Developed by FreeStyle Games. Published by Activison. Released on Oct. 20, 2015. Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, iOS, and Xbox 360. Review code provided by publisher.
While Harmonix took the relatively safe route with Rock Band 4, providing an adequate revival of its franchise without deviating from the mold, FreeStyle Games went in an entirely different direction with Guitar Hero: Live. This is a game that from the ground up is fundamentally different than all Guitar Hero and Rock Bands before it, going as far as to completely redesign the button layout on the guitar peripheral as well as implementing a brand new way to look at downloadable content for music games.
It’s a surprisingly innovative title in a series that has always seemed to be playing catch up to Rock Band, and while not all of the changes are for the better, it’s nice to know that Guitar Hero: Live actually provides an alternative rhythm gaming experience, as opposed to being Rock Band with a different art style and song selection.
The biggest change in Guitar Hero: Live is its guitar peripheral, which now has six buttons across three frets, with one black and one white button on each fret. This completely changes how the game is played, and even someone like me, who has been playing exclusively on expert since Guitar Hero 2, had to spend a good amount of time adjusting and training my brain before I was able to settle in on the advanced difficulty, which is the second hardest difficulty offered.
While it’s nice to have a new type of challenge to overcome, the downside to the new gameplay offered by the six button guitar is that it can often be information overload. Not only do you have to deal with six possible buttons to press on a three lane note highway, but you also have to deal with open note strums, poorly notated hammer ons/pull offs, and most importantly, all of the combinations of chords that you can perform. When all of that information comes flying down the highway at breakneck speeds, even the easiest songs become overwhelming.
This leads to the problem of Guitar Hero: Live lacking that sweet spot. Advanced is often too easy, while expert is almost always too hard.
On the presentation side, Guitar Hero: Live once again seeks to set itself apart from both its predecessors and its competition, and once again the results are a mixed bag. The game uses live action footage from two fictional concerts: Soundial and Rock the Block. Each set list puts you in the shoes of the guitarist of a different cover band as they take to the stage and perform in front of an actual live crowd.
GH: Live does some cool things to really make it feel like you’re at an actual concert: Fans sing along, your singer will pump up the crowd in between songs, and there’s some great pyro effects that accentuate big moments of certain songs.
At the same time though, as much as GH: Live wants to make you feel like you’re living this fantasy of being a guitarist at an actual concert, it often does the opposite by trying too hard in making the player absurdly aware of whether they’re playing well or poorly.
One look out at the audience and you’ll find a multitude of signs that say banal things like “You’re doing good!,” “I’m having a great time!,” “This is awesome!,” and “Soooooooo Good!.” Of course, the reason for these signs is so when you start playing badly, they’re easy to flip to say “You’re doing bad!,” “I’m bored!,” “This is awful!,” and “Sooooooo Bad!.”
While it can be amusing at times to see everyone scowl at you like you’re the scum of the earth when you start playing poorly, the mechanic really could have benefited by having a neutral state. As it is, people act as though you’re playing like the second coming of Jimi Hendrix, or you’re a the equivalent of a 3-year-old with a Fisher-Price Rock and Learn guitar toy. Worse still is the fact that you can play a song nearly flawlessly up to the very end where you miss a few notes, causing the crowd to all of a sudden turn on you.
Also disappointing is the on-disc soundtrack itself, which focuses almost entirely on songs from the more modern end of the music spectrum. There are a couple of classics that have been featured in previous Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, such as “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Paint it Black,” but other than those, there aren’t very many songs that I would consider going back to with any regularity.
Fortunately, there’s an entirely separate way to play Guitar Hero: Live. One that addresses nearly every problem I have with the presentation of the game, while offering up a song selection that completely eclipses the on-disc offerings.
Guitar Hero TV is an exciting new way of providing a constant stream of post release content to players without forcing them to pay any money. Essentially, it works like an MTV2-esque channel that plays music videos 24/7. At any time, you can tune in to one of two available channels and start playing along with any of the music videos. Both channels have their own schedules with 30 minute blocks that each contain songs from a certain genre of music.
Playing songs through the GHTV channels is a good way to discover new music while also building up your level and earning gold, which can be spent on new note highway designs, new hero power effects, and what are known as “Plays.”
Plays are what you use if you want to play any song in the GHTV catalog on demand. While the catalog isn’t quite as large as Rock Band’s massive library of DLC that has been built up over the course of several years, it’s still quite respectable, and there are a ton of great songs and music videos to check out.
There’s also a premium channel players can access that features a limited time set list that offers unique rewards, like boosters that net you more experience/coins at the end of each song, a new player card design, or a new note highway. Premium channels can be played either by spending HC, a currency obtained by using real money, or by playing three songs specific to that premium set list and getting a 3 star rating on each of them.
Before you get upset at the inclusion of microtransactions, just keep the following in mind: Usage of GHTV itself is entirely free, all of the music is instantly accessible and requires no downloading or hard drive space, and everything that costs money is also unlockable by simply playing the game for a reasonable amount of time. If you’ve already played and achieved three stars on any of the songs needed to unlock a premium set list, you don’t have to beat them again.
HC can also be used to buy more plays, but the game gives you a bunch of free plays when you first boot up GHTV, and then gives you several more whenever you reach certain level milestones. As far as microtransaction models go, this one is pretty fair in terms of what you can do in order to access the content without paying real money.
It’s also worth mentioning that both GHTV and the main GH: Live modes of play support vocals, but the inclusion feels extremely tacked on. There’s no difficulty selection, no audio balancing options to decrease the in-game vocals so you can actually hear your own, and no option to just ditch the guitar and sing.
I give Guitar Hero: Live a ton of respect for trying so many radically different things, even if I’m not a fan of a many of them. GHTV in particular is an ingenious creation and it will be interesting to see how Activision and FreeStyle Games support it in the coming months. If they can keep on providing a regular stream of new songs and compelling set lists for the premium channels, GH: Live will certainly never be too far from my console.
Rock Band 4 is still my go to plastic instrument party game, but it’s good to know that once the party dies down and my friends go home, I can switch guitars, kick back, and enjoy playing along to my some of my favorite music videos on GHTV.
Bottom Line: The changes made to Guitar Hero: Live go a long way in giving the series its own unique identity, but at the cost of making the game less fun to play than its competitors. An innovative post release content delivery system of streaming music elevates what’s otherwise an average and expensive rhythm game.
Recommendation: Only hardcore Guitar Hero fans looking for a new type of challenge need apply.[rating=3.5]