byline picby Pappy

When I was a kid I decided that I wanted to learn how to play an instrument.  While I’m not entirely sure, I think I was mainly influenced by the amount of prison movies I had been watching at the time and settled on the harmonica.  It was small, portable, and seemed so simple that the distance between “what is this?” to “gather ‘round everyone and revel in the greatness that is my skill!” seemed very, very small (just like the harmonica!).

Unfortunately, as with every instrument, you’re going to need to practice if you want to get better at it.  And practice sucks.  It’s boring, you never get to do what you want or play what you want. It’s all very basic songs that you don’t like, or scales that don’t sound like anything at all, and the whole time you’re thinking “who’s going to be impressed by THIS?!”  This is especially true with the guitar because we all had an idea of what learning to play the guitar would be like: it would be exactly like rocking out in front of a mirror to your favorite tunes strumming a tennis racket, except now you would have a guitar in your hand.  And yeah, it might be tough at first but if you put in… what… a week?  Yeah, a week’s worth of work, you’re sure to be the next Charlie Christian or whoever the kids are listening to these days.

Then the reality hit.  You’re still playing scales that don’t sound like anything and weak songs that you definitely don’t like, but that’s okay because you got the sweet trade-off of pain in your fingertips with the potential of bleeding!

If only there was a way to learn how to play songs that are awesome and have fun while you learn.  And I’m not talking school-fun, here.  I’m talking real fun.  At music lessons at school their definition of fun is playing on the 2 beat instead of the 1.  Whoa, now, let’s all calm down before my fun-meter is pegged and my face is permanently shifted to resemble the Joker’s.  Think of how fun the guitar was GOING to be before you started playing guitar.  Think of the fun you had when you were rocking out, unseen by anyone with nothing but dreams in your head and no harsh reality to get in your way.

If only there was a way to bring THAT into actually learning the guitar.

Well there is, and it’s been around for a while.  It’s called Rocksmith.

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Rocksmith’s first edition came out in 2011 for the PS3, Xbox 360, and eventually the PC.  No dedicated Mac version though, which is a bummer.  If you’ve been paying attention for the last decade or so, you’ll remember the rise of a little game called “Guitar Hero” which aimed to teach you… how to push colored buttons on a very tiny guitar that will surely impress SOMEONE out there.  I mean, look at how quickly you can navigate those buttons!  Surely that’s a skill that will pay off sometime in the future!  Actually it turns out that a lot of people were impressed, just not guitarists.  ANY guitarists.  There was a big backlash by guitarists because they thought that kids were actively choosing to play a plastic toy rather than learning a real guitar, all while completely ignoring the fact that this was never a real choice that anyone made.

Guitar Hero burned out quickly and guitarists largely ignored guitar video games, so when Rocksmith came out, it was a bit of a slow burner.  It did everything that any guitarist would like though because you connect your REAL guitar to the console of choice and learn actual songs.  Anyone can play because the songs are cut into many different sections and your skill in those sections determine the difficulty of those sections.  As you nail the section, the difficulty is ramped up more and more until you are playing the song as it should be played.  The goal here is to teach you the song, yes, but to make it fun by giving you attainable difficulty levels so even if you’re playing the least difficult setting, you could potentially come out with a great score.  You feel better about your playing, you’re having fun, and you play it again because it was fun, not because you’re on the practice clock.  As the difficulty goes up, what you’re playing starts to sound more and more like the actual song and you start to get excited and you play again and again.  When you finally come up for air you realize that it’s been… holy crap has it REALLY been three  hours?  You realize your fingers are sore, but you also realize that you just had fun – real fun – playing real songs and really getting better.  You just practiced!  While you may be exhausted now, you can’t wait for later to do it again.

The mechanics of the game work like this: You have six colored lines representing your strings, and colored notes approach those strings so you know at a glance which string to use.  This is good for sight reading because you keep your eyes glued to the TV rather than looking down at your strings.  Imagine how much more fun it will be to perform for an audience when you can see the audience rather than shoe-gazing.  The notes are presented in traditional TAB format, but rather than scroll to the side like you might expect TAB to be shown, it approaches from the distance in the back coming toward you.  Because of this unique approach to TAB, there are different symbols for slides, vibratos, bends, and hammer-ons/pull-offs, but these new symbols are intuitive.  A vibrato has a wavy line behind the note like a bunched up carpet (the more bunched up, the faster the vibrato), while sustain is a solid line behind the note.  It makes sense.  Rocksmith added one more super-special approach with this technique and that is that it’s not all uniform.  The viewing angle changes slightly, you zoom in and out of the fretboard (so you know where you are and where you’re going next on the neck) and the benefit is that when the song is done and you look down at the floor or at the wall, the floor/wall doesn’t move because your eyes have become used to the motion on the screen.  If it did, it could lead to major headaches for older folks like me.  I can play Rocksmith for hours and not feel any worse for the wear and my eyes are fine with no unconscious movement.

The merits of Rocksmith caught on and the game gained popularity and eventually Ubisoft released the sequel, Rocksmith 2014 in what might be the best sequel to a game ever.  There were some significant changes between the two games Rocksmith (RS) and Rocskmith 2014 (RS14), but almost all of them are for the better.  The best change is that RS14 is that it is now available on the Mac, which is what I used to play in order to write this review.

While there are some changes that some would say are the “biggest” in the game, the most important one is the drastic reduction in waiting for the ability to play a song.  RS had substantial wait times where the game was figuring out how well you did, ranking what you did, figuring out levels, and all that before it popped up saying you can now continue.  It took a long time.  RS14 though, is very fast and you can move from song to song very quickly with little to no wait time.

Another big change is that in RS, you leveled up as if you were in a career, getting new venues, set lists, and a larger fan base.  You performed at these venues for the fans and they were depicted as 2D cardboard cutouts that responded to how well you were playing.  If you were not playing well, they just stood there (very unsettling), but if you were playing well, they responded by cheering, clapping, screaming, jumping, and taking videos of you as you played.  This may not sound too impressive, but it put me into “rockstar mode” very quickly and I found myself performing for these virtual people as if I were actually playing a show.

This has been replaced by a trippy animation where the wall in your virtual loft melts away and you can see an audience of some sort, but from a higher perspective so you see hands and heads, but not faces because the venues are very bright.  I think what they were going for is the way a huge stadium must look when you’re performing and you have all those lights in your face, but I kind of miss my cardboard cutout fans.  You do get larger venues as you learn more songs and perform more missions, you just can’t see everyone’s faces.

Here’s how it used to look:

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Original Rocksmith fans

Here’s how it looks in RS14:

new rocksmith

Wall mid-melt

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Wall fully melted mid-song on the pause screen.

If this was cut to save the load times though, I’m more than happy to shun them!

RS14 took the basic elements of RS and streamlined them into a game that makes a lot more sense structurally.  You have a loft where the main menu resides and based on what you pick, you’re brought sideways into other rooms where the submenus are.  This means that you’re not swimming text menus and everything is big, bright, and easy to navigate.

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Learn A Song

Another big change is the cutting of the career path.  While it was cool, I doubt that anyone really paid attention to it because the game was pitched as a way to learn songs, not emulate the career of a rockstar.  So Ubisoft cut it and gave the people what they wanted: over 50 songs on the disc to learn.  You can sort them in just about every way you want like by difficulty, year, length, title, artist, mastery, etc. etc. etc. based on what you want, and Rocksmith is constantly giving you little tasks that will help you master the songs based on your recent performance.

To illustrate: Say you’re playing a song, and you have a lot of it down, but you’re having issues with the solo (who doesn’t?).  Rocksmith will give you a task to focus JUST on the solo.

Here’s a handy point to bring up an educational tool that Rocksmith offers.  Like I said earlier, you can play through the whole song and learn it bit by bit as you go through it’s entirety over and over.  Or you can use Rocksmith’s Riff Repeater to focus on however many sections of the song you like.  Once you selected the sections you want to work on, the game gives you a few seconds of the song to get situated before beginning the selected part(s).  When you reach the end of it, the game drags you back to the beginning of the selected areas and starts again.  You can set the game up to level and speed up automatically, which means that each time you go through the sections with zero mistakes the song speeds up (it usually starts at about 75% speed) until you’re playing it error-free at 100% speed.  Once that is done it increases the difficulty and brings the speed back down to 75% giving you the chance to digest all the new notes that were added.  I found this learning tool to be beneficial for SOME things, but I can’t see myself learning an entire song chunk by chunk because it is VERY frustrating to spend an hour on one part of a song as you try to nail it to the 100% difficulty and 100% speed mark before moving on to the next chunk.  Instead, I would prefer to play the song in its entirety that way if I screw up the solo a bit, that’s fine because I definitely know how to play the chorus and I’ll have a blast doing so (giving me more fun parts and less potential for constant frustration).  I will say though, that when you FINALLY nail the Riff Repeater perfectly you feel like you accomplished something truly great.

But I know there are people that learn chunk by chunk rather than all at once, so it boils down to a personal preference.

The thing to remember here is that the difficulty changes based on the player and how the player is playing right then.  If you’re a beginner, the songs will pitch their difficulty down to your level so you can build up.  This isn’t insulting or anything.  Imagine how great it would feel to know that you got through a song perfectly with zero errors.  It would totally make you want to play again and when you played again you noticed an additional note or two, or maybe what was a note is now a power chord.  These are incremental raises in difficulty – bite-size chunks of hardness – that make it easier, and far less daunting to learn a song.  You start out easy and as you get better the game gets harder so the proportion of your skill and the game’s difficulty doesn’t change, you just both go up at the same time.  It. Is. BRILLIANT!  It’s a huge motivation to get through and feel good about what you did and it’s a great feeling knowing that the difficulty proportion is going to stay the same all the way to the end when you’re playing the ACTUAL song.  Every time you do well your confidence goes up so when you finally start to master the song the notes fade away because you’ve practically memorized the song by now anyway, but it’s OK that they’re gone.  You’ve got this.  You know the song and it’s perfectly fine that the game is taking off the training wheels.

If you need them for some reason though, they come back, so no worries if this does intimidate you or anything, but the end goal here is for you to KNOW the song and be able to play it yourself with no help from the game.

Speaking of songs, I said previously that there are over 50 songs on the disc waiting to be learned by you, and another substantial change from RS is the genre variety.  RS had good songs – great songs – but they all really fit well with each other.  If you were listening to a radio station that played RS songs, none would stand out as something that didn’t belong.  RS14, though ranges wildly in guitar-centered genres and is finally giving everyone the ability to learn metal in particular.  Not just one genre of metal either.  Modern bands like Avenged Sevenfold are right next to classics like Iron Maiden, with downloadable content (DLC) offering bands like Judas Priest and Megadeth.

What I mean to say is that there’s something for every guitarist out there and you’ll enjoy playing them.  Hey, you may even find songs that you didn’t think you would like but you actually do!

DLC

A fatal flaw of the Guitar Hero games was that they were constantly coming out with new discs (Green Day, Van Halen, etc) and sales declined drastically because a niche audience was being approached on a broad scale.  Ubisoft and Rocksmith know that this just isn’t the way to do things and offers you downloadable content online so you can buy songs from more bands without the expense of buying the discs that cost money to print and distribute, and then you need to put the disc in and have access to only those songs… it’s a horrible process.  Rocksmith’s downloadable content (DLC) fixes all those issues by offering them online either by song or in packs for reasonable prices and you can play them in the game almost immediately.

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Ideally, anyway.  Ubisoft uses Steam to handle their DLC and there seems to be a miscommunication between Rocksmith and Steam.  When I opened RS14 and went to the Shop I put some song packs that were on sale in my cart and tried to buy them.  Steam said I was unable to purchase the song packs because they required the base RS game (not RS14) to have been installed.  But I have a Mac, and no RS for it.  Steam picked off my packs one by one – packs that I really wanted to learn and packs that RS14 said in their shop were compatible with the game, but ultimately I was unable to do it.

That’s a pretty big letdown, seeing something for sale, being told you can buy it, trying to buy it, and being told that you can’t.

The workaround I use with this dilemma though, is to buy the DLC directly from the Steam app, rather than in the RS14 game since Steam lets you know what you can actually buy.

Additionally, I can’t help but feel like PC users got a really sweet deal out of this since it had access to the first RS.  Supposedly, for a minimal fee of $9.99 they can import all of the songs from the original RS into RS14 (quite the deal) and have the charts and sounds upgraded to RS14 levels.  This has not been offered in my RS14 or on Steam for Mac.  I really feel like this is something that should be addressed as soon as possible because there are a LOT of good songs on the first game that I would be more than happy to buy again in bulk (my copy of RS is for the Xbox 360) for a price like ten bucks.

Between this and the fact that the original RS is the stopping point for Mac users trying to download original RS DLC, I’m pretty unsatisfied with the execution of the DLC, especially when there’s SO many great songs from so many great bands.  I really hope that Ubisoft fixes this quickly because I’ve got some Christmas cash burning a hole in my pocket and a LOT of the DLC is on sale right now!

EDIT: After visiting the Steam forums and asking the experts (particularly those with Macs), I was informed of a way to get most of the songs from the first game imported into RS14.  First you have to purchase the original Rocksmith in Steam but you DON’T have to install it.  Basically, Steam is looking for proof that you own RS1 in order to let you have access to the DLC and Importer Tool which brings over all but about five tracks from the original game.  Right now RS1 is on sale for about $15.00 and the importer tool is $9.99 for a total of about $25.00.  $25.00 and you get almost 50 songs from the original game and access to the DLC from the original game.

Anything Other Than Songs?

While the main draw for the game is the songs, they aren’t the only things offered.  The game also features interactive video lessons that you can practice with before being given a small test to show that you learned what it was that you were supposed to.  Sometimes these are prompted after repeated attempts at certain songs with Rocksmith gently saying “hey, sometimes strumming in time is tricky.  Why not try this lesson on strumming before you try the song again?”  You can ignore it if you like, but Rocksmith really is trying to minimize the distance between you and successful play-throughs of songs because the longer they are, the less inspired you will be to keep playing.  There are video lessons for everyone, too.  If you are brand new to the instrument (and I mean BRAND NEW), there are video lessons on how to put a strap on your guitar, how to hold your guitar, how to hold your pick, etc.

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Additionally, there are mini games.  Originally I thought that mini games were a bit of a waste of time probably forced in to satisfy the kids who have attention spans so short they can’t just learn songs, but it turns out that I was drastically wrong.  The games actually serve a purpose.  There are games to increase your speed and ability to pick random strings without looking at the guitar, there are games to increase your speed and ability with scales.  There are also games for bends, playing accurate notes on demand, and even a game based solely on volume.  Yes, Rocksmith wants to teach you how to be a dynamic player instead of a one-volume-all-the-time kind of player.  I’m talking about the volume you make with your hand, by the way, not the knob.

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“Scale Warriors!”

There are even leaderboard games for the songs you learn so you can compete to see just who in the world can play whatever song the best.

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There’s even a virtual band that you assign and will play to match you, so when you want to try out new material and hear approximately how it would sound with a band, you can.  As you increase your speed and the hardness with which you hit the strings, the drummer increases his volume and effort.  Pick softer and the drummer, in a truly shocking display of drummer potential, shows some restraint and plays at a softer level.  You pick the key for the band and have fun.

virtual band

Overall

As a teaching tool, Rocksmith 2014 is brilliant.  A friend who is learning how to play guitar asked how it compared to Guitar Hero because that’s been the one that has permeated pop culture in general the most in the last few years and they are truly incomparable.  Perhaps at a glance they’re similar because colored dots are lining up with lines and you have to hit the right one at the right time, but Guitar Hero was always meant to be a party game – a fun throwaway activity – while Rocksmith aims to teach you how to actually play guitar.  For this reason, I don’t look at it as a party game at all, because no one in the world would want to pull this out and play an unfamiliar song at a party (it becomes obvious REALLY fast if it’s your first time playing the song).  Besides, which do you think is more impressive: someone playing a guitar-based video game well, or someone who’s actually playing the guitar well?  Rocksmith 2014 aims to make you the latter so perhaps at a party if someone asks if you play guitar you can say yes and serenade everyone with We Are The Champions, which if I remember right, is the perfect song for parties and campfires after you and your friends who are representing the entire United States win the Junior Goodwill Games for hockey.

That was a Mighty Ducks 2 reference.  You see why they call me Pappy?

Anyway, back to the game: The cost per song for disc is ridiculously low, especially considering the amount of time you’re going to put into it if you want to really master the songs.  I know a guitar instructor that charges a dollar a MINUTE, so the idea of about a dollar per SONG (Rocksmith 2014 with cable is currently on sale for $50.00 at Amazon.com) is a huge steal.  The value increases exponentially if you’re the type of person who wants to learn every song (a sure way to increase your skill and writing ability since you aren’t holing yourself up in a single genre) because it is going to take a long, LONG time to work through them all – even if you’re sticking just with the songs on the disc.  I like to look at the cost of video games and divide it by the time I spend playing it because it takes away from the sting of initial investment.  Yes, I spent X on the game, but I’ve played it for Y duration, which means I’ve been paying Z.ZZ per minute/hour/day.

Add to that the copious amounts of DLC that is available for everyone and the even MORE DLC available for Windows users, the interactive lessons, mini games, virtual band, and knowledge that you’re actually learning something valuable instead of how to press colored buttons on the world’s weakest-looking toy guitar and you’ll see that Rocksmith 2014 is a steal.

For more information, click HERE.