By Chris Matel
I'd like to set the record straight: I got burned last year at PAX. Coming away from the show floor, I had, what I can now call, questionable enthusiasm for Power Gig: Rise of the SixString. Cooly propped up against a pillar in the middle of the game's show floor booth, one of the developers strummed away on a guitar controller that had real strings and pickups, producing rhythms on a portable amplifier, demonstrating the cross-functionality of the game's peripheral. It was impressive, especially when considering Rock Band's and Guitar Hero's plastic, buttoned 'instrument.' The representatives never purported the game would teach you how to play scaled chords or notes, they simply admitted it to be a bridge between the act of gaming and essentially forming the callouses of a guitar player.
Nevertheless, I left the show on a mission to prove to my nay-saying, musician friends there was an alternative to the clicky, miniature-sized front-running competitors. “Look, dude, it uses a real guitar. I could play the game, then push the adapter back into the body and actually play on an amp!” I boasted. When it released, the hardware ended up being fairly accurate to the pitch, but the game did almost nothing to leverage that fact. It couldn't teach you how to play the guitar controller that came in the bundle, and it turned out to be a paling contemporary to the more fun competition. Such a disappointment only served to disenfranchise my indie label friends more from the rhythm game scene.
I hope I haven't learned my lesson though. This year Ubisoft brought Rocksmith to the show, hitting 15-minute intervals with live, staged demonstrations of a two-man duo: one playing a guitar, the other reiterating the game's selling points. Ladies and gentlemen, for $199, you get a complete bundle of an Epiphone Les Paul guitar, quarter-inch to USB proprietary cable and rhythm videogame.
History would force me to hold my tongue, but I'll say it anyway: I'm excited to play more of Rocksmith. There was a lot of marketing talk being pushed at the booth, but the prospect of learning to actually play the guitar, especially as a complete novice, is enticing. At the show, a 30-minute queue rewarded me with 10 minutes of play time and the result is hopefully indicative of the the final experience.
Rocksmith, it would seem, isn't just a rhythm-based game set to popular music. Before playing chords and notes in-time with on-screen prompts, you have to make sure your setup checks out by strumming to calibrate the input. From there, it's making sure you know where to put your fingers on the fret board, and which strings to put pressure on and pluck. Playing “In Bloom” by Nirvana brought this system to my attention. For someone essentially alien to the art of playing the guitar, the experience of putting flesh to metallic string was satisfying, albeit simplistic for my sake.
Things became more familiar as I started to hit repetitious singular notes in a limited range of frets. Yet, my confidence couldn't settle, for as soon as it did, the range expanded and started to introduce more than the lower end of the fret board and top two strings. The act of finding the correct placement might start out easy, but it doesn't stay as much once the game realizes how you're coming along. Not to mention, actually playing through a song came off as more than a grind for stars since having to physically compress the strings creates a tolerable bit of wear on a non-initiated gamer's fingertips.
Power Gig, arguably, did as much; so how does Rocksmith come off any different? Mini-games focus on teaching basic fingerings and skills along the neck of any electric guitar—you're not stuck with having to play a specific instrument on Ubisoft's title. While I didn't get a specific count of mini-game options, the one I played, “Ducks,” helped me to discover how to feel the separation between frets on a guitar. By successfully shooting pixelated fowls flying along lanes correlated to those on the neck of a guitar, combo scores awarded me additional time and therefore a better ranking to track my progress.
Though it might occupy an unexplored space between teaching tool and game in the mainstream, Rocksmith's first impressions present evidence for it having potential as a fair compromise. Egg might have been on my face after how I responded to Power Gig, but the allure of a functional guitar is a likely place to pin blame; this year, however, Rocksmith's draw looks to be independent of its hardware. The quarter-inch to USB cord make the gameplay possible, but there appears to be competent code behind the curtain. I'm ready to rock out to some Black Keys, Nirvana, Cream and Rolling Stones and I think—and I hope—Rocksmith will be a viable way to practice and build real-world skills to do so. I'll give it double points if it teaches me how to pick up other artists' work as well.
Plastic or pro? Do we need real instruments in our rhythm gaming? Are you a musician who doesn't want videogames in your scene? Let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell