Six buttons, live action visuals, and a TV station? This is not the Guitar Hero I grewed up with.
What’s that saying about buses? That you wait, and wait, and then two come along at once? Now imagine you’ve been waiting for five years, and that instead of a bus, you’re waiting for a giant red plastic guitar-shaped bus, with shiny Blu-ray discs for wheels, and besuited passengers employed by a huge multi-conglomerate video games publisher. “Hello, good sir!” they’ll exclaim, “can I interest you in this fine piece of rhythm-based video game tomfoolery? You’re just about old enough to feel nostalgically attached to the genre and earn good money, yet young enough that you don’t have any true worldly responsibilities to dictate the practicality of your expenditure.”
Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, yes, guitar-based rhythm games. There are two of them now, back after a five-year hiatus following what many will remember as a flooding of the market with absolute tosh. Let’s be honest, we were all pretty sick of rhythm games by the time Warriors of Rock—the sixth game in the Guitar Hero series—came along and we discovered it was pretty much the same as the previous five games. A similar problem afflicts the just-released Rock Band 4, a game that—while ultimately good fun—could have been released on 2010 and we’d be none the wiser. It’s nice that it supports old instruments and DLC, but Rock Band 4 doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of rhythm games becoming tired.
Guitar Hero Live does. While the reasons for its comeback are likely to be as much about tapping the nostalgia of fans as they are about making a great game, the fact is, Activision and developer Freestyle Games (of DJ Hero fame) have made a great game. Everything about Guitar Hero Live—from the stark presentation of its menus, to its creative take on multiplayer and DLC—is slick, and modern, and wonderfully compelling. Even better, while you’re still ultimately pushing buttons in time with a stream of prompts, it tweaks the established Guitar Hero formula just enough to make it challenging again for the obsessive gamer hell-bent on mastering every single song in the catalogue, while simultaneously making it easier for newbies.
The flipside is that you need to invest in Live’s new guitar, rather than recycle an old one you might have lying around. It ditches the five coloured plastic buttons of old, and replaces them with six buttons spread over two rows of three. There’s even a nice wood-grain effect on them that looks decidedly grown up—or as grown up as can be for what is essentially a sophisticated Fisher Price toy. Freestyle’s gone to great lengths to ensure that veteran players feel right at home by keeping the rest of the layout of that guitar, as well as the feel and spacing of the buttons largely the same. That’s fine, but I think it missed a trick with those fret buttons: they’re still a wee bit too stiff to push down, with too much travel. Those with a lighter touch will continue to struggle.
Spreading the six buttons across two rows is a smart move. The position shifting of the original Guitar Hero games, not to mention having to get your pinky finger involved (something that even proper guitar players often struggle with) was always a barrier to entry for the higher difficulty levels. Instead, the difficulty in Guitar Hero Live comes from chords (in this case, that involves pressing multiple buttons at once) and alternating single notes between the two rows of buttons. It’s interesting to see just how creatively Freestyle has mapped the complex fingerings of a real guitar onto the six buttons of the Live controller, aping classic fingerings like the three-finger spread of an open C, or beefy bar chords with added extensions, represented by pressing down across a single row and adding in a higher note with another finger.
Not that it really matters how much the game apes a real guitar. What matters is that on the lower difficulty levels it’s way easier to just worry about three notes, while on the higher ones it’s far trickier to alternate between the two sets of buttons. Everyone wins. There’s still no way to slow down tracks on advanced levels to practice them, though. This has always bugged me about Guitar Hero. Some people get on just fine with Guitar Hero‘s method of removing notes from easier levels, gradually adding them back in on harder ones. Others, like me, learn better when all the notes are there in the first place, just slower. Maybe I’ll finally get my wish in the next one.
Guitar Hero Live vs. Guitar Hero TV
It’s not just the guitar that has seen some big changes. Guitar Hero Live is essentially two games: the offline Live mode, and the online TV mode. The former will be the most familiar to veterans of the series. You play through a set of gigs trying to earn as many points as possible along the way, while unlocking other gigs and tracks to play through in quick play mode. That you still need to unlock things is extremely annoying, particularly as you will be forced to listen to Mumford and Sons along the way (shudder). Locked content, particularly for a game like this, is an odd throwback to ye olde gaming days of yore. Quite why Freestyle and Activision went down the locked content route, particularly when they went to great pains to modernise the rest of the game, is anyone’s guess.
What won’t be familiar is the look of Live, which ditches the awkward 3D avatars of old, and replaces them with live-action footage instead. It’s also filmed from first-person perspective, essentially putting you in the shoes of the band’s guitarist, all the way from backstage high-fiving and cringe-worthy pep talk through to taking to the stage in front of hundreds, if not thousands of screaming fans. The production values are insanely high, with small bar stages letting fans get up close and personal, and huge stages shoving you in front of hundreds of thousands of people in a muddy field, so I wouldn’t worry too much if you’re suddenly having flashbacks to the FMV-based games of the ’90s.
That said, despite how good the game looks thanks to 4K Red cameras and some digital lighting trickery by Framestore (the Oscar-winning VFX house behind the likes of Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Edge of Tomorrow), there are a few niggles. For one, some of the acting is, uhh, not so convincing. Ostensibly, the theme behind Live is “stage fright,” except no one seems all that frightened about going on stage—and the less said about some of the pre-show pep talk the better. While the bands do look like they could be real bands, the reality is that they’re still mere caricatures: the emo band has its skinny black jeans and hoodies; the indie band has its flannel shirts; and the folk band has its billowy dresses, waistcoats, and mandolins. It just all feels a little bit forced in places.
The other issue with Live’s festival and genre-driven theme is that it has a detrimental effect on the difficulty curve. Bands only play songs from their chosen genre, but even within genres there are simple songs and there are complicated songs. That means you often go from a simple song to an insanely difficult one in the space of a few seconds, which isn’t exactly fun. It’s a worthy trade-off considering how good the game looks, but you don’t get that climatic and satisfying rise to tackling more difficult songs like in classic versions of Guitar Hero.
But when it comes together, boy does it come together. When you begin to screw up a song, and the video switches from the “good” performance to the “bad” one, you do genuinely feel bad about screwing up. Band members will shake their heads at you, gesture at you to play the guitar better, and give you the most evil of death stares as your bum notes begin to the taint the performance. Do better and the video seamlessly switches to the good performance, where the band jumps around like loons and the crowd starts singing along. You just can’t get this kind of emotionally affecting feedback from a clunky 3D avatar.