Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Rocksmith vs. Rock Band 3 Pro Guitar

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 18, 2012

I have waited a while for Rocksmith. Specifically,  for the PC version, which was finally released Tuesday, about a year after the console version. I was looking forward to it when it was first announced. I was waiting for it even longer than that – since I heard about the never-released Guitar Rising, which also allowed a real guitar to be used to play music as a game.

So now I am a couple of days (and thicker callouses) into it, and I thought I’d share some thoughts.

A few things: I’m a long-term beginner. When I was seventeen, I decided to pick up the guitar, bought a really crappy used electric and cheap-o practice amp, and a beat-up beginner’s acoustic, and got to the point where I would (barely) be in the “intermediate” category. I had some friends who played who have me a few impromptu lessons, and I had several books and songbooks to help me on my way.

And then I stopped. I pick it back up every once in a while, usually just long enough to get callouses back and to remember what I’d forgotten since the last time I tried to pick it up, and then I’d forget about it again for another year or two.

Rock Band 3 – with pro mode – was a pretty big deal. I bought the (now discontinued) Squier guitar controller for it, so that it was as much of a “real guitar” experience as possible. It was – and still is – pretty awesome. Effectively, Pro Mode was the ultimate evolution of the music rhythm game genre. After years of dorks saying things like, “You know, if you put as much effort  into playing the real guitar as you put into playing the game with the plastic guitar, you’d be a real rock star by now,” Harmonix did just that. Ditto for the other instruments.

But there were some problems (for me), a couple of which had nothing to do with the game itself. First of all, Pro mode was a fundamentally different experience than the “air guitar” of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. At least for me, as a perma-newbie, I couldn’t just jump in and play a song cold except in Beginner mode. Playing a song requires a lot of practice.  Rock Band 3 makes practice a little more fun, but the game itself was designed around a different kind of experience. In Rock Band 3 Pro Mode, you try and play the game by using a (more-or-less) real musical instrument. It’s not a game built around playing (or learning to play) that instrument. And since it’s really part of a multiplayer game and has to represent a lot of data in a small area of the screen, some things (like chord representation) are poorly handled. Though at least they do have the chord name off to the side, which helps a lot.

There are some additional limitations related to the controller. Things like string bends and so forth are simply not part of the package. Nor is muting, pick scrapes, etc. There are some parts of songs that actually call for certain techniques that the game and controller cannot detect – it simply gives you points for approximating it. This isn’t too big of a deal, as most players going through the trouble of using a realistic guitar controller would still try and do it “right.” But it does limit the range of techniques used on songs.

A couple of additional problems specific to me: #1 – My family and I had a lot of fun playing Rock Band in the past. Since RB3 is in our living room, when I’m sitting down to practice, my family wants to play with me. I would love to. But it pretty much ends my practice session right there, and if I don’t swap things out with a plastic guitar, we’re either limited to only some of the songs, or I have to sit some songs out. And I’m stuck in beginner mode unless we play the few songs that I have practiced on a higher difficulty level. So there’s the social issue of me playing the game all by myself. Or the problem of the living room being used for other things by the family – watching TV, practicing the piano or voice lessons, etc.   Or the third problem, which is that if I want to play late at night, it becomes quite problematic, as the noise would filter up to the bedrooms. Even playing with headphones still has me running a pick over strings in a way that might wake family members up, or keep them from falling asleep. So playing late at night is out.

Now, that’s okay, as if I really feel the need, I still have the basement, several guitars that I can play (poorly), and practice”for real.” If my fingers aren’t too sore from playing Rock Band, actively playing the game encourages me to do traditional practice, and vice-versa.  It works.  Playing RB3 pro mode really improved. I found things coming to me more easily. This was great. But as usual, enthusiasm waned, or between work, family, and being a part-time indie I’d find myself not playing for weeks at a time, and then not picking it back up for long time.

Then there is still a fundamental issue with Rock Band 3 as a game for aspiring (or experienced) guitarists, IMO: The brilliance of the game (and Guitar Hero, its predecessor) was that it was a game about faking it, not playing an instrument. The games are about hitting accurate rhythm marks done while pretending to play the instrument in cool venues. You get to pretend to be a rock star, rocking out to great music, but it is really more about music appreciation and fantasy fulfillment, not playing an instrument.  This was a good thing, and the reason for its success. So things like using Star Power (or Overdrive) were a big part of the game – purely tactical game decisions that had was really a tactical decision based on the music, contextualized as showmanship.  It’s great stuff, but as it had little to do with actual musicianship, the pro mode – for all the effort they put into it – still feels a little clumsily tacked on.

Problems aside, I love Rock Band 3‘s pro guitar mode, and – from my relative (but lengthy) inexperience, it seems like a really good supplement to traditional training and practice. It helps.

So now there’s Rocksmith. Unlike RB3, it uses a real guitar rather than a proprietary controller – any guitar with a pickup that can be plugged into a USB port with their custom cable. I wanted it on the PC so I wouldn’t be tied to the living room. And I wanted to see how different it was from Rock Band 3, and whether it might offer (A) a different way to help me improve and maybe actually break out of perma-beginner mode, and (B) a more fun (and enticing) way to practice, (C)  a chance to use my real guitar(s) in the game, which is both cool and can allow a more natural play style, and (D) new songs to play (never really a problem in RB3, with regular weekly song releases, but it’s still cool).

While I only have about three or four hours of play-time in, so far it seems like a success. I cannot get it to run on my beefier desktop machine, which is still running Windows XP (I’m adding a dual-boot to Windows 7 soon, so hopefully this problem will go away). On the laptop, there is a pretty significant lag  (about a tenth or eighth of a second) between playing something on the guitar and hearing it on the computer (and having it register). This is encouraging me to hit my notes a little early, which is probably a bad habit. This may just be that the hardware (with on-board everything) on the laptop is just not up to the task.  Still, I love the idea of taking the game on the road with the guitar for practice whenever. The game also features an Amp mode with effects and customizations that you can earn in-game, so you can just plug your guitar in and play with whatever sound you want. I already have an “all-in-one” digital effects pedal that does that, but it’s still a cool feature.

Rocksmith is not nearly as polished as Rock Band 3 – which makes sense, as RB3 was effectively the fifth generation of a game series that began with the original Guitar Hero – which was itself pretty stylized in it’s rough, unpolished glory. But part of the reason for this is that Rocksmith is a fundamentally different game from other “music rhythm games.” I cannot stress this one enough. I was pretty surprised by how different it was. But, after getting over the shock of having no clue what I was doing, the surprise turned pleasant.

Rocksmith is built from the ground-up with a focus on turning guitar training into a game. At this point, I cannot say how successful it is, but considering I only ended my sessions over the last two days because my fingers (which have their callouses back; I have been practicing again prior to the game’s release, I’m happy to say) couldn’t take any more of it, I’d say that at least initially, the novelty is working.

For one thing – there are arcade mini-games that you unlock that are designed around helping you practice your technique and accuracy – complete with high-score tables so you can see how much you are improving.  There are technique training lessons that are not static pass / fail exercises, but instead have scores and ratings that you can keep improving on.

Like RB 3 pro mode, you go from learning or practicing a song to performing on a virtual stage (once again encouraging the idea that the whole point of learning to play music is to share it with others), but in Rocksmith it’s all seamlessly part of your progression. Once you can play the songs needed for a set to performance-quality level, the game pushes you up on a virtual stage – where you are looking at the people rather than looking at yourself – to perform.

There may be more similarities, but at this point the differences really shine. No longer worried about sharing the screen with three other performers using different instruments (though you can play with one other player on another guitar), the presentation is completely different, offering the player a great deal more information on what to do, where his or her fingers are supposed to be, chord patterns, etc. In addition, if you screw up, the game offers helpful iconic hints to let you know how you are screwing up – like if you are playing on the wrong string, or on the wrong fret. The virtual on-screen fretboard pans and moves with suggestions on where your anchor point should be, and overall provides you with a ton of real-time information on what you should be playing next.

Then, in another magical improvement, Rocksmith has a dynamic difficulty level.  I know, I hate this kind of thing in most games, but for a game that is supposed to act as a training tool, it’s really outstanding. In Rock Band 3, you have four difficulty levels to choose from, and certain songs are far more challenging than others.  You practice until you get good enough to keep up in a performance without failing.  In Rocksmith, the game keeps up with you, instead. As far as I can tell, there’s really no failure. A song starts out very simple, requiring you to play only a few notes on one or two strings to keep up.  As you succeed, it ramps up the difficulty level accordingly, throwing in more notes, chords, etc. until (I assume) you are eventually playing the entire arrangement. If you start running into trouble, you literally see upcoming notes dropping off the screen as the game scales back. Until you master the song, the game tries to keep things just a tiny bit above your comfort zone.

This means there’s always a little bit of pressure, but never frustration. While your performance may be flawed, you are always playing along with real music, and more-or-less “keeping up” – even when the game moves you to a performance (and throws a new song at you as an encore which you’ve never played before). If you already have some experience with the guitar, things ramp up much more quickly.  And when you go back and play a song again, it remembers where you were when you left off, starting off at your previous skill level. This is potentially very, very important – instead of having you master a simplified arrangement of a particular song, as happens in Rock Band, the game is always progressing you to a goal of being able to play full songs… from memory.

There’s probably a lot more to it that I haven’t experienced yet. But so far, hardware issues aside, I’m really pleased with it. I’m still going to be playing Rock Band 3 pro mode (possibly with renewed enthusiasm), but I think Rocksmith may be a far better game if you intend to use it to help you play guitar – even if you discount the necessity to buy a proprietary controller for RB3. In my view, Rock Band 3 pro mode is a really cool interactive song book. Rocksmith is more of a training tool, virtual jam session, and … well, song book.

We’ll see how much I improve from this game, but from what I’ve seen – and from what I’ve heard from other players – it sounds like between this game and some disciplined lessons & practicing from JustinGuitar.com, a beginner could go really pretty far and have a very fun time doing it.

Filed Under: Impressions, Mainstream Games - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • Xian said,

    For the latency you are getting on your laptop, you might want to try to find an ASIO driver. If there isn’t a specific one for your sound card, there is a universal one called ASIO4ALL

    I haven’t used the Universal one, but the ASIO driver for my SoundBlaster Audigy 2.0 made a HUGE difference in responsiveness.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Ka-CHING! Okay, I can’t wait to give that a try, Xian! Until tonight, I’ll just have to cross my fingers. That’s really the only downside to playing it on my laptop right now. (Though I’d love to play it on my desktop as well…)

  • Chrysophrase said,

    Awesome, I’ve been tempted to pick Rocksmith up, I have some good hardware I can throw at it as well, I would probably get better response times on it than going with the Xbox 360 version.

    Have you heard how the latency is with the 360? I’ll have to go look it up.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    When I was looking up the problem, I saw some people having problems, but it often had to do with the latency of the TV / sound system they were plugging into. So if all else failed, plugging headphones into the XBOX or PS3 seemed to do the trick.

    Otherwise, I’ve not seen the game playing on consoles, let alone played it, so I cannot make a good comparison.

  • David Carlton said,

    Interesting; maybe I should pick up Rocksmith, then. Previous recommendations I’d read for it are from people who really didn’t like Rock Band 3; I like Rock Band 3 a lot, so I discounted those opinions, listening instead to people who like RB3 and don’t like Rocksmith! But, never having played Rocksmith, I didn’t feel great about that, so it’s good to hear from somebody who sees good in both.

    Of course, my real constraint is time, and I have no idea how I’d find the time to add Rocksmith to my practice schedule. (And I like RB3 enough that I don’t want to dial down my practice there. Sigh…) I’m still worried about the latency issue, too – I’m extremely unlikely to rework my TV setup just to get this game to work.

    Interesting to hear you talk about string bends, muting, pick scrapes – am I correct to read you as saying that Rocksmith does teach you about those?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Dunno about the pick scrapes 🙂 But yes, absolutely on the string bends, muting, and harmonics.

    TBH I can’t tell you which one I like more. Again, I think that Rocksmith may be better as a teaching tool, but neither is a replacement for straight-up lessons & practice. But both – as far as I can tell – are good supplements.

  • David Carlton said,

    Good to know; Rocksmith has come down in price, so I’ve just ordered a copy, I’ll play around with it for a bit.

  • Malvasian Scenes » Rock Band Status: October 21, 2012 said,

    […] other event this week was that Rampant Coyote published this comparison of Rock Band 3 and Rocksmith. Most other posts I’d read strongly took the side of one game or the other; in particular, […]

  • David Carlton said,

    I tried out Rocksmith today, and I’m really glad I did. My basic notes are here: http://scenes.malvasiabianca.org/2012/11/guitar-status-november-4-2012/ but what it really comes down to is: I love music, an important part of that is listening to myself play music, and Rocksmith works with that in ways that Rock Band 3 doesn’t. (Not that it’s impossible to do that in Rock Band 3 – I’ve had a lot of fun playing RB3 with my guitar plugged into an amp, despite all the false strums that the game picks up in that mode.)

    So thanks for the nudge towards Rocksmith! I think I’ll follow your lead and stick with both games for now (so many good songs in RB3, after all), but I’m glad to have a wider range of musical tools to play with.