I’ve played every game in the Guitar Hero series, from the good (Guitar Hero II), to the weird (Guitar Hero On Tour), to the bad. Yes, I purchased Guitar Hero Warrior of Rock, the game whose lackluster song selection, finger blistering difficulty and stilted narration – courtesy of a bored Gene Simmons – combined to sound the death knell of an era of plastic guitar peripherals. Or so it seemed. With Guitar Hero Live, developer FreeStyle Games has completely rebooted the franchise, returning it to the stage after a five-year hiatus with a new controller, new gameplay and a new approach to DLC.
The first change you’ll notice is also the best; FreeStyle Games has ditched the traditional guitar controller’s brightly-colored five button layout, replacing it with two stacked rows of three buttons. Splitting the frets into two rows – three black and three white – not only allows those of us with small hands to finally reach all the buttons, it also make for a more realistic guitar-playing experience. Instead of moving up and down the neck of the guitar you’ll be moving across, which comes closer to playing real life chords.
There’s a bit of a learning curve, as you struggle to reprogram a decade of muscle memory. But once it clicks, that feeling of strangeness is replaced with the satisfaction of mastering a new skill. The new two-by-three layout makes things easier in that you no longer need a sixth finger to reach that elusive orange button. But it also makes things more challenging in that it requires a whole new style of finger acrobatics to nail chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs. Beginners and veterans alike will have to develop their shredding skills from scratch.
My brother Matthew, who unlike me can reach the end of Through The Fire and Flame without breaking into a cold sweat, jumped into Live for the first time on the advanced difficulty setting and was soon confronted with a disgusted crowd and disappointed bandmates. “What is this?” he cried as they started throwing trash. “I thought I was going to show off!” Even though there are now only three lanes on the familiar note highway, and only two colors to track, the challenge quickly escalates. I wish FreeStyle Games had forgone both the basic mode (which is just open strumming ) and the easy mode (which only uses the bottom three buttons), and started with the medium mode as their baseline, ramping up the difficulty from there. As it stands, the sudden spike in difficulty between medium and advanced is pronounced.
Moving upwards through Guitar Hero Live‘s difficulty settings is less like scaling a mountain and more like strolling down a sidewalk that ends in a sheer cliff face. The expert mode is the most challenging guitar-playing experience you’ll encounter this side of, well, playing an actual guitar. But mastering a song on one of the higher difficulty settings is also ultimately more rewarding; when you’re playing more realistic chord shapes on a more realistic guitar, you feel more like a real guitarist.
But it’s not just the guitar controller that’s gone through major changes. Guitar Hero Live is essentially two games in one: the offline career mode, Live, and the online streaming mode, TV. Live is the more familiar of the two offerings. FreeStyle Games has ditched the 3D genre-aping avatars in favor of full motion video. It’s shot from a first person perspective, casting you as the lead guitarist for a handful of bands performing across a handful of music festivals. You start backstage where it’s all earnest high-fives and awkward pep-talks before a roadie hands you your guitar and you take the stage to a roaring crowd. The 10 bands are caricatures – I was not surprised when the Mumford & Sons-esque folk band broke out the mandolins – and the fans are cartoonish, but somehow it works.
Guitar Hero Live is charmingly self-aware of its cheesiness. The emo band literally skateboards onto the stage! But beneath the cliched styling and tellenovela acting, its strong directing, clean editing and high production values immerse you in the experience, be it “good” or “bad.” FreeStyleGames shot each performance twice using a motion control camera rig, so depending on how well you’re playing the scene will blur near-seamlessly between cheering and jeering crowds. Even your bandmates turn on you, as Matthew learned in that first fumbling performance. “Why don’t you look at your own guitar,” he sniped at the bassist giving him side eye after a string of missed chords. “You look at your guitar and I’ll look at my guitar. Everybody will look at their own guitars, okay?”
FreeStyle Games really knocked it out of the park with the FMV approach; there is something genuinely affecting about performing for a real crowd. Not a homerun, however, are the 42 songs you’ll play in Live; aside from one song each from The Who, The Rolling Stones and Queen, nearly all the selections are modern pop hits from Rhianna, Katy Perry, Fallout Boy, Blink 182, The Lumineers, Paramore, OneRepublic, Mumford & Sons and Eminem. Not that I don’t enjoy the music of the 2000s, but it’s not an era that produced a lot of guitar-centric classics. There are no face-melting solos in a Skrillex track.
The song selection really opens up in the online-only TV mode, with three themed channels streaming preprogrammed playlists 24/7. It’s like the golden days of MTV, with more than 200+ music videos from artists like Weezer, Rush, Megadeth, The Clash and Pantera. But there’s a caveat. You can play any song in TV’s ever expanding library, but it will cost you. To chose a song on-demand, you need a token. And to earn a token, you need to grind through the preprogrammed playlists. Of course, you can purchase “hero cash” which you then use to purchase play tokens, which will set you back $2.50 for a 10-pack and $6 for 24-hours of unlimited plays. There is no way to truly “own” a song, but at least TV is generous doling out tokens. In the beginning, that is. The more you play, the more stingy it gets with the in-game currency, which is also needed to purchase guitar upgrades, skins and hero powers.
The micro transaction model casts a cloud over what is otherwise a really innovative way to present DLC; unfortunately, there’s nothing rock n’ roll about performing currency conversions. It’s needlessly complicated and mildly exploitative. Less annoying but no less noteworthy, Guitar Hero Live lacks a few features we’ve come to expect from the series. There’s no practice mode, surprising considering the new controller layout. You also won’t find parts for drum or bass, though you can hook up a second guitar or microphone once you unlock Live’s on-disc tracks for Quickplay in the single player campaign.
FreeStyle Games took big risks with Guitar Hero Live, and for the most part those risks pay off. Its innovations – a reinvented guitar controller, first person perspective, streaming music videos – more than compensate for the limited local multiplayer and annoying song rental. Guitar Hero Live brings something different and refreshing to the series, and to peripheral-based music games in general.
Controls - 9.5/10
Gameplay - 8.5/10
Content - 6/10
+ innovative controller redesign
+ bold and stylish presentation
– Live‘s weak setlist
– TV‘s micro transactions