It’s a good month to be an aspiring musician, or at least wanting to pretend to be one in the comfort of your living room. You have Rock Band 4 that desperately tries to pick up where it left off five years ago, and then you have Guitar Hero Live; a game that is so inventive and original that the only thing it has in common with its lineage is its name.
There are many that blame Guitar Hero for the death of the plastic instrument era. There was a time where Activision was pumping out annual installments of its music game, often before people had mastered the previous set list. To atone for their sins Guitar Hero Live reinvents the genre; not only in the way we play the game but also in the way we play the actual guitar.
Out of the box the first thing you’ll notice is the newly designed plastic guitar. It’s smaller than expected – some may argue too small – and you no longer have your five colored fret buttons on the neck. Instead there are now six buttons arranged in two rows of three. This not only better represents a six string guitar, but also allows for more intricate (difficult) note streams on the more intense songs or songs played at a higher difficulty. Now, as the strum icons travel down the note highway you only have to worry about black and white guitar pick icons pointing up or down indicating which button(s) need to be pressed when you strum. Sometimes you need to hold both down and other times you need merely strum with no pressed frets.
The guitar itself, while smaller seems of much better construction than before; something you notice immediately upon snapping the neck into the body with a resounding click. Nothing is going to break this guitar unless you invite James Franco over to play. I found the shorter neck allowed for much more comfortable seated gameplay where my elbows could rest on my leg and I could focus on my fingering. The guitar still has a tilt sensor to invoke Hero Power or you can use the bar conveniently located under your wrist. A sturdy and responsive whammy bar and two button; a PS button and a multipurpose mini joystick used to navigate menus, completes the design.
One of the things I enjoyed most from the new guitar design is that Guitar Hero Live resets the playing field for everyone. In fact, the better you are (or were) at the old 5-fret games, the likely you’ll struggle with this new way of playing. And good luck if you plan on going back and forth between this game and Rock Band 4. Even after several days and nearly a hundred songs into my rock career I still struggle with this new way to play, but when it final clicks it feels awesome.
After a brief and mandatory tutorial the first time you start the game, Guitar Hero Live throws you into the shark-infested deep end of the pool right off the bat as you are thrust into the spotlight, center stage at your very own rock concert. This is just the first of many sets at many venues that make up the Live game mode. I have to admit the live concert presentation is pretty cool in theory. It was something I had always dreamed of playing the previous games, but now that I’ve experienced it, it just doesn’t work that well.
In Live you are tossed around from group to group playing lead guitarist. Everyone from the roadies to your band mates treat you like a rock god giving you exaggerated smiles, thumbs up, and nods of approval as you take the stage before thousands of adoring fans. It’s all a bit disconcerting in a Sam Beckett kind of way, as you inhabit each body for a few songs only to move along to a new group of strangers and do it all over again. The camera work is pretty cool, sometimes viewed from the player and sometimes swinging around wildly as if somebody strapped a GoPro to the neck of a guitar.
During these concerts the crowd and your own band will react to the quality of your gameplay. If you are consistently nailing those notes you will continue to get all those exaggerated forms of positive reinforcement, but your band, much like the crowd is a fickle bunch and if you start missing your notes the crowd will quickly turn on you, frowning, booing, or even breaking out their cell phones – the ultimate cold shoulder – meanwhile your band will shrug or mouth “WTF” until you get your act together upon which everyone is happy and cheering again.
It’s a good idea in theory and a great way to boost the gamer’s ego but there is one glaring flaw in the entire concept. As a player you are totally focused on the note highway and have no time to enjoy any of the video coverage taking place around you with the few and far between exceptions when the highway vanishes for non-guitar moments of the song or between songs when some scary biker/lumberjack dude hands you a new axe. This problem carries over into Guitar Hero Live’s other game mode; Guitar Hero TV.
GHTV is likely going to be the meat and potatoes for most rockers for one very simple reason. The core list of 42 songs that you will be playing in Live simply aren’t that good. Admittedly, that is my subjective take as a 51 year old gamer who spent ten years as a DJ and prefers classic rock and 80’s pop. Nearly all of the tracks are post 2000 releases, and if you don’t like the newer stuff then you aren’t going to like this. Personally, it wasn’t that I didn’t like it. Some songs actually grew on me quite rapidly, but the simple fact that you have no immediately connection with any of the content is a huge obstacle, especially if you want to plug in a mic and do some optional karaoke. It helps to know some words.
GHTV solves the disappointing track list by offering multiple channels of streaming content; two at launch with a third channel coming soon. This is an ingenious way to deliver ever-changing content to the gamers now and in the future. It negates the need for DLC, and unless Activision wants to change the way the core game is played or add new instruments, the need for any sequels. Guitar Hero Live is now a platform as much as it is a game.
So at any given time you can jump into GHTV and see what’s on. It’s kind of like flipping between MTV and MTV2 if they actually showed music videos anymore. Each channel offers up a select assortment of songs categorized by genre; rock, metal, indie, etc. and these genres change every 30 minutes. There are over 200 songs currently available with more being added behind the scenes that will magically just become part of the rotation. Not only do you have a much larger and more diverse selection of music, you also get some vintage videos that will play along in the background or maybe even some live concert footage, but again, the person playing won’t be able to enjoy it thus sparking the observation from someone in the office who remarked during the Stacy’s Mom video, “This game is more fun for the person NOT playing”.
GHTV is perfectly fine for those who are content to play music being fed to them Pandora style, but what if you want to play the songs you want when you want? That is where things get tricky. The entire song catalog is available to you outside of the streaming channel environment but you will need to spend Play tokens to play individual tracks. These tokens can be earned by grinding through the Channels, earning XP and coins that can be converted to Play packs, or you can purchase them with real money via the Hero Credit system. As a person who has made an art out of avoiding in-app purchases on my iPad I was immediately turned off by this blatant attempt to drain my wallet; especially since the $100 guitar bundle only has 42 on-disc songs and you must first unlock them in the career mode before they can be played in QuickPlay.
But Guitar Hero Live is surprisingly generous with its Play tokens. You get 10 tokens right up front and coins flow in at a regular rate. There are even loyalty bonuses for playing the game on consecutive days, and 10 tokens only cost 6000 coins. The channels seemed to always be offering something I was interested in and it took two days before I ever spent my first token at which time I had over 40 banked. There is also an in-game store where you can spend your coins on player tags and various visual skins for your on-screen guitar (aka note highway).
The one thing this pay-per-play system does do is discourage gamers from learning songs through repeated play unless they want to splurge on the Party Pass that will unlock the entire song library for 24 hours for $6. At first glance this token system seems like a blatant cash grab by Activision, but going back over the 400+ songs I have downloaded in my Rock Band career I realized I was paying $2 per song, and many songs I never played more than once or twice after acquiring. Even though I am “renting” my music in Guitar Hero Live it still turns out to be the better deal in the long run. Plus, I am playing music in the free streaming channels that I would never pay for if offered as DLC.
Available on both last and next-gen systems, we reviewed Guitar Hero Live on the PS4. The wireless guitar connected to the USB dongle with no issue and after a quick calibration we were up and rocking. As far as presentation, the menus are simple and easy to navigate using the joy-nub. The actual video content is hit and miss. The Live concert footage looks fantastic but the GHTV content is only as good as the source material and some of that is extremely dated. There are 4:3 videos being stretched to 16:9 and some stuff looks like VHS quality, and when you are upconverting this to an 80” 4K TV some videos look awful. But again, the only people who really have to worry about the video quality are the people waiting for their turn at the guitar.
Guitar Hero Live doesn’t offer a band experience but you can have two people playing guitar and even add a vocalist if you connect a USB mic. There is even a mobile companion app that will turn your tablet or phone into a functional microphone for aspiring vocalists. While there is no traditional online play, every time you play a song on GHTV you will get matched up with nine other gamers for a 10-person competitive leaderboard climb. The higher you finish the greater your reward.
Guitar Hero Live is a smashing success and a bold move by Activision and FreeStyleGames to reinvent a franchise and a genre that collapsed under its own hubris no less than five years ago. Thankfully, this five year wait has made gamers hungry to rock and roll once again, and Activision has created something fresh, fun, and cool to satisfy that hunger, with a potentially endless buffet of musical content being streamed to your living room 24/7.