E3 2011: Rocksmith hands-on preview – finally, a guitar game that uses any real guitar

It seemed destined to be the winter without rhythm games, with Rock Band and Guitar Hero on the backburner. But with Rocksmith, publisher Ubisoft seems poised to take advantage of really fortuitous timing to unleash a different kind of guitar game on the world.

It’s not the first game to use a fully stringed guitar, as Rock Band 3 did it with sharp (but expensive) results and the laughable Power Gig: Rise of the SixString came and went without making any impact [Ed: actually, the musicians on staff would argue that the junky SixString controller still isn’t a real guitar]. But Rocksmith doesn’t make you buy a guitar with controller buttons on it, or one that can serve two purposes – you just need any guitar that can be plugged into an amp. Really. Got a crummy student-level guitar buried in the garage? You’re probably set. A ’59 Fender Strat? You’re definitely set – and probably rich as well. A special bundle of Rocksmith packed with an Epiphone Les Paul Junior will be available for total newcomers, but anyone with a working guitar can just pick up the standard game and 1/4″-to-USB cable set and get started.

Rocksmith picks up the actual tone from your guitar strings to play the game, so you’ll need to tune the instrument prior to starting each play mode to make sure you’re on point. Once in, though, playing is as simple as strumming the notes that scroll down the full-screen note chart, and most songs come with multiple options, including single-note and chord options, as well as an “authentic arrangement” that approximates the real song. And the game adapts to your skill level – it will increase or decrease the challenge based on your performance.

It’s a surprisingly effective approach, and one that really makes you feel like you’re playing the song – because, well, you actually are. Rocksmith’s diverse soundtrack comes with 50+ tracks, including a wide selection of household names (Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie) and some surprises, such as Spoon, Titus Andronicus, and Best Coast. In addition to standard tutorials, the game also includes seven arcade-style mini-games that smartly build playing fundamentals, as well as a Customize sandbox mode that essentially turns your console or PC into an amplifier and lets you play with virtual gear and effects.

On one hand, the lack of colored buttons makes Rocksmith perhaps a tougher sell to players who just want to rock out to hit songs; but then again, considering that any old guitar will do, the game seems aimed at a pretty wide new market. Although opinions are mixed about the onscreen interface, the little bit we played was really smartly designed and seems flexible enough to appeal to total newcomers, adequate axe wielders, and shred legends alike – though if you fall into that final category, chances are you won’t need a game to learn and play dozens of sweet rock tunes. But you could, and that’s the entire point.

Jun 16, 2011

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