Our review of the original Rocksmith lauded the technology that underpinned the whole experience, namely that you could connect an electric guitar directly to your game console or PC, and it worked. As a game and as a learning tool, however, we raised quite a few criticisms about Rocksmith. The automatically adjusting difficulty was a particular sticking point, as it prevented experienced guitarists from jumping in at a higher level of proficiency while simultaneously muting the thrill of accomplishment for novices.
In Rocksmith 2014, automatic difficulty is out the window if you don't want it, and you can even set different difficulties for each section of the song. That's a huge improvement, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Ubisoft has added a whole new suite of options, features, modes and lessons to Rocksmith 2014. Based on what I was able to see at Gamescom this year, it's shaping up to be a much more powerful tool for beginners and pros alike.
Executive producer Nao Higo and creative director Paul Cross referred to the original Rocksmith as the team's own Assassin's Creed, i.e. a game with a solid foundation but notable problems (and financial success despite them, also like Assassin's Creed). Rocksmith 2014, meanwhile, is Assassin's Creed 2, the project that addresses those problems and presents the game they wanted to make all along. Beyond it's automatic difficulty, another criticism of the original Rocksmith was the lag between playing a note and hearing it on-screen. Executive producer Nao Higo explained that Ubisoft has worked very hard to reduce latency in Rocksmith 2014. When the game's output is connected directly to a stereo or amplifier – Ubisoft's recommended setup – Higo said the latency is down to 20 milliseconds. Latency on a television depends on a number of factors, from manufacturer to display options. Obviously, any options that speed up image processing should be enabled ("game mode" etc). With proper settings, latency should be "virtually imperceptible," said Higo. After playing one song (poorly), I'm hard-pressed to disagree. I'm certainly not a musician, but I didn't notice any latency at all. (For reference, the game was outputting directly to the sound system in my demo.)
The revised difficulty and reduced latency are fundamental improvements to Rocksmith 2014, but even more has gone into the game's ability to teach guitar. Video lessons return, with close up shots of proper finger placement and technique. The game then dives into the playing interface, which looks very much like the original Rocksmith with a few key tweaks. Fret numbers are now highlighted when a position change is coming up, helping you prepare to move your hand up or down the neck. The game can also detect errors and provide advice on how to correct them. In the note-bending lesson, for example, it will tell you if you're bending the string too far. If you continue to struggle, it will play a more detailed video lesson.
You can also use the Riff Repeater directly from the pause menu, allowing you to replay a section or even a whole song with a variety of options (speed, difficulty, etc). The Riff Repeater is designed to help you master any given section, and there are a lot of available options. You can, for example, set up practice requirements. Want to practice a riff until you get it perfect five times? Go for it. Once you've achieved your goal, the game automatically jumps back into the full song. Furthermore, you can adjust difficulty right from the pause menu, and it will instantly preview the new note chart. In other words, you won't have to suffer through playing the new difficulty before you realize you've bitten off more than you can chew.
All of these new features and revisions are great, for both novices and experts, but the most impressive thing about my demo was probably Session Mode. It's basically a smart, adaptive and improvisational practice tool and, frankly, it was astonishing. As the name implies, the goal of Session Mode is to turn seasoned Rocksmith players into session musicians. To put it another way, it teaches you to jam with a virtual band. There are 76 instruments to choose from, and you can select up to four to play along with you.
Rocksmith 2014 expects players to know a little something when they enter Session Mode, so the game suggests scales and notes that should work well together with the other instruments and the selected key of your practice session. Higo even said my electric ukulele (I totally have one) would work with Session Mode, since it is designed to recognize notes and it's entirely freeform. The on-screen interface is built with a guitar in mind – suggested notes and scales are displayed on a fretboard layout – but there's no reason you couldn't use other instruments (like an electric violin) if you know what you're doing.
There are other new improvements and modes I could go on about – more Guitarcade games, a mission system that helps guide you from beginner to pro – but suffice it to say that the Rocksmith team seems to have taken all the community and critical feedback to heart.
Rocksmith 2014 jams on Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Mac this October.