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Rocksmith review: Drop-D minus

Jordan Mallory

Video games, by design, are meant to impart fantasy; they let us make believe that we as people are more incredible than we actually are, or that there's more to the world around us than we realize. They're a way to bridge the gap between the possible and the impossible, and music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero help the musically unskilled escape their lack of real-world training. Even though it's not really like playing a guitar, those games still require skill and concentration, and can be just as satisfying as a result.

Rocksmith's approach to rhythm games is rather different, however, in that it subverts the illusion of musicianship found in its contemporaries in an effort to turn you into a real musician, capable of playing a real, honest to goodness guitar. But the reality of the situation is that Rocksmith fails as both an educational platform and as a rhythm title, despite its groundbreaking technological foundations.

Gallery: Rocksmith (E3 2011) | 6 Photos

Those technical foundations are, on their own, a remarkable piece of engineering. I never ceased to be amazed that my trusty old Paul Reed Smith "Cecilia" was plugged into the front of my 360, and that it was working. The whole concept is ludicrous; but there it goes, accurately tracking each note right before my very eyes. The technology may not be sophisticated enough to register the difference between a palm-muted note and a hammer-on, and as a result most of the UI becomes a suggestion rather than a requirement, but the fact that it works at all is an astonishing accomplishment.

Also astonishing by virtue of its existence is the Amp mode, which places the player in an aural sandbox, letting them choose from a selection of virtual stomp boxes, amps and cabinets in order to build their own custom rig. It's an entertaining toy for the most part, and fresh-faced guitarists will get a kick out of experimenting with different pedal combinations and amp settings, provided they have the patience required to unlock enough effects to experiment with.

The technology isn't perfect, however; or rather it only has the ability to function perfectly under specific circumstances. Though the bulk of my experience with Rocksmith was free of technical difficulties and took place on an old-school CRT television, the game was also tested on a modern flat screen, where audio latency was extremely severe. There's enough leeway in the game's note tracking that song performance is still technically possible, but the effect was still disorienting, and such intense lag has the potential to ruin Amp mode's toy box playtime. Delay can be a neat effect, but only in pedal form.

Rocksmith itself recommends routing the console's audio through an external system which, while failing to eradicate latency entirely, did reduce the problem to a manageable (albeit annoying) level. Ignore the hypothetical limitations of the tech, however, and it's clear how brilliant the entire system is, and how sad it is that such a marvel is buried underneath this bland, desolate gameplay experience.

From its menus to its venues and everything in between, Rocksmith positively oozes boredom. The game takes place entirely in first person, and all of the gameplay is spent looking out over a sea of identical, generic faces in identical, generic bars. Whether this was an effort to emulate a musician's onstage experience, or an effort to emulate a lower production budget, is uncertain, but the fact of the matter is that I never once saw myself, my instrument or my band. The result was entirely forgettable.

In any rhythm game, however, environments and characters serve as an accent to the title's core gameplay and are rarely, if ever intended to be the focus of the experience. Rocksmith's unending dirge of featureless black caverns could be forgiven if the underlying gameplay mechanics were exciting and captivating, but they too fall victim to the pervasive mist of bad design decisions that permeate most of the product.

Chief offender amongst those flaws is the player's inability to select a song's difficulty level; instead, Rocksmith adjusts a track's complexity on the fly, based on how well it thinks the player has learned that specific portion of the song. It sounds alright on paper, but in practice the dynamic system only manages to instill one of two sensations: Boredom, or a deep sense of inadequacy.

For the accomplished guitarist, being unable to immediately select a song's most difficult setting adds hours of tedious dredges through simplified charts; only once the player has convinced Rocksmith they're good enough will they be trusted with the song's complete version. It turns a rhythm game into an MMO-style grind festival, which is an unwelcome and wholly unfulfilling way to spend time playing music. I don't need to prove to Ubisoft that I can handle Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand, just let me in there. I promise I won't hurt myself.

"The result is perpetual state of work, where the player constantly sight-reads and is never really allowed to feel like they've achieved anything."

Granted, the game is patently designed for the extreme novice, but the auto-difficulty system fails in that application as well. The gratifying part of learning to play a specific song, be it on a real guitar or a fake one, is the moment when you realize that you've got it down. The riff or chord progression has been memorized, both mentally and muscularly, and you can tear through that lick over and over again without error. This is the reward phase of acquiring any new skill, where learning has ended and the student can bask in the glorious magnificence of their impossible accomplishment.

But, automatically adjusting a track's difficulty removes the reward phase from the process almost entirely. As soon as the player feels comfortable with part of a song, the AI recognizes their newly gained proficiency and bumps that sequence up to the next hardest setting. The result is a perpetual state of work, where the player constantly sight-reads and is never really allowed to feel like they've achieved anything. Until the very hardest setting is granted, the player is only ever good enough, never great, and that's an incredibly discouraging feeling to impose on someone trying to learn something new.

Not that they'll be learning what they should be learning, mind you, as Rocksmith is as woefully inadequate an educational device as it is a rhythm game.

Take tuning, for instance: The fifth-fret-open-string method for tuning by ear is an essential, basic piece of knowledge that one hundred percent of guitarists should be taught as soon as they pick up the instrument, and yet Rocksmith fails to teach that or any other manual tuning method. The game has a built-in electronic tuner, sure, but neglecting to communicate that simple, vital skill is an out-right disservice to the player.

The game also includes a virtual reference encyclopedia of chord charts and diagrams, but rather than organizing the information by key, Rocksmith organizes chords by song, which turns looking for a specific chord into a time-consuming menu slog.

Rocksmith declines every single opportunity presented to educate the player on music theory, and while it's true that a theory background isn't absolutely required to play the guitar, educational software is usually better when it's, you know, educational. Rocksmith doesn't teach the player anything; they teach themselves, and there are much more entertaining and fulfilling ways to be a self-taught guitarist.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Rocksmith, provided by Ubisoft. Multiplayer could not be tested and as such was not factored in to the game's final score.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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