'Rocksmith': The First Real Guitar Game

Plug any actual guitar into your Xbox, PlayStation or PC and 'learn as you play'

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Rocksmith is a video game that is going to teach you guitar. Not a fake, plastic toy with color-coded buttons or even some hybrid game controller. Guitar. Six strings and a fretboard. There’s no avoiding it. If you play the game you’ll be strumming out notes alongside songs you know and pick up a skill in the process. That is the core idea driving Ubisoft’s unique new music game: plug any actual guitar with an electric output jack into your Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or PC using a provided quarter-inch-to-USB cable and simply “learn as you play.”

The basic gameplay should be immediately familiar if you know your rhythm games. “Notes” cascade down from the top of the screen toward a “target zone.” The difference here is that the “note highway” is actually a virtual guitar fretboard, complete with numbers which correspond to the different frets, and the “target zone” consists of six horizontal strings.

Wherever each note appears on the virtual fret board, that’s where your finger(s) go on the physical fretboard. Once the note reaches the target area you strum the string it comes into contact with. Simple. The camera zooms dynamically to highlight where on the fret board you should be looking at, in much the same way that a musician’s eyes would scan up and down the neck of the instrument during a performance.

So what we’re really talking about here is a first-person guitar game. You’ve got your virtual fretboard and strings superimposed over live video of a concert audience as seen from the stage. The crowd responds to how you are playing; do well, and they’ll cheer, dance and generally go wild. Do poorly, and they’ll just stand there looking bored. Some will even start texting.

Unlike other music games, the audio won’t cut out when you miss notes, nor will you be penalized for any noodling you do between the required notes. In that way, Rocksmith encourages experimentation. There are score-based elements of course, but they can be safely ignored without disrupting your experience. There is also no way to “fail” out of a song and no difficulty settings to adjust. Instead, Rocksmith’s challenge level automatically adapts to how you’re playing, throwing more notes your way as it becomes clear you can handle them.

If you consistently have trouble with one part of a song or another, the game will even offer to take you to a practice mode – which can also be accessed independently – where you get to learn difficult phrasings at your own pace. Sections of songs can be looped and even slowed down, gradually picking up speed as you cycle through again and again. If that’s still too fast, you can have the mode wait for you to play each note, forgetting about timing and rhythm for a moment to focus on proper fingering.

As players progress through a career, which consists of a series of performances with fully customizable setlists and crowd-selected encores, they will unlock additional guitars, amps and effects pedals (with adjustable dials) for use in creating a more personalized tone. These can be tested in the game’s amplifier mode, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: plug your axe in (or any instrument with a quarter-inch output, though only guitar is “officially” supported) and play away. There is also a minigame mode, which turns repetitive training exercises into fun, score-based activities that have the look and feel of arcade games, complete with high scores and associated leaderboards.

All versions of Rocksmith will ship with the required converter cable, and a bundle with a packed-in guitar will be available for those who don’t have an electric of their own (acoustic guitars with an output jack are not recommended). No pricing has been confirmed for the planned September release, nor have any specific songs been announced. Expect there to be around 45, with a list of artists that includes works from the Animals, the Black Keys, David Bowie, Interpol, Nirvana and the Rolling Stones.

Rocksmith is shaping up to be an evolution of what we’ve come to know and expect from musically-driven video games. Rhythm gaming seems almost primitive by comparison. Instead of merely focusing on the beat you get a top-to-bottom immersion in the craft of making music. Performance and technique are important, but equal emphasis is placed on encouraging players to personalize and experiment. Unlike the most popular rhythm games, Rocksmith carries with it that implicit promise, to “learn as you play.”