There’s no denying that the once-huge rhythm game market has died down considerably since the heyday of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. And I consider that a shame, as it’s been one of my favorite genres since the early days of Dance Dance Revolution and PaRappa the Rapper.
Enter Ubisoft, who helped to some degree revitalize the genre in 2011 with the release of the original Rocksmith. Partly a game, but also described by the company as a teaching tool, Rocksmith eschewed fake, simplified plastic instrument controllers in favor of shipping with a specialized USB cable that could plug into the output jack of virtually any electric guitar or bass.
Flash forward two years to present day, and it seems that the original title must have resonated well with enough audiences because now we have Rocksmith 2014 Edition, a full-fledged follow-up. And despite the year-based title bringing to mind such franchises as Madden, by comparison, the improvements, additions, and revamps here feel much more substantial and for the better, making for what may be the best virtual guitar teacher on the market. Not that that’s a huge market, but this is still a top-notch game.
From the get-go, Rocksmith 2014 Edition is more about catering itself to your individual taste and skill level. When you start up the game for the first time, you’ll be asked a few questions, namely whether or not you played the original, your skill level on a five-point scale, and whether you favor lead guitar, rhythm guitar, or bass.
Using this information, the game takes your current library of songs, which includes over 50 built-in tracks, full backwards compatibility with downloadable songs from the first game, and most songs from the original, which can be imported to your hard drive a la Rock Band for a one time fee, and allows you to organize them in ways the original game couldn’t.
While before, you were limited to a few sorting options, including song name and artist name, now you can sort by difficulty, song length, tuning, and most importantly, in an order recommended by the game itself, which lists the songs from top to bottom that it thinks would be a good idea for you to play first.
Really, revamping and improving almost every aspect, including the actual gameplay, is the name of the game in Rocksmith 2014 Edition. In terms of presentation, the note highway and squares representing frets and chords to strum have been given a brighter, neon-tinged makeover and loading times on the console version of the game are noticeably better than the lengthy ones the original contained, with many being almost instant.
The background for each song has also received a nice, more minimalist and abstract makeover. Whereas the original Rocksmith had a distractingly goofy crowd of full-motion video audience members rocking out to your music, the sequel goes for a silhouette approach to its audience, with some nice touches for fun, like when I spotted one person’s arms up in the air so they could record the show on their phone. That said, there are no longer unique venues to choose from, which could actually have an impact on the overall sound you produced in the original title. It’s a little unfortunate, but forgivable when compared to all the other enhancements made.
The actual gameplay is a smoother experience, too. For chords, the game now displays which fingers to use on each fret, and the lag caused by audio latency, which was a noticeable problem for me with the original and my HDTV, has been greatly reduced to the point where it’s barely an issue any more.
The core gameplay still works the same, utilizing a system coined by Ubisoft as dynamic difficulty. Basically, the way things work is that you start out not playing the entire song note for note, but a simplified version divided into sections such as bridges and choruses. If you play this easier version well enough, the next time you play the song, more notes will be added. Keep playing well, and you’ll soon have the full, authentic song unlocked. Play worse, and it will simplify itself further.
An enhanced returning feature that will be a godsend for those with a good level of experience already is the Riff Repeater. Accessible via a button press at any point during gameplay (as opposed to the original, where it had to be accessed separately from the main menu), this feature allows players to isolate specific sections of the song and play them repeatedly to their heart’s content, levelling them up individually in the process.
Not only that, but more experienced players can now manually adjust a section’s difficulty right away, saving them time that would be otherwise spent playing the simpler ones. It helps that you get a real-time preview of the note layout as you adjust the difficulty. The new Riff Repeater is definitely one of the standout features of Rocksmith 2014 Edition, especially considering how much easier to use, more robust, and more convenient it is compared to its predecessor.
A returning side mode is the Guitarcade, which is a collection of minigames that revolve around various parts of the guitar-playing experience and improving your skills with them, such as switching strings and frets, playing at a certain volume, chords, and scales.
Not only are there a lot more minigames than last time, but they’re more fun, clever, and appealing in terms of design and presentation. When they start up, they mimic the turning on of a vintage arcade game cabinet, and some even mimic specific games like House of the Dead or specific genres like 16-bit beat-em-ups. Add in online leaderboards and lists of meta-achievements for each individual title, and you have a component that players will likely keep coming back to, both to improve their skills and just for fun.
The biggest new addition to Rocksmith 2014 Edition as far as unique modes go is Session Mode. This freeform component allows you to create a virtual backup band, selecting from such things as drums, backup guitar or bass, and keyboards, with numerous variations on each. The virtual band will analyze the way you play and come up with their own tracks to accompany your original music.
Session Mode works surprisingly well. A lot of factors, like the backup instruments and beat, are customizable, and even one of the best new features in the game, which is the addition of a list of missions for players to accomplish while playing for various in-game rewards, applies to it, adding an incentive to mess around and try to make your own sound.
For all its triumphs, Rocksmith 2014 Edition isn’t flawless. The most common gameplay problem I experienced was the fact that with the new neon color scheme, the yellow and orange fret colors look way too similar, causing some unnecessary confusion. Also, while the game requires far fewer pre-song instrument tuning, the new tuner seems a lot more finicky and imprecise than before. Finally, as fun as Session Mode is, no version of the game supports the ability to save your custom music, which would have been a handy feature for musicians in training.
Despite these quibbles, the core game is still very enjoyable and a genuine teaching tool, as Ubisoft has advertised. Rocksmith 2014 Edition is a step up from its already good predecessor in just about every way, and if you’ve ever thought about learning how to shred, this is a great way to start.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version, which was provided to us for review purposes.