Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 16, 2014
The nature of a game like Rocksmith 2014 is such that you can’t get a good evaluation based on just a couple of weeks of play, like most review schedules. To really learn whether or not it does what it claims, it’s after the shiny newness has worn off, and it’s become old news.
The goal of the game is to teach the player to play guitar – for real. It was an answer to the complaints during Guitar Hero‘s heyday that if players had focused as much energy into learning to play the real guitar as mastering a plastic controller, they’d have become a skilled guitarist by then. Rocksmith 2014 tries to fill that role, and its sequel advertised itself as “the fastest way to learn guitar.” The guitar isn’t something you learn in a couple of weeks, no matter how accelerated the process might be.
As a quick TLDR conclusion – I don’t think my opinion of the game has changed much from my Sixty Days of Rocksmith 2014 article four months ago. Sixty days was enough time to see some clear progress and get a good feel for how the game worked, but I thought that after half a year – even at fairly moderate practice levels – I would get a clearer picture. Honestly, nothing revelatory happened. I am still making slow, consistent progress. The game hasn’t suddenly become 10x better or useless for me – it’s strengths and weaknesses remain, and I’m still having fun gaining competence.
So – I have been playing the game for six months now, for an average of only 45 minutes a day. Here’s how it’s gone for me.
I can’t say I started out as a total newbie – I’ve been in the zone between “beginner” and “intermediate” for many, many years. I could play some open chords and 2 or 3 string power chords pretty easily (though I would be hard pressed to know what I was playing by note… I’d still have to count steps / frets). I couldn’t play a full song by memory (I tried once with I Love Rock & Roll, years ago, and had to simplify even something that simple to pull it off). My timing was all over the place, and transitioning between chords was usually pretty slow. Unless I really tried at it, my strumming was all downstrokes.
In my own estimation, the building blocks that a beginner must learn were there, but had ossified, and bad beginner habits (of which I’m sure I still have plenty) had become long-ingrained. When people asked if I played a musical instrument, my answer was “no.” I played with a guitar, but I didn’t really play it.
Even the skills I had were something of an improvement from four years earlier. I think I enjoyed more extended practice via Rocksmith and Rock Band 3 Pro Mode than I usually put in during any previous year for a long, long time. My progress was not great, but I think I managed to dust off my old skills and get a little bit of a feel for what it really meant to play guitar again.
Now – to be fair – with my newfound practice regime and enthusiasm about seeing actual progress, I didn’t restrict myself exclusively to Rocksmith 2014. I found some additional instruction on the web. I sometimes practice “unplugged” with my acoustic guitar. And I admit, 45 minutes a day isn’t going to turn me into a virtuoso in my lifetime. I don’t harbor any secret beliefs that I’m going to switch careers to “rock star.” I just want to be able to actually play guitar, and play it competently.
How Far I’ve Come
Rocksmith 2014 offers plenty of gauges to view your progress within the game. Whether it’s a mastery or accuracy number for a particular song in “Learn a song,” or a mastery level for the lessons with practice tracks, or the more artificial scores in the “Guitarcade” technique games or Guitar Hero-like “Score Attack” modes, you can see how much you are doing better with every exercise and session. That’s cool. Of course, what really counts is how well you can play “unplugged.” RS 2014 is still not perfect in its accuracy – it tends to err on the side of “false positives” – allowing notes and chords that are really, really sloppy far more often than failing good playing, but it still has a bit of both. You really have to listen to yourself. But the scoring is a decent proxy if you aren’t trying to “game” it.
One nice thing about the Score Attack, by the way, is that the score will reflect your timing, unlike “Learn a Song.” So while you might be good enough to have it “pass off” your playing, you’ll get a lower score on Score Attack if you are late or early. Unfortunately, this is a little more challenging with the latency issues – getting “perfect” is a lot harder than it should be – though there are adjustments to compensate. I think on a faster machine, I’d have less problems.
In the last six months, I’ve learned new scales – particularly the blues scale and phrygian dominant scale, which are really fun. I’m not quite to the point of having memorized them all over the fretboard yet – I’m still working on that. But for a guy who spent twenty years never going beyond the pentatonic minor, it feels like an improvement.
I’m earned two-thirds of the achievements on Steam for the game, including almost all the ones I care about. The remaining ones are mostly Guitarcade technique game scores (I’ve only earned one of those), and some completionist items. I actually tried to earn one of the “secret” achievements – failing a song in Score Attack ten times, but on the sixth or seventh try I actually passed it off. The song was “Ballroom Blitz.” The weird thing is, I hadn’t gone through the full “Learn a song” cycle for that song yet. I learned it by failing it in Score Attack – Hard Mode – several times. So hey – the old Guitar Hero method of mastering a song *does* work.
Anyway, achievements don’t automagically equate to progress, but I don’t think they are completely uncorrelated.
Did I Outgrow My Guitar?
I’ve had an old, very low-end Squier Fender for years. It was an upgrade over an ancient Asian plywood thing that was as old as me that I bought in a pawn shop for $50 when I was 16 years old. A couple of months ago, I began to realize that I was running into the limitations of the guitar itself. That was kind of novel. It wasn’t major, but playing the guitar clean had some annoying little artifacts that new strings, adjusting the intonation, and careful playing just couldn’t fix.
So I bought a new guitar. My upgrade wasn’t that major – it’s still not an expensive guitar, but it’s a decent step or two above the old one. I had a few very specific requirements. I wanted 22 frets instead of 21, and – just because! – a tremelo (“whammy”) bar. After a *lot* of research, reading tons of reviews, visits to the guitar store, and watching YouTube videos, I settled on a “raspberry red” Yamaha Pacifica 112V. For it’s price range, it’s really hard to beat. For a couple hundred dollars more, I could get a mid-level Squier Classic Strat, which is of comparable quality but has the genuine “strat” tone. While that’s an awesome tone, I decided on the Pacifica instead. It has an alder body, maple neck, three decent quality alnico V pickups, a 5-way switch, 22 frets… and the whammy bar (sadly, not a great one, but I don’t intend to use it that much). The bridge pickup is a humbucker, which is good for higher distortion playing and has a clean, mellow tone. But – a nice feature of the Pacificas – the tone knob can be pupped up to a new position to cut off one of the coils, and convert it into a single-coil for more of a bright, “crunchy” tone.
And I like the look of it. It’s a sexy guitar.
Most importantly – it made a difference. Not a huge difference, but for my scores that were in the 90%+, particularly the ones with lots of strumming of full-ish chords, my scores really improved overnight. So… maybe I just bought a very expensive game controller, but I do love it, and there’s some evidence that yes, I really was being limited by the old guitar. Sometimes. But getting good enough that the guitar seemed to make a difference was… well, cool.
I have only done it with one song – and then, still not consistently – but I’ve managed to get 100% accuracy in a song at full difficulty. Or – in this case – on “Master” difficulty in Score Attack – which is the mode where you have to play the entire song from memory. So while I still can’t play it perfectly (more on that a little later…), it was fun to get the “Perfectly Perfect Game” achievement for this particular run. But while Eye of the Tiger by Survivor isn’t the most challenging song in the world, being able to nail it from memory close enough for RS2014 to count it as 100% was something that was absolutely unthinkable six months ago.
Learning New Songs is Easier
This is a delightful discovery. While there are still some songs that feel “beyond me,” I’ve found that learning a new song is generally far, far easier than it used to be, and that I very quickly ramp up the auto-scaling difficulty to a pretty high (if not maxed out) level. From a common-sense perspective, this is logical, but emotionally my internal dialog was something like, “Oh, man, I’ve played this song for WEEKS and I’m still not very good at it! How can I ever learn even a dozen songs at this rate?!?!?” This means that the skills, the muscle-memory, the pattern-recognition, and all that fun stuff is starting to set in place. In fact, I find that for some songs, my fingers can subconsciously “guess” where the next position / chord will be the first time I’ve played the song (assuming I’ve heard the song before). They aren’t always right, but they are often in the right neighborhood.
Leaping Over the Old Plateaus
Another “ah-hah” moment came a few times when I gave up on certain songs weeks or months before because I’d just hit a plateau and couldn’t seem make anything more than tenths-of-a-percentage improvements no matter how hard I tried. After several weeks, never having practiced the song again even once, I played it cold (sometimes re-enabling the ‘mastered’ sections because I couldn’t remember it), and blew away my previous score! And then, on the second try, kicking it up another couple of notches!
Like learning new songs more easily, this tells me that yes, my underlying skills have increased.
Okay, sometimes it’s really fun to be a big fish in a small pond. And the pond is small – this is for playing Rhythm (Lead is far more popular, duh), on the PC leaderboards (probably smaller than the ones for the consoles), for songs that were originally Rocksmith 1 DLC (but compatible for RS2014). But hey – still, I’m in the top five in the world on both songs… one in “Hard” mode (maximum difficulty) for White Wedding, and one in “Master” mode (maximum difficulty, but played from memory).
Now – a little bit more on this… I scored 100% accuracy, but there are still four people with higher scores than me. Why? That’s because there are degrees of success. Even though I hit the right(ish) notes, Score Attack also scores based on timing accuracy. So I could be 100% accuracy but have my timing off (and as you can see in the video, my timing is often off), and not get the points the people above me did for nailing the timing perfectly and consistently.
This isn’t really a reflection of my own improvement, but I finally got to play the game multiplayer – with my daughter. She hadn’t played the game before, but learned quickly (she plays an acoustic guitar, probably better than I did a year ago…). We had a lot of fun, and I was actually able to show her some tricks and teach her a few things… not just Rocksmith-related! And being able to learn a new song together – and not sound too terrible playing a duet together with the music backing us – was just cool beyond all words. Plus goofing around in Session Mode in something of a jam was cool. But really – playing with other people is cool beyond words. DUH. Not a revelation to any musician, I know, but still… it’s awesome that RS2014 does this so well. It’s another cool motivating factor.
And Finally…. Here’s Me Playing Something I Couldn’t Six Months Ago…
The proof, ultimately, is in simply playing the guitar. So here’s my little performance of the song that I play best. This isn’t my best performance, and FRAPS screws things up a little and monkeys with the frame rate, and my timing could have been better, and… <excuse> <excuse> <excuse>. Okay. I’m not quite ready to play in a band yet. But recognizing that back in October, I couldn’t really play anything except a few simple chords… this is Progress with a capital P. In the mixer, I turned down the music level so my guitar – and all my mistakes and bad timing – would be clearly front-and-center. So if at any time you can’t tell that it’s not just the original song playing — that’s a rare moment of me being awesome.
I may not yet be able to play very well, but I can definitely play guitar now.
I refer you to my article on Eleven Tips to Getting the Most Out of Rocksmith 2014. That’s pretty much how I’ve been using the game. It’s not a perfect tool, but it is a really entertaining way to help you practice, learn songs, and gauge your improvement. If you take advantage of what it has to offer, but are cognizant of its limitations and find ways to work around those or supplement your experience, it’s awesome. Is it the fastest way to learn guitar? Heck if I know. I just know that I’ve really had fun and made a lot of progress over the last six months. I’m not totally competent at the guitar, but I expect that’s something that comes with years, not weeks or months.
There are definitely some areas where Rocksmith 2014 can improve. Its accuracy and latency have greatly improved since the first game, but could still be better. I’d love to have the ability to record and play back your performance from directly within the game. The first game could do that (kinda), so I don’t know why they dumped it. And it could absolutely use some more big-hair 80’s metal. I’m just sayin’.
I think my commitment to practice was the biggest factor in my progress. I turned it into a habit, and that’s been awesome. Would I have made the same progress without the game, putting in the same time using tabs and online instruction? I don’t know, but I actually don’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t have been as fun. The game is really open and lets you practice how and what you want, but it provides you with a ton of “hooks” to motivate you, help you measure your progress (a huge motivating factor for me – I hate getting ‘stuck’), and provides some decent (if imperfect) feedback.
It’s not the only tool you’d need, but if you want to learn rock guitar, I’d recommend it in a heartbeat.
Filed Under: Guitar Games - Comments: 5 Comments to Read