Confessions of a Digital Novelist

Archive for July, 2012

Brilliant But Broken: A Video Game Review of Rocksmith

by on Jul.25, 2012, under Other

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, then you’ll know that I limit myself to the topic of self-publishing and my efforts to get my first novel published. That said, I felt compelled to write my first (and probably only) video game review for the guitar game “Rocksmith” made by Ubisoft. I felt compelled for two reasons: one, the large number of negative reviews that seemed to miss the point of the game, and two, because it has eaten an increasing amount of my free time. Since I bought it back in November, I have sunk more than 300 hours into the game, leaving less time for creative writing and this blog. That said, the time has been worth. Rocksmith is a brilliant tool to learning the guitar. I have advanced far faster than if I had practiced on my own or with a monthly tutor. That said, the game is easily one of the buggiest ever made and can cause no end of frustration.

Synopsis

Ubisoft’s Rocksmith is a rhythm game for PS3 and Xbox360 (RESP: $69.99) that allows you to plug in a real electric guitar and learn how to play music. If you don’t have your own guitar, then you can buy a combo package (RESP: $179.99) that comes with an Epiphone Junior guitar (which is what I did).

In general, the game teaches you guitar by letting you play popular rock and blues songs in which the notes fly towards you on a simulated fretboard. You can practice your skills by rehearsing songs as a whole or phrase-by-phrase, performing them in events, or developing your technical skills in technique challenges or simple arcade style mini-games. We’re going to go through these in more detail later. One of the more interesting innovations of this game is the dynamic difficulty, which increases or decreases the difficulty of the arrangement of the song dynamically based on how well (or poorly) you’re playing.

The typical structure of the game is that you practice songs by rehearsing them or using riff-repeater (which lets you practice the song section by section) until you reach a certain point threshold. Once you have levelled up a selected group of songs to this point threshold, then you’ll them one after the other in an event. Pass the event and you are given  a new set of songs to practice and perform. In short, it works quite well. The game gives you bite-sized chunks that you can handle while waving a carrot in front of your face to keep you moving forward. The use of the game’s currency (Rocksmith points or RSP) as experience points to level up your character is another motivator to keep playing. However, there are some pitfalls in the design and operation of the game that can cause some serious frustration as we’ll delve into the individual pieces below.

Song List

At first, I thought that the song list was weak. There were very few songs that I recognized. As I played through the campaign more, however, I began to appreciate Ubisoft’s song selection. There’s a lot of variety here from blues, glam-rock, psychedelic rock, folk, to punk from some great artists including the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Cream, Muse, and Radiohead. Each of the songs seems to call on a different skill set that allows you to develop all of your skills while you play through the career mode. In my case, it has given a greater appreciation for bands I had never heard of such as Cream, Muse, the Black Keys and Dan Auerbach. The available DLC also has a nice selection although I’ve noticed that they’ve become a little too dependant on late 90s early 2000s pop-punk. Some more classics would be greatly appreciated.

Rehearse

As noted above, rehearse mode allows you to play through an individual dynamically adjusting the difficulty level as you improve. In short, it works quite well. Instead of using guitar tablature, Rocksmith instead has the notes appear in a black background and approach a virtual fretboard in the foreground. To communicate which string to strum, the notes are colour-coded (Red-Yellow-Blue-Orange-Green-Purple) from the lowest string to the highest. By default, the virtual fretboard has the lowest note on top and the highest note on bottom. This simulates the strings of a guitar if you looked at it from the front. However, when you’re playing the guitar, you’re actually looking at the strings from overtop, so the order will seem backwards. Guitar tablature reverses this arrangement and has the lowest strings on the bottom and the highest on top which matches your perspective. For these two reasons, I would recommend inverted the positions of the strings (through the Options menu). You might as well make this transition early if you have any interest in reading tablature or music notation.

At first, I had difficulty identifying which colour represented which string as they don’t follow a recognizable pattern such as a rainbow. However, after a few hours of playing it became quite natural. To distinguish between different types of techniques for playing each notes such as bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs, sustains, harmonics, etc., the game uses unique symbols to represent each of these techniques. At first I had trouble differentiating between them quickly but again I picked it up after a few hours of playing. The games note recognition algorithms work quite well, recognizing when I play notes correctly or incorrectly with a few minor exceptions. For example, it seems that the game can’t recognize the difference between a regular note and a note that is palm-muted. I still attempt to play palm mutes just so it sounds right but there are times when I’m chasing a high score where I just cheat and play a regular note. The dynamic difficulty system also works quite well. It gives you positive feedback by starting you off easy and then ramping it up slowly as you build technical proficiency over a song. Some reviews have criticized this as been boring for expert players, as they have to play a song several times to level it up to an appropriate level. I don’t share these concerns for a couple of reasons. First, the game is targeted at novice guitarists like myself. Second, updates have raised the default level of a song and also give you the option in the pause menu to choose the level of difficulty of songs: either phrase-by-phrase in Riff Repeater or for the song as whole. Even with the dynamic difficulty, expert players should only need to play the song two or three times to max the phrases up to full. If you level up all the phrases to 100% and score over 100,000 points, then you’ll open up master mode which allows you play through the entire song blind (the notes don’t appear) for double the points.

In short, it works well and its fun to play. It combines the mock-rock sensibility of Guitar Hero with the real-world demands of learning the guitar.

Riff-Repeater

Riff-repeater is a series of three separate modes that allow you to practice the song phrase by phrase in order to concentrate on the more difficult parts. These three separate modes are Freespeed, Leveler and Accelerator. Freespeed plays the phrase the phrase at normal speed and stops dead if you miss a note. Play the note correctly and it restarts. Play through the phrase without any mistakes and you master the phrase. Leveler starts off the phrase at its current level and then adds more and more notes as you play through it successfully (95% or greater I think) until you run out of lives (was originally five to start, not it’s 30 after the update) or master the phrase at 100% difficulty. Accelerator runs the phrase once at normal speed and stops dead at each note you miss, just like free speed. At the end of the first run, Accelerator decides which speed to re-start the phrase based on how many notes you miss. Then for each subsequent time you play through the phrase successfully, the phrase will increase in speed until you master it at full speed or run out of lives.

Out of the three modes, only Leveler works well. Accelerator can be useful for tricky phrases but Freespeed completely breaks down at higher speeds with lots of notes. Every time you miss a note you are forced to stop and replay the note, frustrating you by blocking your flow. For the most part, I have stuck with Leveler as it’s by far the most useful. I do wish that I could switch back and forth between Leveler and Accelerator without having the reload the song. There are just some tricky phrases where it would be convenient and useful. Also, an update has also given you the ability to change the level of mastery in the phrase. It allows expects to quickly level up easy songs but the game still expects you to play it through once just to prove that you can play at that level.

Technique Challenges

Technique Challenges are short, tutorial-style sections that teach you about numerous guitar techniques such as shifting, sustains, hammer-ons and pull-offs, slides, harmonics, palm mutes, tremolos, bends, chords, power chords and barre chords. After a short tutorial, you are thrown into a short arrangement that will test your proficiency in this new technique. Bronze, silver and gold medals are awarded for scoring more and more points. Personally, I found that this section works really well. Sometimes you could use some more feedback over why you’re not getting credit for a note (more of a problem in bends and barre chords) but after a while you’ll get the hang of it and easily score the gold medals. When I first tried these challenges as a complete novice, I was overwhelmed by their difficulty. But after several months of playing, I soon mastered each of these challenges. The trophy that I received for getting gold on all of the challenges gave me a nice sense of satisfaction. The only thing missing is a tutorial on tapping. Perhaps this will be fixed in the Bass DLC coming this September.

Guitarcade

Guidarcade is an interesting take on teaching guitar students the basic rudimentary skills. Essentially, six of the most important guitar techniques (shifting, scales, tremolos, bends, chords and harmonics) are translated into seven 80-style arcade mini-games (Ducks and Super Ducks, Scale Runner, Quick Pick Dash, Big Swing Baseball, Super Slider, Dawn of the Chordead, and Harmonically Challenged). They’re simple, they’re fun, and they’re effective at developing your skills … with some exceptions.

Ducks and Super Ducks

Ducks and Super Ducks are essentially the same game. In both, you are presented with a fretboard and must time your notes to shot a duck as it flies away from a specific note position on the fretboard. The only difference between the two games is that Ducks is limited to the lowest (red) string whereas Super Ducks uses all six-strings. You score points quickly through speed and accuracy. The games work well in muscle memory so that you don’t have to look on your fretboard in order to hit the correct note.

Scale Runner

Scale Runner takes the agonizing practice exercise of scales and pumps it up with some fun. To start, you chose your scale and your key and then play the notes on the guitar that match the coloured platforms coming towards you on the screen. If you take too long to find the right note, then your “scale runner” falls off the edge, costing you valuable time. This game is a lot of fun and teaches you more about the different scales and keys and how they work on your guitar. This is a great opportunity to learn more about music theory and why some notes tend to be grouped together on songs. Unfortunately, this is the only activity in the game that deals with this subject. It’s a shame the developers didn’t put in more modes like this to teach you how to read musical notation and to learn more about chord progressions.

Quick Pick Dash

Quick Pick Dash puts in charge of a space ostrich as he runs along six coloured paths. He can only run on the paths that are lighted and his speed with depend on how much you can tremolo the string. This is one of my favourites. The back beat (from the hidden song Space Ostrich) gets you pumped and the replenishing clock à la Outrun keeps you pushing forward. A great way to develop your tremolo skills.

Big Swing Baseball

Big Swing Baseball puts you in control of a hitter facing a pitcher. You are given three strikeouts to rake up as many points and hits as possible. As the pitcher winds up, you’ll be given a fret, then a string. In some cases it’ll be a regular note and other times it will ask you to bend your string. If you take too long or hit the wrong note, the batter will miss the pitch and you’ll be awarded a strike. Time it right and you’ll get a hit, maybe even a home run. Successive hits rake up your combo multiplier, making it easier to score high points. However, this game is extremely challenging. You have very little time to hit the right note and soon the game will ask you to move more around the fret board. But still pretty good.

Super Slider

A columns clone. You slide a falling block horizontal by sliding the note on your guitar. Match it with three of the same colour and the blocks will be eliminated. If you do it right, you can cause a cascading chain reaction. If you let the blocks reach the top of the screen however, the game is over. Fun and addictive.

Dawn of the Chordead

Easily my favourite. In Dawn of the Chordead, you have to hit the correct notes for the on-screen chord in order to shoot the approaching zombies. This is far and away the funnest mini games. The zombies are adorable but you’ll racing to keep them at bay and learning chords at the same time. The only thing I don’t like about this game is that it moves on to barre chords far too quickly and then does only barre chords. As much as I like practising barre chords, I felt I could have used more work on regular chords. The barre chord progression will also test your ability to handle pain in your fingers. Not perfect but extremely fun.

Harmonically Challenged

A clone of memory. You are presented with a ticking bomb and a growing list of harmonics that you must hit in the correct order. Personally, I think this game may be broken. I can’t get more than three or four notes without the bomb blowing up and there’s no feedback to tell me what I’m doing wrong. For that reason, my games are over almost instantly giving me almost new time in practicing my harmonics skills. I did find a suggestion online that states that you need to mute the string after each harmonic so that the game doesn’t get confused. That might work but this is easily the worst game in the bunch. Frustrating and dull. It dissuades from practicing what it is a very difficult skill.

Perform

When you’ve qualified each song in your set list through successful rehearsals, you’ll then have the option to play them back-to-back in an event. If you don’t like the set list that the game gives you, then you edit it in “Event Manager”. Reach the minimum points for the event, and you’ll pass and get a boatload of points. Events are the fastest way to level up in Rocksmith. Whereas you can only score about 100,000 points rehearsing a song, you can score upwards of 400,000 points performing in an event. If you keep levelling a song up then you can play the same song multiple times to score maximum points. Typically during your career, you’ll play the same song and arrangement multiple times as you work your way to level 11.

If you score 120% of the minimum points needed to pass the event, then you’ll be rewarded with an “encore” (an extra song) to allow to score even more points and a rare pedal for Amp Mode. If you hit more than 90% of the notes in this “encore” song, then you’ll be rewarded with a “double encore” which opens up one of the six hidden songs in the game. The structure of the events is sound. It gives you a sense of the excitement surrounding a gig, uses the huge point boost as a carrot to encourage you forward and rewards you for excellent playing. Some reviewers have criticized the mode for its lacklustre presentation. While it’s true that the presentation doesn’t match the fun of Rock Band or Guitar Hero, I was never really bothered by that. Unlike those two games, Rocksmith is not a party game. It is a teaching game that will most likely be played alone. While it would great to have more graphical pyrotechnics, I wouldn’t be able to watch them anyway as I’m usually concentrated on the notes flying towards me. The sparse presentation works for me as it minimizes unnecessary distractions.

The real problem with the mode is that it’s far too buggy, at least for the PS3. During my first career, I was blocked multiple times by the game freezing just after I finished certain songs. Removing the songs from my set list removed the problem momentarily but soon I was blocked by never-ending crashes. The only way I could find to progress was the erase all of the downloaded DLC from my hard drive. This was frustrating as I had paid $3 per song and I wasn’t able to play them. I pushed through these problems and levelled up my character to level 11, finished all of the events, completed all of the challenges and received all of the guitars. It was only then that I learned of a more frustrating flaw.

The “double encore” system for opening hidden songs essentially breaks down after 10 events. No matter how well you do on the encore song (if you can get one), the game will not reward you with a double-encore. The developers state that there is a 50% chance of getting a double encore with 90% note accuracy on the encore, but this doesn’t stand up to practice. Even when repeating events with a master mode (scoring nearly a million points) and hitting 97% on the encore, the game would not reward me with a double encore. Essentially, I had gotten to the point where it was literally impossible to open up the hidden songs. Not because of my playing skill, but because a bug in the game locked out the content. This was extremely infuriating and absolutely terrible game design.

After reviewing my options, I chose to back up my save file and start all over again. Starting from scratch with a much higher level of skill, I was able to open up the six hidden songs within seven events. Every time I failed, I quit the game and then practiced the encore song (if the event set list stays the same, then the encore song will remain the same). After three weeks of grinding, I finally opened up the last hidden song. It was not fun, but it was worth it as the songs are great. Now I’m grinding my way through the events again to level up my character. This will probably take me another month but soon I will have everything in the game opened up. But I should have never been forced down this route. The broken perform mode greatly reduced my enjoyment of the game and stands as a stark smear upon the final product. It should have never gone out of the door with bugs like this. I haven’t seen a game this buggy since Fallout 3. At least in that game, you could just reload your save and you’d be fine. In Rocksmith, the bugs are repeatable, forcing you into some extreme choices to progress. I could work through small bugs but the bugs present in perform mode, perhaps the most important mode in the game, essentially break the game. In some cases, it becomes almost impossible to proceed or to open up all of the content on the disc. The developers should give their heads a shake. In response to this bug, the developers have committed to fixing the issues in the next update in September, but this is five to six months after the bugs have been identified. If a game-breaking bug is found in most games, then the development teams races to push out an update to fix it. In the case of Rocksmith, they have simply failed to react. Absolutely brutal.

But Will It Teach You to Play Guitar?

But despite these bugs, the game really works. For novices like myself, Rocksmith works extremely in teaching you guitar, despite what many of the reviews online say. The structure of the game is constantly pushing you forward with standard video game carrots (levels, unlockable objects, hidden songs, leaderboards, trophies) and slowly builds your guitar skills as it throws song after song at you. The thresholds for each event are usually just at the limit of your skills and if not, they will lower themselves accordingly. If I got stuck on a song, I wouldn’t try to master it. I would just move on to something I could handle. This strategy worked extremely well with this game. I was constantly surprised when I returned to difficult songs 2 or 3 months later and found that I could easily increase my score by 20-30k points. While the game could use more instruction on subjects such as alternate picking, intuitive picking, hand placement and strumming rhythms, you’ll find that  you’ll just pick it up as you grew more and more comfortable playing the guitar. In my first five months, I must have gone through six or seven different pick grips until I finally found one that worked for me. Ironically, it was the one Rocksmith showed when I first started the game. You’ll find that happening with all of your techniques. You’ll learn how to do it one way, run into a problem with a song, learn how to do it in a better way and greatly develop your skill. More tutorials would be nice, but then again, that’s what YouTube is for.

In its update in March, Rocksmith made number of improvements, including increasing the number of lives in Riff Repeater from 5 to 30, but there is still a number of improvements I would like to see them make in future updates or sequels.

  • More technique challenges.
  • More tutorials on the finer details of playing guitars.
  • More feedback on your playing technique. If you’re constantly missing palm mutes, it should give you some tips on how to make it easier.
  • The ability to switch between Free Speed, Leveler and Accelerator in Riff Repeater.
  • Short audio clips for songs in the DLC shop so you know what the song sounds like before you buy it.
  • More information about each arrangement (rhythm, bass, lead) on top of the single note-chord-combi triad. This would give players a better idea of what member in the band plays which arrangement.
  • Add an awful missed note sound so that you can hear when you miss a note. At present, you have to watch the screen or a replay to figure out what you missed.
  • Statistics. Lots of statistics. I would love to know how many hours (I estimate 300+) I have spend on the game, how accurate I’ve been, the time between levelling up. There is a real opportunity to give the player some great information about their development but unfortunately it’s missing. I hope they add it for an update.

Conclusion

After over 300 hours, I can say confidently that I can play the guitar and for that Rocksmith is a huge success. It’s just a shame that some of the poor design choices and some unacceptable bugs really drag on the experience. Rocksmith is a revolutionary game. It finally delivers on the promise of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, delivering a fun game that will actually teach you how to play. If you’re interested in learning the guitar and can stomach some terrible bugs, then Rocksmith is the game for you. It’s brilliant but buggy. Highly recommended.

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