It’s been a hell of a journey. Two years ago, the first Rocksmith came onto the scene, but was unfortunately loaded with problems like poor menu design, commonplace issues with lag (not always eliminated by analog audio solutions in some setups), and some detection issues not necessarily tied to player skill.
With the coming of Rocksmith 2014 Edition, signifying a serialization of the series, we see many minor fixes that overshadow and erase the original’s issues as well as major overhauls that take the game to new heights.
The Rocksmith you know and love is here in spirit, offering up the same slightly-obtuse-but-fully-functional note highway, crunchy chords and weedly-wahs for you to learn in abundance, and teaching modes galore. More importantly than what’s the same, though, is how much the 2014 Edition is an improvement over its predecessor, and to say that the original’s importance is dwarfed is an understatement.
Though I loved the first game enough to give it a perfect score, it was far from perfection. It was more about potential and the fact that it turned something begrudgingly dull into an enjoyable experience. To reiterate: Practicing sucks. Repetition after repetition, hearing yourself fail time and time again until you finally nail a run or a difficult chord progression—it’s the most satisfying feeling as a musician. Rocksmith excelled at allowing you that.
2014 Edition updates a familiar user interface with new art aesthetics that are great to look at, easier menu navigation, halved loading times, and more. But outside of just learning songs (which assigns scoring to a “Score Attack” mode and uses percentages for the learning mode), an actually useful Riff Repeater rounds out the core practicing experience.
Riff Repeater was one of the most contentious points of the first game, being barely useful due to a sticky interface and unresponsive notation structure. The new Riff Repeater, accessible at any time during “Learn A Song” play sessions, allows on-the-fly repetitions of any section, adjustable difficulties and speeds, and endless opportunities for leveling sections over and over again until mastery is achieved. Once a section is completed and leveled to a desired difficulty, you can quit out of Riff Repeater and continue playing a song from that point onward, allowing incredibly smooth transitions from learning to continuing. The most important part of Riff Repeater is that it never stops for you to hit the correct note; it keeps going to ensure that you keep going.
Tied in with Riff Repeater is the “Rocksmith Recommends” feature that integrates the adaptive difficulty idea and suggest three items per song to practice with. Oftentimes, you’ll see an RR check box that says “Raise your mastery to 1%” on an unplayed song, or one recommending a related lesson to an oft-used technique, but after playing a song once through, the recommendations will adjust depending on your performance. If the game notices you missed several slides in a song, it will recommend you have a look at the Sliding lessons and give you the option to go to the Guitarcade and play the sliding-related minigame.
Furthermore, it will encourage you to get a better percentage on your next play, but not by some ridiculous margin—typically one or two percent, though I have seen it recommend a change as much as eight. Changes like this show off the intuitive performance of Rocksmith 2014 Edition and how it adapts to you much more than the original.
Speaking of the Guitarcade, we again see the lovable technique challenges guised as whimsical 8-bit games, but for some reason, this set feels more fun. Perhaps it’s because they embody the spirit of the originals and give them a facelift, or perhaps it’s because of the euphoric feeling that everything has been so greatly improved, but these games are just killer. Super Slider goes the way of the dinosaur for Ninja Slide N, which has you as a little ninja dude jumping from peak to peak. Scale Runner is now Scale Warriors and Scale Racer, with the latter carrying on the legacy of forward motion, but the former being a cutesy fighting game where you must dominate digital opponents by playing the correct notes in a scale. There’s just something more special about this Guitarcade than the last.
Tone Designer has also received an overhaul, offering a larger sandbox mode from the first, with expanded pedal, cab, amp, rack and loop selections. Oh, and no needing to unlock tones. That’s the most brilliant part. You’re able to access every piece of equipment from the get-go, never needing to riff away song after song to unlock another effect for you to play with. The Tone Designer overhaul is exceptional and largely necessary, as it offers just another way for players to noodle away.
Lastly, and most importantly, comes the biggest addition—Session Mode. See, the Tone Designer is all nice and dandy on its own, offering a fantastic way to customize your sound, and “Learn A Song” is great if you just want to, well, learn songs, but Session Mode is not only the Holy Grail of the title, but of music games in general.
If you’re not familiar with Session Mode, it both is and isn’t a backing track. What Session Mode offers is a dynamically adjusting backing band that you select to accompany what you play. Whether you want a simple drum and bass companionship or two crunchy guitars, a full set of keys, and heavy metal drums—that’s all up to you. And after selecting your band, you choose what key and scale they’ll play in, tempo, the complexity of the backing, what sort of “groove” you want them to play with. There’s just so much to offer in simple preparations.
Actually playing in Session Mode is a treat, as you’re offered a full fretboard with highlights on each string to tell you “Hey, this is what’s gonna sound good if you play it” creating a safe zone for beginners, a guide for the wary, a gentle reminder for the adventurous, and a handy reference for the experienced. Session Mode is a godsend for experimentation. For those who constantly say to themselves, “I don’t want to play because everything I play sounds like crap,” this is the perfect tool for you to insert your own voice through your instrument. It offers a safe, judgement-free space to play with “musicians” who won’t question your skill level, and does so all while silently coaching you on the appropriate notes to use within a certain key.
Best of all, the virtual band adjusts to how you’re playing. Apart from mere tempo, the band’s intensity is entirely dependent on you. Plucking only a few notes will elicit minor reactions from your digital group members, but playing harder and faster, like, really getting into it, their intensity ramps up alongside you. Playing punchy chords and speedy licks will have them acting as the wind beneath your wings to help you soar.
The only real complaint to front towards Session Mode is that it only allows you to play in E standard tuning, cutting you off from exploring with half or whole steps below E or drop tunings. Would’ve been nice if they had allowed you to play with some of the other tunings available on-disc or via downloadable content, but recording that many parts for all the backing instruments would have been a monstrous undertaking that may not have fit onto a single disc. It’s understandable, yes, but disappointing nonetheless.
Rocksmith 2014 Edition is by no means perfect. While we were assured that “Uplay brought along some cool functionality,” it’s still something of an undesirable piece of middleware. Uplay locks out both a bonus song and an additional arrangement (available on disc) for the sake of integrating the social features. Though not yet implemented, there’s also talk of visual progress statistics being available on the official website, but more on that to come. For now, it just seems that there are collective global statistics. Honestly, though? The intrusion of Uplay on what some would deem “necessary” components to the game is a small price to pay for an overall excellent piece of work.
The biggest problem with Rocksmith 2014 Edition is, well, the original Rocksmith. 2014 Edition is everything the first game should have been and knowing that first game had many faults, all of which didn’t make the transition, sort of tarnishes this shiny, new reputation. Rocksmith ended up being more of a learning experience for the team at Ubisoft to create a better learning experience for us two years later. The biggest favor you can do for yourself is forget the first game existed and purchase the export license to garnish your new game with a fantastically expanded track list.
After that, there are some niggling issues with the title that include things like game freezes, most prevalent if you leave the game idle too long, as well as during some loading transitions. Most of these were rectified with the day-one patch, but some users are still reporting the odd freeze here and there. Moreover, some of the downloadable content (notably Megadeth’s “Hangar 18″ and Judas Priest’s “Painkiller”) has been updated to accommodate a 24-fret guitar, unlike the 22-fret guitars that come the guitar bundles of the game. From my understanding, frets 23 and 24 have no bearing on percentage in Learn A Song or scores in Score Attack, but there’s nothing to denote the inclusion of the higher frets from song selection.
All in all, though, despite some minor drawbacks, Rocksmith 2014 Edition crushes its predecessor under a mighty rock boot to establish dominance in its genre. Recommended? Absolutely.
Rocksmith 2014 Edition is available now for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC platforms. Three purchasing options exist for each platform: The guitar bundle for $199.99, the game with the Rocksmith Real Tone USB cable included for $79.99, and the game by itself for $59.99.
An Xbox 360 version of this title was provided to Save/Continue by the publisher for review purposes.