Learning Guitar is a Handful

Growing up, I wanted to learn how to play the clarinet. Unfortunately, my family didn’t have the money to rent a clarinet for me to play and practice with. So as a replacement, my father tried to teach me how to play the guitar. Folk-style Vietnamese guitar.

Today, I can play as well as any other undergraduate boy who wants to impress girls. Namely, I can make vaguely chord-sounding noises in a vague progression-like order.

I have, however, always been very good at video games. So when I heard about “Rocksmith,” a video game centered on teaching guitar, I got really excited.

Five hours later, however, all I was left with was some very numb fingers and a very elementary understanding of how to play The XX’s “Islands.”

Let me preface this review by saying that “Rocksmith” is not a bad game. The music game genre has been in a funk for a while now, and Ubisoft tried very hard to be creative. They were successful in making a good game.

“Rocksmith” is one of those games that, if you were given it as a gift or had a friend who had it, you could enjoy for a few hours at a time. It is not, however, the next big thing in music video games.

The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward. The screen displays six strings and a numbered fret board. When the strum marker hits the string, you have to play the string while pressing the correct fret. It works perfectly.

Outside of the simple game design, though, Ubisoft’s decision making was hit or miss.

The game claims to be appropriate for any skill level, from a complete newbie to an experienced guitarist, and that, for the most part, is true.

The variable difficulty system works well, scaling the difficulty of the game in real time to suit your skill level. When I had my musician roommate play the game, the difficulty went from amateur level to expert level in all of half a song. The same was true when we switched back. The difficulty jumps from one skill level to the next are also spaced well. You never go from way too easy to ridiculously difficult.

Another nice feature is that the controller for Rocksmith is an actual guitar. You can plug nearly any guitar with a quarter-inch jack into the console with the included cable and have it work. The game provides all the amp work, including applying effects. Not having to buy another piece of plastic around the house is nice, and the ability to be used with almost any guitar is a definite plus.

However, inspite of the hard work, there are a few rough spots in the game. Most importantly for any music game, the set list comes off as a bit weak.

While much more eclectic than most music games and spanning rock history, the music collection for “Rocksmith” lacks any headlining power. The only real high-energy contemporary tracks are Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump” and The XX’s “Islands.”

Beyond the music, the ability to use any guitar leads to a large difference in quality of play for many people. Those using a hollow body acoustic/electric guitar miss out on a lot of amp effects, as their guitar ends up being louder than the game. Hollow bodies also tend to have shorter necks, making it much harder to finger anything higher than the 12th fret. Though not Ubisoft’s fault, this can be pretty irksome.

What is most troublesome about the game though is that, despite the central theme of teaching guitar, the educational sections seem almost separate from the gameplay.

Though the game does a good job of explaining what shifting, power chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs are, the educational tidbits appear outside of the game play. Often times, I found myself leveling up halfway through a song and seeing mechanics that had yet to be explained to me.

Another important oversight is that the game neglects to teach correct fingering technique, letting the player figure it out on their own. This led to a lot of muscle-memory correction hours into already practicing songs.

“Rocksmith” is not a bad game. It is fun, it teaches you — albeit not intelligently — how to play the guitar and it can be pretty addictive. However, it is not the next big thing. It is not a must-have and it will, eventually, get old.

Rating: 3 out of 5