Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Quick Take: Rocksmith 2014

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 7, 2013

RS_BoxesSo after Monday’s little diatribe about how I do not do reviews here, here I go offering something of a non-review that smells suspiciously like a review for the new Rocksmith 2014. My bad. I can’t pretend it’s an exhaustive review, though –  I’ve only been playing for a few days. It is just sort of my take on it after a few days of playing (and a lot of experience with its predecessor). While it’s technically a mainstream game, it’s also niche. It may also not entirely be a “game” in a classic sense.

It’s also nothing like the usual stuff I cover here, but hey – I don’t ONLY play indie games, and I certainly don’t restrict myself to RPGs, adventure games, and strategy titles.:)  Since I have played all three of the “mainstream-esque” games out there (that I know of) that allow you to play using a real guitar, I thought I might have a useful perspective on the game.

Now – for me, as an American Male, I at some point in my youth picked up playing the guitar. I got to a certain point where I didn’t have to be super self-conscious about playing, and could more-or-less pick out a passable rendition “Stairway to Heaven.” Then the learning curve got hard, and I spent the next twenty-plus years not really progressing at all, just dusting off the guitar for a few weeks out of the year to get some calluses back and retain some subset of my previous skill. And that was it.

Rock Band 3 to the Rescue

I was a big fan of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band game series. I didn’t play them as obsessively as some, but they were certainly favorites in the Barnson household. One of the complaints leveled at these games towards the really obsessive players was, “If you practiced on a real guitar instead of playing that game, you could be a musician by now!” Harmonix responded with a “pro mode” in Rock Band 3 that required you to use a specially designed guitar. I was one of the guys that spent $300 on the full-fledged, stringed, real guitar (which sucks as an analog guitar and can’t hold its tune very well, I’m afraid.) But hey – I had a great time with it.

While it offered some lessons on how to play, RB3’s approach to teaching guitar is really rote memorization. It basically offered four increasingly difficult arrangements of each song for you to practice until you were good enough to play it in the concert venue. There were some decent tools to help you practice the song. Unfortunately, the guitar interface had technical limitations – it couldn’t detect string bends, for example. Its biggest advantages were that it could tell you where your fretting fingers really were without you striking the chord, and it was good at detecting what you hit with exact precision. It’s still a pretty decent “interactive songbook” to use in conjunction with real-world lessons.

Rocksmith – Your Old Dust-Gathering Guitar Becomes the Controller

The original Rocksmith was a tremendous advance in that it only requires you to buy a special new cable which allows you to plug in any guitar with a standard quarter-inch output jack into your console or PC. In theory, it was awesome. In practice – not so awesome, but decent. The input was often a little bit laggy (it was on my machine), which encouraged me to hit the notes about an eighth of a second early – not a good habit. But it could detect things like harmonics and string bends, which RB3 could not.

The interface, unfortunately, is baffling. And, coming from a design concept of being “Guitar Hero using a real guitar!”, sometimes the “game” really got in the way of it being used as a “training tool.” Bizarre design decisions abounded – like limiting you to only 30 attempts to practice a riff, or only allowing you to unlock equipment to use in the otherwise very cool “Amp Mode” (where you just use the game as a customizable  pre-amp / amp / post-amp / mixer suite) – just didn’t make much sense.

Did they work as a training tool?

So did they work? Well, some frustrations abounded with both games… but I found myself drawn to playing Rocksmith much more regularly than Rock Band 3. I wasn’t super-active or consistent… but even with my inconsistent playing in fits and starts, and its little technical problems, I had fun playing it, and my skill definitely improved. Not dramatically – I wasn’t about to go out on stage and winning a battle of the bands or anything. But things that were previously hard became significantly less so. And once I really got into Rocksmith, I didn’t play Rock Band 3 so often. RB3 was a decent tool, but Rocksmith made the learning process more entertaining. That, and it was on my computer, which I could play in the basement when the rest of the family went to bed. Playing Rock Band upstairs when they were trying to sleep would not have gone over well.

Anyway – I would have to answer that as a training tool, Rocksmith was clearly superior, but both were useful. But I’m still making games and crane simulators here, not enjoying the life of a rock star, so they don’t work miracles. Duh.

Rocksmith 2014

So – enter the new game. Taking all the criticisms to heart, the new game was pretty much re-engineered and redesigned from the ground up as a brand new product. From what I can tell, they stripped all of the “Guitar Hero Wannabe” elements from the product, treating it completely as a training tool using games to help teach, rather than a game that doubles as a training tool.  The last one was really into the whole “gamification” thing, I guess, but at a certain point that was more of a hindrance than a help.

Interfacing the Music

The new interface is lean, mean, and fast.

Rocksmith2014_Main-MenuThat may not mean too much to you unless you played the original. The interface – in a word – sucked. It was a chore to navigate. Loading was slow. Everything was on a separate menu and had to be scrolled through. Some tools were withheld until you hit certain achievements.

That’s all been stripped out and streamlined. The new one is light-years ahead of its predecessor. It’s a lot less flashy, but a lot more functional, and much faster. It shows right up at the top of the main menu with the most important part of the game: “Learn a Song.”

Learning a Song

The “learn a song” thing is a pretty solid example of how everything has changed. There’s no longer a Rock Band-style difference between learning or practicing a song, and performing it. For those who are unfamiliar with Rocksmith, the game tries to teach you a song as you play. It starts out with a simplified version of the song, based upon its estimation of your skill as a player. First-time players will find that it’s all single-note stuff played on only one or two strings. As you get comfortable, the game throws more notes at you, pushing you. If you really have trouble keeping up, it will scale back the difficulty. Eventually, as you master the song, it throws a full-fledged, right-off-the-record arrangement at you. New for 2014, as you nail the complete song, the game gradually starts fading out notes and sections of the song, requiring you to play from memory. This can be toggled in the options, but the point is – at the end – you can grab any guitar anywhere and play the song.

This is awesome stuff, and speaks to the focus of the game.

There are no longer separate paths between practicing / performing a whole song, and practicing pieces of it.  The game offers suggestions for goals and lessons right there at the “Learn a Song” menu, so you can have help right there with anything that you might be struggling with. At any point while playing the song, you can go into the “Riff Repeater” and practice just a section. Alternately, if you are an experienced player and you find the game is starting the song out too easy for you, you can jump into the Riff Repeater and manually increase the difficulty and completeness of a section.

RiffRepeaterThe Riff Repeater deserves extra mention. In the previous game, there were three variants that awkwardly helped you learn a particular section. In Rocksmith 2014, those have all been replaced by a single menu that lets you do a little bit of everything – slow down the riff, set it’s difficulty, enable dynamic adjustment of the difficulty and speed, set how “forgiving” it is of mistakes, and more. This has now become a very powerful, customizable  training tool.

Just as importantly, the game can also show you where you made previous mistakes, and can give you hints if you are currently screwing up (like playing on the wrong fret or string), and suggestions for when to change chords and how to finger them. Delightfully, the program is far more responsive (and seems less laggy) now, and seems a good deal more accurate in determining what you are really doing.  The note highway system has more visible information on how to play the song, and demands a bit more accuracy now, too. You cannot get away with sloppy mutes, bends, and slides anymore.


Some other things deserve mention.

As in the previous game, there’s a “Guitarcade,” with training exercises disguised as arcade games. At least to me, these seem vastly improved over the last game, where they didn’t seem to offer much beyond what you’d gain from practicing songs. For example, there’s a game called “Star Chords,” which places you in a first-person perspective space fighter in a “rails shooter.” You shoot the enemy ships by strumming the right chord. Take too long, and they shoot you. The trick is that the HUD first tells you the name of the chord, and then slowly reveals the fingering. If you recognize and can form the chord quickly from just the name, you’ll blow up the enemy ships without damage. Each progressive level offers more complex chords, and more of them to memorize. It’s a very fun way to learn! Other games have you practicing slides, scales, harmonics, and so forth.

Interactive Lessons

The “Lesson” section is far more extensive than before. They cover a lot more territory, are much more detailed, and can allow you to complete them with a percentage rating based on your mastery of the lesson material. What I was impressed with is not only do the lessons go into more complex territory, but they also cover more basics – like learning how to hold your pick.

There is also more interactivity to the lessons, and more help available should you run into trouble. While videos and interactive practices may not be a fully adequate substitute for a skilled personal teacher, it seems quite good.

Virtual Jammin’

A brand new aspect of the game is the “Sessions” mode. In a Session, you basically create a virtual band and just jam. This is pretty customizable as well. This can be as simple as simply having a metronome setting the beat for you as you practice strums and scales, or it can be as close to an AI jam session as technology can provide, with your virtual band partners changing key on you (or you changing key on them), keeping up and grooving along.  I haven’t played with it enough to get a full feel for its strengths and weaknesses, but after a little bit of goofing around with it I see it as indispensable for a game that claims to be a full-fledged teaching system.

Also, the game is always in “Amp Mode” (from the original). You can set up your tone from scratch, or load an “authentic” tone from a particular song, or use an authentic tone as a foundation and customize from there.  But from anywhere in the game, it acts as a virtual amp, with full effects. The game is always there as a practice amp if you want it.


The game uses a subtle set of “mission recommendations” to encourage you what to do next, rather than trying to lock you into a fixed progression path. You are free to ignore it if you want, but especially in the beginning it can help direct you to a lot of the key features of the game, and ways to obtain help. This is far, far better than a tutorial.

The Music

The game comes with a nice cross-section of available songs – something like 50, ranging from classic hits to unknown indie songs. This is a matter of personal taste, but I like the new tracklist better than the original. There are already some pretty decent new songs coming out as DLC, too.

However, my favorite part is that Rocksmith 2014 is 100% compatible with all of the DLC songs from the original game. This is a big deal for me, as I’d invested a bit into my Rocksmith music library. The only small bit of sadness there is that the original tracklist from the first game is not automatically imported. I imagine this is due to licensing issues. However, for $10, you can get a tool that will import the original Rocksmith library, if you really liked it and don’t want to go back to the older game.

I can’t blame you if you do.  I really liked Rocksmith, warts and all, but the new release really blows the old one away. It’d be tough going back just to play House of the Rising Sun or Take Me Out.

Will It Work?

So ultimately, how much can a game like this help you? I’ve known some people who have really obtained great results from RB3 and the original Rocksmith.  Again, for me – even playing inconsistently and sometimes not for weeks at a time, Rocksmith more than RB3 really helped me transition from “perma-noob” to somewhere on the low end of intermediate. I made more progress in playing the guitar than I had since I was eighteen years old. That’s something. But I still often felt like I ran into some walls in Rocksmith where it was very difficult to move further, and I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to get over that particular obstacle.

I’ve only been playing Rocksmith 2014 for a few days, but it has already helped me clear a few of those obstacles. I’ve no doubt part of that is simply my effort and discipline in putting in the time to push through it with a shiny new game to help keep my interest up. But some of it was also because of the vastly improved tools available in the game to help me learn.

So yeah. It’s cool.  I’m impressed, and having a lot of fun with it. More importantly, I feel that it’s helping.

And as a side note – David Carlton has played a LOT more of both RB3 Pro Mode and the original RS than I have, and he has written up his own impressions on the changes in Rocksmith 2014 compared to the original. If you aren’t familiar with the first game, it might not be very meaningful, but if you are still on the fence about the upgrade, it may be of value.

Filed Under: Impressions - Comments: 2 Comments to Read

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m glad to see someone elses opinion on this one. I picked up 2014 and I was actually really disappointing with it.

    While I agree that everything is MUCH more polished than the original… and the interface is a godsend… I’m not having fun with 2014.

    Part of my problem is that it doesn’t have any “Set the difficulty to Max” option like the original. In order to learn a song… I need to play through the easy levels over and over until it decides I deserve better.
    When I’m bored… I do stupid things like miss notes. When I miss notes I can’t level up and stay bored. It’s an awful cycle.

    The same with their “Missions” system. Because I’ve played the original I’m getting irritated that they keep telling me… “You can design tones in the tone designer”. I miss having goals that actually relate to the music and I’m bored doing their tutorial of things I already know.

    While I still FULLY recommend Rocksmith to people learning to play guitar, I’m not really excited about the new purchase. Getting the new one felt like starting over for me and I’m not enjoying it.

  • David Carlton said,

    Thanks for the mention! Re McTeddy’s comment – I do wish they’d managed to keep your progress from the original game – I’m nowhere near as good a guitar player as it sounds like McTeddy is, but still, it’s not great to be given a song that I’ve played a bunch of times in the original and to have it be stripped down. Though for me personally, that’s not _too_ bad: partly because the extra techniques that the new game adds means that I do see something new even in old songs, and partly because, after playing for a few hours, the game seems to me to be doing a decent job of tracking my ability level, so it doesn’t lowball me too much. (But mostly it’s not too bad because I’m still not a particularly good guitarist yet – for a significant majority of songs, I couldn’t play them set to max difficulty in all sections!)