?

If you’re interested in guitars, Rocksmith is undoubtedly fun, and it most definitely helps improve speed and technique.

Perhaps its most valuable effect is that it makes practising the guitar fun - I’ll often leave my guitars untouched for weeks on end, until we have friends around and someone asks me to play the Jeff Buckley version of Hallelujah, but since getting Rocksmith I’ve played more frequently than I have in years. I’m developing callouses on my callouses.

And that’s extremely valuable, because you only get better by playing.

There are cons, though. Because the difficulty increases as you get better, it’s difficult to get the feel of a tune; get a riff down nicely and it’s likely to change the next time it comes around.

To make it more educational, more valuable as a learning tool, Ubisoft should have considered slowing the songs down (it can be done without affecting the tone) and giving the full notes from the outset, speeding the song up as players get better. It may be that there are licensing issues preventing them doing that.

And for lead work, it would be good to work in scales, modes and pattern-practice. I can see this being a lot more fun in Rocksmith than it is just sitting and practising these deadly dull but crucial aspects of learning to play well.

Those are minor niggles, though. What Rocksmith achieves is truly impressive. If you have the slightest interest in playing the guitar, you definitely want a copy. It will get you playing, it will improve your speed and it will help you improve rock lead techniques.

It’s also interesting to note that while I’ve been playing Rocksmith, at least three guitarists I’ve mentioned it to have bought their own copies, without even asking to try out mine. There’s a lot of word-of-mouth appeal to this one – gamer-guitarists have been waiting for something like this for a very long time.

Ubisoft San Fransisco
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Version tested: Xbox 360
Age rating: none
Star rating: 4.5/5