I thought I knew Guitar Hero.
Its revival, like that of another milestone music franchise — Rock Band — seemed at first like the return of an old friend. It was familiar; it’d be easy to get back in the groove. If you’ve played one guitar, you’ve played them all, right? Even though I took a break when music games crashed in 2010 (and I sold all my instruments), I felt like I had pretty well mastered what it took to rock with a plastic guitar.
Until I found myself being booed by a crowd of angry fans while hopelessly failing to pluck the simple pop-punk power cords of Good Charlotte’s “The Anthem.” My confidence was shaken — but I wanted to get back on the horse for the next song.
Guitar Hero Live innovates and toys with a classic formula, enough to challenge and delight even old fans. It’s a forward-looking music game that, overall, gets things right.
You have my axe
A lot of things set Guitar Hero Live apart, but the most immediately tactile difference is the game’s brand-new guitar controller. While it retains the same guitar shape (with the familiar loud feedback from the strum bar), the frets on the guitar’s neck have evolved. Developer FreeStyleGames banished the five colored frets, instead designing the buttons in two rows of three. The top row is distinguished by black notes; the bottom row’s white.
Why? The studio reasoned that struggling players would often plateau once they had to slide their hand down the guitar’s neck to eke out notes. Now, though, you’ll rotate your hand up and around the guitar to reach the top notes. As someone who fully invested in excelling at Guitar Hero during the mid-’00s, it’s pleasing to have a new challenge. It scratches the same itch as you learn more difficult moves, like chords that require you to hit a black note and a white note one row over at the same time. Yes, you’ll struggle — but you’ll also improve.
The guitar controller also connects wirelessly via USB dongle, a great way to avoid the wireless interference that Bluetooth connections may see. Then again, losing your tiny dongle renders the whole (expensive) controller useless; the guitars would benefit from having a spot to stash them when not in use. Another small complaint: It’s too easy to hit the included Guitar Hero TV button, which is located a bit below the strum bar, on an overenthusiastic strum.
Guitar Hero takes it live
There are two completely separate experiences available when you first pop into Guitar Hero Live. Starting out, you’re thrown into the titular “Live” experience: Video of an actual sound technician greets you, taking you through a guitar tutorial. The effect is surprisingly captivating, even for gamers who have reservations about mixing real video into a game. (That strategy has rarely succeeded in the past.)
Everything in Guitar Hero‘s Live mode has that same first-person perspective. You jump from different lead guitarists’ perspectives as their bands take the stage at two different music festivals. The small touches here — like seeing a crew member reapplying your makeup or picking up your skateboard as you sit backstage — are compelling. Each fictional group you inhabit, from overcrowded indie jam band Portland Cloud to girl rock group The Out Outs and headlining legends Broken Tide, has its own distinct personality and cast of characters
Of course, they all happen to be the kind of supergroups that authored hits actually originated by other artists — at least in the Guitar Hero fiction. With The Out Outs, for example, you’ll play songs by Rihanna, Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry.
Even if you only inhabit these bands for a few songs, you’ll quickly feel like utter trash when you let them down. Their reactions, along with those of a crowd stocked with fans, will change at the drop of a hat after you bungle a few notes. The lead singer can go from singing along with you to apologizing to a whole crowd for your ineptitude. And the crowd will throw things. They will boo.
If you’re on your rock game, you’ll be on top of the world. Otherwise, you’d better slink off the stage as soon as possible.
Live mode’s high production values must have limited how much content Activision could include in the game; the crowds are massive, the video rigs impressive. There’s a great, diverse song list for this mode — but I certainly wanted to play more songs immediately after savoring the game’s 42 available tracks.
Guitar Hero TV: streaming and microtransactions
If you do want more, there’s a whole other mode in Guitar Hero: the streaming-powered “GHTV.” This mode offers curated channels (two at launch) of songs, with programming blocks arranged around a certain theme. You can jump in along with a song as it streams — presumably at the same time all around the country — and watch its music video as you play. You’ll get matched up on a leaderboard of players with equal skill, so you’ll be challenged each song to beat their scores.
The song selection for this mode is incredibly diverse, with over 200 tracks available at launch, and 74 more promised by the holidays. It includes everything from challenging metal to classic rock, pop punk, modern pop and even dance hits. But simply diving in to gorge on the music you want to play isn’t as easy as you think.
Guitar Hero does away with downloadable songs, saying that users may not play a song enough to justify a 99-cent price tag — a sentiment I can happily get behind. Now you can play anything in the GHTV catalog, as long as you have a Play credit. These are rewarded as you level up, or can be purchased with in-game coins (you’ll earn 100-150 for each song you complete). They can also be purchased by turning your real dollars into Hero Bucks. After a good chunk of time, I had about 35 plays saved up — though I’d imagine you could blow through that with one night playing with friends. (Don’t worry, though: There’s also a $6 unlimited-play party pass that lasts for 24 hours.)
There are a lot of other things to spend your hard-earned coins on as well. Some are simple cosmetic improvements, like changing the note highway’s appearance. Others are more vital. Your Hero Power (think Star Power) comes in a range of flavors in GHTV; instead of doubling your score, it might clear all the notes, or lower or raise the game’s difficulty. With the exception of the note-clearing power-up, though, each of these has a limited use. Run out? You’ll have to buy more.
The Premium Shows are another much-touted feature that feel like a headache. When you play them, you can access three or four new songs that aren’t in regular rotation — yet. To play them, you’ll need to either play three different songs (ones you may encounter by chance on the channels, or that you’ve spent a Play token to unlock), or you can spend a few real-world dollars. The song choices for these shows are interesting, and they offer choice rewards if you score well. But if you want to go for a second attempt, you’ll need to repeat the process over again.
Activision and FreeStyle say that this new model was inspired by the way that consumers listen to music now: namely, via streaming. That’s absolutely correct, but it also ignores a key fact. Most music listeners either pay nothing and endure advertisements (on services like YouTube, Pandora and the free version of Spotify), or they pay a low monthly subscription fee to access whatever they want (Apple Music, Spotify Premium).
There isn’t really an equivalent to that strategy here — and Activision said it doesn’t plan to introduce a monthly fee. Suffering ads, though, may be a possibility; the game seems to have space built in for an advertising block after you finish every song.
Which is something I don’t entirely hate. I don’t automatically recoil from microtransactions in gaming — but there are elegant ways to present them, and inelegant ones. Guitar Hero‘s method sticks in my craw a bit. Here, it’s tough to find a way to play a particularly tricky song over and over again until you nail it; if you want more flexibility than what’s on the channels, you may just get turned off.
The Hero returns
I don’t think these complaints can or should stop players from enjoying Guitar Hero‘s renaissance — but they do dampen the fun. After five years out of the spotlight, Guitar Hero Live actualizes what music games can be; it matures the formula instead of just slapping a new coat of paint on it. The $99 introductory price point (for one guitar and the game) doesn’t hurt, either — that makes Live an accessible title and easy holiday gift.
What I’ll watch with great interest is how Activision chooses to evolve the game as a music discovery platform. The developer has already announced aggressive plans to grow GHTV, and at least one new show to be added to Live. This has potential to succeed as a long-running experience — if microtransactions don’t get in the way.
Guitar Hero Live is out Tuesday for Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and iOS — with an Apple TV version coming soon. A bundle with one controller costs $99; two controllers can be picked up for $149 with the game. It also can allow a third player to sing using any USB microphone.
Guitar Hero Live
Innovative new guitar controller • Amazing song list • Live mode is truly immersive • Affordable bundles
Microtransactions muddy up a clean experience • USB dongle seems easy to lose
The Bottom Line
Guitar Hero Live pushes the music game into the next decade, giving fans new challenges and songs to get excited about.
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