Guitar Hero has always felt like the ‘corporate one’ in it’s age old battle with Rock Band in the war of instrument based rhythm games. With the backing of Activision and constant releases of full priced games several times a year, there was something about it that wasn’t…well, it wasn’t very Rock and Roll. Eventually, the corporate angle on the series lead to a huge oversaturation of the genre, that saw a temporary collapse of both franchises.
Oh, what a difference five years makes. Guitar Hero Live is Activision’s swing at trying to refresh the series under the guidance of new developer leads Freestylegames. And they’ve knocked it out the park in one try.
Really, Guitar Hero Live is that good.
There are quite a few changes to the game, in terms of the way it works, that won’t be instantly recognizable to old guitar based players. The first and most obvious of those changes, and it really is the key one, is the way the new guitar controller works. As opposed to the classic five button neck, the new Guitar Hero design instead opts for six buttons with two rows of three. This, for my money, is a revolution of how these controllers work. Instead of just hitting buttons, you are actually making something resembling a guitar chord. It feels much more natural to use and transition between two chords. It might be a little fiddly at first, as you are working in a much more condensed space than on other controllers, but once you get the hang of it, it makes so much sense. It feels much better, and is the biggest evolution of any of the instrument designs I’ve seen in the genre’s history. While Freestylegames could have easily laid back on what works, they instead took a chance on what proves to be an incredible revolution for the controller.
The next thing that has been entirely reworked is the way the actual game is presented. Split up into two modes, you will now have choice of playing in Live or TV. Live is the one you’ll find most recognisable if you’ve played games like these before, essentially being the campaign mode. The sets are presented as different bands all at a music festival. There are two festivals to play through, with several sets each to keep you going. The most striking thing you’ll notice about how a session play outs is the use of FMV (Full Motion Video). FMV has almost always been incredibly hoaky and silly, but I was actually floored with how well it works here. The game puts you in the feet of a band member on stage in front of a huge crowd. There is the nervous preamble of the band getting on stage before starting any set, which is really very well handled. The camera work is incredibly convincing and I was continually surprised how effective I found the entire experience. Seeing a real crowd go nuts while you play, as silly as it sounds, is pretty intoxicating. Although, if you start to fail, the FMV will fade into a horror reality. The audience will throw cups at you, your band members will look exceedingly miffed and everyone gives off the sense that you are ruining their show. I felt genuinely affected by this and tried to avoid slipping into that reality as much as possible. I think, in future releases, a lot of work could be done on how dynamic this experience is, with a crowd that really reacts to how you play, instead of just having two realities running parallel to one another that you slip between, but I digress. Consider myself exceedingly surprised any of this works, but it does. It really, really does.
The songs you’ll play in Live will probably be one of the controversial sticking points to your experience. The spread of genres is huge. This is a shotgun blast of music rather than anything focused on one genre, and it is all leaning to much more modern songs. With a setlist that features Rhianna, Linkin Park, Blink 182, The Lumineers, Skrillex, Mumford & Sons, Katy Perry, Of Mice & Men, Eminem, The Who and Bring Me The Horizon all across 42 songs; there isn’t a lot of time to settle into any one genre. Honestly, I loved that. My current favorite songs to play one after the other is Rhianna, then Bring Me The Horizon, followed by Of Monsters and Men. I have eclectic taste in music though and I like Taylor Swift as much as I like Lamb of God. If your tastes are not so broad though, you could have a much more problematic time with the Live portion of the game.
If you are looking for either more music or something more focused, you can head over to the TV mode. This is certainly the more complex to praise of the two modes, since it does feature micro-transactions, but there really is ‘something’ to it. The idea is simple enough. There are actually two living, breathing music video channels in here. One more focused on rock, the other, more on pop. There is scheduled programming on each channel with playlists centered on themes like’metal’, ‘older hits’ etc. A music video will accompany a song and you play along as it goes. I found it surprisingly relaxing to be thrown into a channel and just play whatever came next, competing against the people I’d been drawn with. This is free (providing you have PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live), and you will gain things called Plays as you participate. The Plays are where micro-transactions come in. If you want to play a specific song from the sizable catalogue put together here, you can just hop in and spend a Play to play it. If you don’t have any, you can buy some in-game currency to stock up. This did wave some red flags for me as being potentially problematic. It takes away the old DLC method, which let you just buy songs and play them as much as you like. While that would be a much ‘friendlier’ practice, honestly, I’ve not found any issues of wanting to play a song and not being able too. In my 8-10 hours of playing TV, I’ve never once been in need of a Play. I still have about 25 backed up that would take me a while to get through. Hopefully the game will continue to add more and more music to TV and keeps the Plays dropping at the rate they are for me, otherwise this could become a much more problematic portion of the game. As it stands though, in my playtime, I was really quite enamored.
One other thing worth noting; this is very much a solo experience. These games have traditionally been about getting a few friends together, drinking beer and pretending you are in a band. Guitar Hero Live is more about you playing alone, stepping into the shoes of a singular band member and having your own wish fulfillment. If you are looking for that local co-op play, you are almost certainly better suited looking elsewhere.
Guitar Hero Live is the real deal though, in ways I wasn’t expecting. I predicted the FMV would be underdeveloped, the micro-transactions to be heavy handed and have the experience feel a little too ‘tailored’. Instead, not only is it one of the best surprises of the year, it’s one of the best music rhythm games ever put to disc. Some might find its set-list to be a little too broad and the obscure nature of TV to be off-putting, but for me, this is an incredibly well thought out and executed experience. Instead of slipping on an old, comfortable pair of shoes, this is something exciting and full of new ideas. This new entry reclaims what the old Guitar Hero lost before crashing the genre: a spirit.