I don’t know whether to call it the Curse of Ubisoft (because – while catchy – that name implies it’s a bad thing), but Rocksmith 2014 is the latest game to feature whatever I decide to name it. This is Ubisoft’s habit of releasing a game with a whole lot of potential, and then releasing a sequel that actually uses that potential. They don’t always do it, but it seems to happen with the biggest and most exciting franchises they build. Also: “The Curse of Ubisoft.” That’s my new band name. No, wait. That’s dreadful.
Assassin’s Creed was a nice idea but very tedious, and then Assassin’s Creed 2 took the ideas from the first title and built a superb game around them. Far Cry 2 had some neat gameplay but a lot of irritation, and it wasn’t until Far Cry 3 that the open-world shooter really found its feet. Rocksmith was a decent method of playing Guitar Hero with an actual instrument, combined with some handy ways of getting to grips with a guitar or bass if you were a novice player. For the most part, Rocksmith 2014 kicks the living hell out of it.
I am not, I should note, a guitar god. I don’t play guitar, even; I play bass. Back when the first Rocksmith came out I was capable of playing a few bass licks – Radar Love, and the Rage Against the Machine cover of Maggie’s Farm, and basically anything by The Pixies, and a few other bits and bobs. After a year of dicking around with Rocksmith, I could comfortably play almost every on-disc song there, some of them from memory. In terms of making me better at playing an instrument, it certainly worked.
(Digression: There is an electric guitar in the house, but for whatever reason it wasn’t compatible with Rocksmith, with the game only detecting a note as being “correct” if the guitar was tuned wrong or if the string was pressed down with a feather touch. I assumed that was something to do with the guitar’s intonation and gave up. As that guitar seems to work fine with Rocksmith 2014, though, it seems not. Also, my new band will be called With a Feather Touch. No, wait. That’s dreadful.)
After playing Rocksmith 2014 for, ooh, about a week now, I’m significantly better than I was. After a week. As a teaching tool, it’s leaps and bounds above the original game.
Part of this is that it doesn’t focus so heavily on just playing songs anymore. That is a big part of it (“Learn a Song” is the top option on the menu, and picking that is pretty much the same as going into the Songs menu on the original game) and has been pretty massively augmented with a very Guitar Hero Score Attack mode, amongst other things, but there’s a whole hell of a lot more to it. This isn’t just a game about picking a song and playing it repeatedly.
Guitarcade is actually good, this time around. The brand new Session Mode is so clever it’s scary, and is a surprisingly useful tool for learning scales or just for messing around. The basic tutorials on how to play your instrument, and how to do particular things like bends and slides, have been expanded and reworked; it’s much easier to sort through them on the whole, or to skip past the video part into the playable bit that lets you practice the relevant skill. The Curse of Ubisoft has struck: Rocksmith 2014 is far more fully-fledged than its predecessor.
So much to talk about, so little time, so you’ll forgive me if I try to rush through the obligatory list of New Shit. Rocksmith Missions are the first things you’ll notice; these vaguely guide your progression by giving you little goals to achieve in one of the game’s main sections, like getting a 300-note streak or reaching a certain skill level with a Guitarcade game. Learn a Song, too, offers specific feedback on things you might want to try to improve your skills with that particular song, from attempting the (again, vastly improved) Riff Repeater on a certain section, to taking on a tutorial mission that might teach how slides, bends, or accents work. It also has a song filter/search function that isn’t complete shit, and note detection feels a little bit looser in that you can fluff notes a bit but still score a “hit”, which is useful if you have issues sorting out the lag correction.
Amusingly, the Guitarcade games are actually games this time around. Okay, they’re basically iPhone games, but still – there’s some actual progression and skill involved, and I’ve actually enjoyed playing most of them. Gone Wailin’ is basically an endless runner in which your little man is riding on a whale’s head; play loudly or softly to make the whale blow water up so that he can avoid obstacles and collect bananas. Scale Racer has you playing scales to weave in and out of traffic and avoid the cops, sort of like Rocksmith‘s Scale Runner… except you can move early for lots of points, or move at the last second to make the cops smash into the traffic for more points, or play a different note to go down an offramp and change position on the fretboard.
Session Mode is perhaps the most terrifying and wonderful thing inside, though. This lets you set up a band to your liking, choose tempo/key/whatever, and then just play. The backing “band” will play along behind you, matching your tempo and playing in whatever key you picked, and the game will show you which notes on the scale will actually sound good played alongside this.
So you jam. You play whatever you like. You’ll come up with stuff that actually sounds good, simply by playing any of the notes highlighted on screen. It’s a wonderful way of jamming if you don’t know any other musicians, as well as practicing scales and just simply enjoying yourself by creating music. It’s weird, and this is most of the reason for my improvement over the past week: I know scales better, and I’m far better at improvising riffs that play off the rest of the music. Hilariously, this mode apparently works with basically any electric stringed instrument – while it’s not officially supported, it will supposedly function if you plug in an electric violin, or ukulele, or whatever. Electric Ukulele! That’s my new… oh, forget it.
So yes, in most ways, Rocksmith 2014 stamps on its predecessor. There are a few areas in which it does not quite do so, though.
The first is the tracklisting, which – obviously – is purely a matter of taste, so naturally I’m going to complain because my taste is correct. It’s not quite as impressive as the first game’s list of songs; it’s not quite so varied or interesting, and despite the presence of a few big bands, some of the song choices aren’t exactly inspired. If you’re going to have a Foo Fighters song, why Everlong? Did we really need No More Mr Nice Guy instead of Poison or School’s Out? Losing My Religion isn’t a bad song, but it’s very boring to play when compared to other REM tracks. Etc., etc. I’ll be happier when I can import my Rocksmith songs into this new engine; there were more genres and less dross. I discovered some interesting songs I’d never heard before, there. Here, not so much.
Then there are the other issues, which are technical in nature, and which are depressingly similar to those I encountered in the first game. We’ll not go into the problems I had getting the game to recognise my bass in the first place because I don’t think that was the game’s fault, but there’s still the problem of the visuals freezing and jumping while the song plays on, even on a computer as obscenely powerful as mine. This is doubly problematic because this seems to mess up its detection for the frozen segment, so it’s not great if you’re playing Score Attack.
More weirdly, I’m currently only able to leave the Guitarcade games by plugging in a controller and using that to quit. Pressing Escape on the keyboard does nothing. I contacted Ubi about this to find out if it was a known issue with review builds, but as of the time of writing, I haven’t had any concrete details back. I can’t imagine a fix will be far off if that’s even a bug in the release version (and I will keep you updated, I promise) but it’s not exactly a great sign, and while these problems are all fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, they’re nonetheless enough to impact the otherwise joyous experience. (Update: I haven’t experienced this bug since updating to the retail version, so for all intents and purposes, it looks like it’s gone.)
I can only ever offer a review from my own perspective, but that’s a little trickier than usual here simply because of the massive range of skill that will be employed by people playing this. If you’ve never touched an instrument, then this is a solid way of starting off and it makes the early learning phases fun, but it’s also a pretty expensive way to find out if guitars are your sort of thing. If you noodle around with guitar or bass and can play a few chords, this is a very fun way of getting better. If you’re a reasonable musician, you’ll likely adore Session Mode, as well as the option to learn some new songs and hone your skills with the Guitarcade games. Finally, if you’re the next Joe Satriani… well, how would I know? I’m rubbish.