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Rocksmith: Less than a game, more than a tool

Hayden Dingman | Nov. 15, 2013
Rocksmith 2014 is the best approximation I've ever seen for playing with a real band, and you don't have to find a band and schedule time together when you just want to jam for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Learning the songs is where Rocksmith 2014, like its predecessor, starts to break down for me. Now, again, I'm coming from a guitar background. If you play guitar, there's a good chance you've learned songs using guitar tablature.

Rocksmith eschews standard tablature for a format that greatly resembles Guitar Hero/Rock Band's "note highway"—long streams of notes that move towards the screen.

Here's the catch: if you're using Rocksmith to learn guitar, as in you've never played before, you're probably going to have no trouble picking up the note highway format.

Me? I still find it annoying. Sure, the developers made some improvements to the new version, like making sure the initial note of each riff is marked with a number. You can also jump the difficulty to maximum immediately instead of waiting and leveling up the difficulty of each song individually.

But when I pumped the difficulty up to a point where I'd play the actual song, all the way through, the note highway became overwhelming.

This is where my guitar experience comes into play. I've read tabs for ten years, and I've reached a point where I can sight-read them in time with most songs. Rocksmith's note highway, for someone used to tablature, is cumbersome.

I tried learning Heart-Shaped Box by Nirvana. It's not a very hard song—Kurt Cobain was a great musician, but his guitar parts were pretty simple by design. I thought it would be a great place to start with Rocksmith.

Visual chaos. Even a song as straightforward as Heart-Shaped Box felt insurmountable. Then, for comparison, I booted up the tab on Ultimate Guitar and played it easily, first time through.

So my problem with Rocksmith isn't that it is a bad way to learn. If you're just starting out with guitar, learning songs in Rocksmith is much more intuitive than learning tablature, and the new missions (which prompt you to "Learn a song in E flat tuning" or "Learn a song from the '60s") guide you through the song catalog better than the last game's repetitive career mode.

My main issue is that—as an established guitarist—the note highway is more trouble than it's really worth. You'll probably learn quicker by snagging tablature off the Internet.

Who needs friends?
I sunk hours into Rocksmith 2014, though. I'd look at the clock and realize it was four in the morning, and I'd been playing for five hours already.

The key feature in Rocksmith 2014—the reason I'd urge every guitarist to buy a copy—is Session Mode. I wrote about Session Mode back at E3, after only gotten a brief hands-on session. At the time I felt pretty certain Session Mode was the thing that would sell me on a new Rocksmith game.


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