Like an aging ‘70s band that’s reformed after decades of squallering in mediocrity with hopes of recapturing ‘that magic spark’, Guitar Hero reemerges from the five-year hangover it’s been suffering since its fiery demise. But rather than just ‘getting the band back together’, Activision and developer FreeStyleGames have retooled and rebranded the franchise, swapping out awkward cartoon caricatures with slick live-action footage, and introducing a shiny new guitar controller with an all-new button layout.
On the surface, the changes made in Guitar Hero Live may appear to be nothing more than cosmetic. Scratch just beneath the surface however, and you’ll find a game that isn’t afraid to take big risks. While Rock Band 4 plays it safe by sticking close to the formula its developers helped established with the original two Guitar Hero games, FreeStyleGames have evolved beyond the genre-standard, delivering an experience that appears to be an organic progression to the plastic guitar/rhythm music genre.
For starters, let’s look at the guitar controller. Gone are the single-line five colour buttons and replaced instead with three black buttons stacked atop three white buttons.The rest of the guitar remains largely unchanged, with the look and feel matching earlier Guitar Hero controllers – with the addition of a new button that connects you instantly to GHTV, the game’s on-demand song service.
The best part about this new guitar is how it forces you to relearn how to play Guitar Hero. I thought with roughly nine years of muscle memory playing these types of games behind me, I’d be able to pick it up fairly fast. How quickly did I see my own arrogance, as even playing on Normal saw me fumbling around the game’s note highway, which acts largely the same as previously. The most notable change of course comes in the manner in how notes are displayed on screen, in configurations of black and white to reflect the new guitar’s fret-buttons. But it’s more than just the colour of the notes, with them being arranged in a more natural way, akin to how you’d play chords on a real guitar, challenging your hand dexterity as you move in ways that at first feel uncomfortable or awkward. Don’t worry though, invest enough time into playing and it will soon become second nature to you.
Beyond the new controller, Guitar Hero Live continues to reinvent itself with the introduction of live-action footage when playing songs. Despite being overwhelming obnoxious, the live-action footage is actually pretty engrossing. It successfully draws you in by putting you in front of a crowd that reacts dynamically to how well you’re playing. Manage to strike up a long note-streak and the crowd will begin to cheer and hold up loving signs directed at you; but miss heaps of notes and fumble your way through a song, and the crowd – as well as your fellow band mates – will turn, booing you and tossing things on stage in anger. The way the crowd reacts is really something to behold, something my girlfriend pointed out after watching me play. As she put it, seeing the pretty people in the crowd dynamically change made it exciting for those watching the game, especially when fun little things happen when the person playing is doing really well, like when a parrot randomly appears in the crowd.
For how good the live-action footage is, it only appears when playing one of the 42 tracks that ship with Guitar Hero Live. These tracks are all featured in the game’s ‘story mode’, GH Live, and present players with two fake rock festivals – Rock the Block and SoundDial – to play through in a series of genre-specific setlist, performed by bands with a matching aesthetic. Only a couple of sets are available at the beginning, with more being unlocked as you progress, with the tracks you play then becoming available in GH Live’s Quick Play. Quick Play lets you join with a friend and create custom setlists comprised of the game’s 42 on-disc tracks, while enjoying the full obnoxiousness of the live-action footage with mates.
With only 42 tracks available in GH Live, chances are most players will breeze through what’s on offer here fairly quickly. The harsh reality is those 42 tracks are largely pretty shit, with a wide breadth of genres being represented in Guitar Hero Live, and so I couldn’t imagine everyone who plays will absolutely love each and every song. Instead, people are going to gravitate towards a small handful of songs they might find themselves playing a few times over and over, but eventually that excitement is going to fade away and you’re going to be left wondering why you just spent $150 on a new Guitar Hero game.
And that’s where GHTV comes in, Live’s very own always-online music channel. Selectable from the main menu, or by pressing aforementioned GHTV button on the new controller, you’ll instantly connect with this on-demand/MTV-inspired online service that delivers fresh new tunes 24/7. GHTV’s main selling point is being able to jump into a cycling selection of songs no matter what time you’re playing. At launch there’s roughly 200 songs currently on offer through GHTV, split between two channels. Each channel follows its own programme guide, with dedicated ‘shows’ started either every hour on the hour/half-past the hour. All songs in GHTV have their respective music videos playing in the background in place of the live footage.
The idea of course is to ensure there’s something always different on whenever you jump in to play, as well as serving up songs you might not have otherwise listened to before. Discoverability of new music is something FreeStyleGames is attempting to really push here, and I think it’s something they succeed at if the developer can continue to expand the service. After spending a week constantly jumping into GHTV at different points of the day, I began to feel the two channels currently available appear to be a little limiting in scope. In all honesty I was imagining a more wider range of channels at launch which allowed me to jump into a number of different stations at any given time. Instead I was met with only two options. This is something I hope is addressed as more songs are added, and that ever-growing track-list starts to be spread out across four/five/six different channels.
If playing randomly chosen songs isn’t your thing, there’s also an on-demand service where you use in-game currency (Guitar Hero bux!) to buy passes that allow you to instantly play one of GHTV’s 200 songs. And herein lies Activision’s grand way of keeping this online service completely free, with the introduction of in-game currency that can be earned by playing GHTV’s channels, or buying cash-packs with real-world money. This is to say Guitar Hero Live’s online mode is riddled with microtransactions, the worse of which being a “party” pass that lets you play any of the 200 on-demand tracks as many times as you wish during a single 24 hour period.
The in-game currency can also be used on frivolous things like your GHTV character card or custom note highways, which further drives home the idea of Guitar Hero Live nudging you towards putting down some real money if you’re too lazy to earn the in-game cash yourself. That is of course if you want that special flaming skull character card, or that sick-as looking note highway to play Eminem songs with. Beyond the channel concept, which has the potential to be something really awesome, I can’t help but think of GHTV as nothing more than a freemium game that’s been trojan horsed into a full-priced retail game.
The Final Verdict
Guitar Hero Live is a strong rebirthing of the franchise responsible for both popularising, and subsequently killing the music rhythm genre. Developer FreeStyleGames were right to try and distant their new creation from the awkward tongue-in-cheek nature of previous games, opting instead for obnoxious live footage of festival crowds and attractive actors pretending to play instruments. For as much as it makes me roll my eyes, the live footage works really well in drawing me into the experience, almost to the point where I feel like I’m there. Likewise, the new controller has been designed to make us rethink the Guitar Hero experience.
However, content holes in GH Live seriously suck away much of the noise and energy the live-action footage works so hard to create, as the 42 tracks present in this mode just doesn’t hold any longevity. Meanwhile, GHTV just feels like a freemium game that’s been slipped into a full retail release.