I’ve been trying to learn to play the guitar since I was 12. I spent countless birthday gifts on instruments, both acoustic and electric. I spent large chunks my allowance on the very best instructional book. I spent hours watching YouTube gurus share the secrets of success as I plunked awkwardly at the strings. Time after time, I became frustrated at my lack of progress and gave up, resigned to only knowing three chords for the rest of my life.
That’s why I felt like the perfect candidate for BandFuse: Rock Legends. Learning is hard. Games are fun. BandFuse cheats that system by making learning seem like a game, blending the real-time scoring of rhythm games with actual, real-world instruments and interactive lessons that help build up fundamental skills. It’s real music, just with difficulty levels, points, and star rankings. Maybe, with the game’s help, I would finally be able to trick my lazy self into being dedicated enough to learn something.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. BandFuse isn’t the first game to try and go down this road, but a few interesting ideas help set BandFuse apart from the competition. The first is its notation system. Rather than inventing a new language, the game instead builds off of tablature, meaning that anyone familiar with the vast repository of tabs available online will be able to seamlessly slide into the game. The same is also true in reverse: The sight-reading skills you pick up playing BandFuse will make playing any tabs you find much, much easier. Frankly, it’s brilliant. Unlike other interfaces, it’s simple, intuitive, and quick to read, with a few additions—like color-coded fingers—that help remedy tablature’s normal shortcomings.
BandFuse‘s other touted feature, as you might have guessed from the title, is that it includes video lessons and interviews from a number of famous guitarists, including Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Mike Ness of Social Distortion, and Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom.
These video segments are, as it turns not, not very useful. Slash provides your introduction to scales by playing a few while mumbling incomplete sentences. What’s the underlying music theory behind scales? Why are they important for learning to play guitar? How can I use them to write songs? I have no idea, but I know that Slash can play them. This is a common problem throughout the game. The developers must have assumed that, being experts, these well-known musicians would be the best possible tutors, but they failed to realize that being versed in a particular subject and being able to teach that subject are two entirely different skillsets. Plus, it’s not exactly like rock stars are known for their articulation.
Seriously, here’s a complete transcript of one of the game’s lessons, in which Zakk Wylde is supposed to be giving advice on warming up: “If I’m warming up for a gig, I’ll just play like what I’m playing right now… I don’t sit around… You know… Like, I won’t sit there, just, like, blaze over scales like that. But, I mean, just more so. Like I said… Just noodlin’ around. You know, so if there’s a pattern… If there’s somethin’ I wanna work on, I’ll usually sit and do it. But, I mean, as far as getting ready for a show and stuff like that, I’ll usually just noodle around for about an hour.” Sage words, Professor Wylde.
Even some of the non-celebrity video content suffers from this pointless vagueness. If you want to teach me how to play an F# chord, why not throw up your excellent notation and walk me through where each finger should be? Why would you choose, instead, to show me a grainy video of some silent, nameless man playing the chord, leaving me squinting and struggling to deconstruct what he’s doing?
But while these videos are integrated into the main lesson plans, it’s entirely possible (and almost always recommended) to skip them entirely, instead focusing on the hands-on tutorials. The real meat of the game comes from working through these actual lessons in conjunction with the robust practice mode, which allows you to pick out exercises or songs from the game’s large and varied soundtrack, break them apart into sections, slow them down, or loop them to help you master them piece by piece. Most useful, in my opinion, is the note-by-note option, which waits for you to play each individual note correctly before advancing the chart.
Once you begin to fiddle with the deeper settings and modes, BandFuse offers a happy hybrid between the pure, feedback-driven play of something like Rock Band and the usually thankless process of slowly teaching yourself a song in real life. Yes, you won’t be getting much in the way of theory, but you’ll build up practical skills, dexterity, and hand strength without realizing you’re putting in hard work. Your tendons will still ache and your fingertips will still go numb, but when you’re in the moment, with the game egging you on toward mastery, it’s much harder to notice. And after you’ve put in the time to learn a few songs on the lower difficulties, you can always just drop into a tour setlist or quickplay and have some simple fun that feels more like play than practice.
You shouldn’t expect BandFuse to be a comprehensive educational program that will transform you from total novice to rock god, but it’s quite valuable as a training tool used in conjunction with other books, lessons, or self-motivated research. The game veneer helps disguise the necessary repetition of practice, and being able to gradually build up to playing the real song by mastering each consecutive difficulty level makes progression genuinely rewarding. While some abrupt leaps in difficulty and gaps in knowledge are a difficult to excuse, I still believe BandFuse is a worthwhile supplement for anyone who wants to learn guitar.
Over the course of the month and a half I’ve spent with the game, my skills have demonstrably improved, even if I’m picking up far more of the how than the why. For the first time in my life, I’ve been encouraged to stay motivated day after day, week after week. I’m still a long, long way from being able to shred my way through arena shows, but the idea doesn’t seem quite as ludicrous as it used to. Anyone know a good drummer?
BandFuse leans a bit too heavily on fluffy video interviews with musicians that offer little educational value, but the underlying systems and mechanics are a smart aid for learning to play the guitar.
T – Teen
|BandFuse: Rock Legends is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Mastiff Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|