Ubisoft’s new “Rocksmith” video game replaces plastic controllers with real guitars, teaches me how to play Radiohead (plus a track list of songs announced to date)

I’ve never played “Guitar Hero.” Or “Rock Band.” Partially this is due to the fact that the last game system I owned was an Atari 7800 (and I bought it used from a friend who had already moved on to the Sega Genesis). But I also didn’t actively seek out opportunities to strap on a guitar-shaped hunk of plastic because, well, I can actually play guitar. At the height of “Guitar Hero’s” popularity, I felt just as baffled as Stan’s dad in that South Park episode:

Maybe it’s true that “real guitars are for old people,” but it’s also true that the bottom has dropped out of the market for music video games. Per the L.A. Times:

Sales of music video games, which enable players to simulate the experience of being a musician, have plunged almost 80% in the last two years. Reasons include an oversupply of sequels and spinoffs and consumers’ unwillingness to pay upward of $200 for instrument controllers during an economic downturn.

Ah, but what if rather than buying a specialized controller you could just use dad’s old guitar that’s been taking up space in the closet? That’s the innovation behind Ubisoft’s new “Rocksmith” title, and having played it the other day, I think it has real potential to not only revive the demand for music games but to actually teach people how to play guitar. (Take if from me, someone who hasn’t spent significant time playing a video game since “Super Smash Brothers”!) Ubisoft has cracked the code and figured out how to offer something that both appeals to luddite musicians like me and offers something new to kids bored with colored button mashing.

Folks trying out "Rocksmith" at Ubisoft's press preview on Thursday in San Francisco.

Undoubtedly through some kind of misunderstanding, I got mistaken for a musical tastemaker and was invited to a press preview of the game at Ubisoft’s new digs in San Francisco. I didn’t make the press conference with the presidents of Ubisoft and Epiphone, at which it was announced that the game would have multiplayer capability, but I was able to take a tour of the game and an play a few songs. My tour guide was Matt Montgomery of the local pop-rock band Versus Them. Montgomery was part of the five-person music team that transcribed all the guitar parts for the game.

“Rocksmith” comes with a 1/4-inch-to-USB cable that allow you to plug any guitar with a pickup into your gaming system. (The cable will also be sold separately, allowing musicians to record music directly onto their computer.) The game is designed to walk beginners through everything they need to know, with mini-games that introduce players to such concepts as frets by having them shoot at little ducks, for example. It even tunes your guitar, which is important since everything it scores you on is based on the tones you produce.

The game play should generally be familiar to anyone who has played “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band,” with a continual barrage of color-coded notation flying at you, only it’s trying to get you to play the actual notes from the song. As you complete challenges, you unlock new songs, venues and guitar tones. It comes programmed with virtual versions of real amplifiers and foot pedals used by the musicians featured in the game, which users can tweak and adjust.

“People who like playing with toys are going to lose days to this,” Montgomery said.

Yup, that's me, grinning like an idiot because I successfully bent a string, allowing my avatar to hit a baseball in one of "Rocksmith's" mini-game tutorials.

What really makes the game fun for everyone is that it dynamically adjusts to your level of experience, throwing more notes at you once you’ve demonstrated that you know what you’re doing. It automatically figures out whether you’re a beginner who needs five seconds to find each note or an expert who can already do every solo on “Icky Thump.” It quickly figured out I was someone in between, and it kept me feeling challenged but not overwhelmed.

Montgomery said one of the things that drove him crazy about “Rock Band” was that he’d get penalized for throwing in extra notes. “Rocksmith” doesn’t do that. If you know how to play the song, you can keep on strumming, as long as you hit your targets on time.

It also contains tutorials that teach real guitar techniques, such as hammer-ons and pull-offs.

“It’s like a year and a half’s worth of guitar lessons,” Montgomery said.

And here’s the thing: It actually taught me how to play Radiohead’s “High and Dry.” In four minutes and 18 seconds.

If I were a guitar teacher, I’d be sweating.

“Rocksmith” will be available in the United States on Oct. 18 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PCs. The standard edition, including the game software and Real Tone Cable, retails for $79.99. A bundle that includes an Epiphone Les Paul Junior guitar is $199.99.

Oh, and just because I have it, here is the impressively diverse track list of the songs included with “Rocksmith” that Ubisoft has announced so far:

  • “House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals
  • “When I’m With You,” Best Coast
  • “I Got Mine,” Black Keys
  • “Song 2,” Blur
  • “Next Girl,” The Black Keys
  • “Step Out of the Car,” The Boxer Rebellion
  • “Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream
  • “We Share the Same Skies,” The Cribs
  • “Boys Don’t Cry,” The Cure
  • “Rebel Rebel,” David Bowie
  • “Slow Hands,” Interpol
  • “Well OK Honey,” Jenny O
  • “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • “Breed,” Nirvana
  • “In Bloom,” Nirvana
  • “Where is my Mind?,” Pixies
  • “High and Dry,” Radiohead
  • “Number Thirteen,” Red Fang
  • “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones
  • “The Spider and the Fly,” The Rolling Stones
  • “Panic Switch,” Silversun Pickups
  • “Outshined,” Soundgarden
  • “Me and the Bean,” Spoon
  • “Vasoline,” Stone Temple Pilots
  • “Mean Bitch,” Taddy Porter
  • “A More Perfect Union,” Titus Andronicus
  • “Burnished,” White Denim
  • “Icky Thump,” The White Stripes
  • “Chimney,” Yellow Moon Band

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