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Rocksmith preview: Six-string authenticity

Perhaps it's because of the immeasurable oversaturation of the peripheral-based rhythm genre, but my initial reaction to Rocksmith wasn't exactly warm. Others have tried to incorporate real guitars into their music titles with varying levels of success, but Rocksmith's approach to using a six-string as a controller seemed a tad primitive at first glance: Instead of detecting metal-on-metal contact on a MIDI-equipped guitar controller, Rocksmith merely detects the tones produced by your real instrument.

Though it seems unsophisticated, Rocksmith's recognition of sound turns out to be its greatest strength. Rather than teach you an exhaustive new interface and set of techniques, Rocksmith makes one simple demand of its players: You make the notes, and we'll make them sound awesome.

Gallery: Rocksmith (E3 2011) | 6 Photos

Though Rock Band's Pro Guitar mode provides a thorough and functional set of tools to ease both newcomers and skilled strummers into the game's unique interactive style, Rocksmith seems to place a higher impetus on simplicity. This ethos is obvious from its core conceit -- it works with any electric guitar you've got, provided it has a sufficient number of tuned strings.

The focus on simplicity is also built into the game's user interface: Notes are gems, which familiarly fly towards the player on a numbered chart, with each number representing a fret. The gems are color-coded to represent the different strings; for example, a red gem on the seventh fret means you have to hit the low E string on the seventh fret. These are frequently combined into chords, which are handily labeled next to the note chart as they come.

Rocksmith is able to detect these notes based on the actual sound your guitar produces -- which unfortunately means you have to check your guitar's tuning before playing each song. Luckily, a handy in-game tuner ensures that the process is as quick and inoffensive as possible.

The early Alpha version of the game I demoed showed off a few of the game's bold ideas about moving you up the ladder towards real-life guitar proficiency. For starters, there's a plethora of minigames designed to include your manual dexterity on the fretboard. Also, instead of choosing a song's difficulty level before you play it, each track is split into different phrases which "level up" as you play them successfully. As each phrase increases in level, more notes, chords and special techniques are added, until you're actually playing something that sounds similar to the song in question.

Its control scheme, which caused so much unrest when the game was announced, works swimmingly.

And, thanks to Rocksmith's detection of your guitar's sound and its bevy of built-in guitar effects, the songs you play actually sound like the songs you play. Those effects can also be used in a freestyle "Amp" mode, which lets you customize your guitar's tone with remarkable detail using any of a bajillion combinations of pedals, amps and filters. My very favorite time I spent with Rocksmith were the hours I whittled away experimenting with unfamiliar tones, your catalog of which expands as you progress through the game.

It might even be a viable, cost-effective replacement for an expensive set of stompable sound modulators, if it weren't for the largest problem I experienced with Rocksmith: There's some pretty noticeable lag on some displays. It's a problem inherent in some televisions -- particularly cheaper ones -- alleviated somewhat by switching to composite cables and turning your television's "Game Mode," provided it has one. Still, unless you're playing on a relatively latency-free TV or using an external speaker, you're going to get a hundred or so milliseconds of lag -- just enough to add a delay between your plucking a string and the game registering said pluck.

It's not enough to make the actual game unplayable, but it certainly throws off your performance in the freestyle Amp mode. It also cheapens another neat feature -- after you play a song, it plays it back to you, amplifying your own contributions. When those contributions are a beat behind the actual song, it just makes you sound like the most distracted guitarist in the history of the instrument.

It's far, far too early to tell if Rocksmith will fulfill those various and sundry requirements that rhythm games are judged on -- can it really teach you to play guitar? Does it have a compelling unlock system? Is there any multiplayer component? -- but its control scheme, which caused so much unrest when the game was announced, works swimmingly. If you've got a lightning-fast (or faster!) television set, Rocksmith could be a major contender for your attention in the relatively tiny real-instrument genre. Heck, it could even be a useful real-life guitar tool if you happen to aspire to be The Edge, but you're too broke to purchase an actual effect pedal.

Or if you were the actual The Edge, though he's probably got the cash to spring for the genuine article.

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