Everyone has tried air guitar at some point in their lives. Be it with a broom or a tennis racket in front of the mirror, or in a club while an awesome guitar solo blasts out of a nearby speaker. It's why Guitar Hero worked. Take a plastic guitar as a controller, toss in a little rhythm and numerous button combinations synced with popular songs, and you've got a successful franchise. And that's what Guitar Hero did, and that's what Guitar Hero was.
But that was five years ago. With frequent releases, special editions and tons of downloadable content, the genre that Guitar Hero created went on to cannibalise itself. The bubble popped. Plastic instruments were tossed onto the garbage pile and the party was over.
Yet here we are looking at the surprise resurrection of the series, as Activision and DJ Hero developer Freestyle Games try to work out how to make Guitar Hero fresh once again with Guitar Hero Live.
How do you innovate a series where core accessibility means not complicating gameplay? Where do you go with the art style? Realistic or more cartoonish?
The answer to the first is keep things close to how they were: an on-screen fret board with buttons that need to be tapped through a plastic guitar in time with the music. The answer to that last: neither. Guitar Hero Live is played from the first-person, and everything is live-action.
You're not performing on stage with say, Metallica. Songs are performed by a cover band - your cover band. You're out on stage with real life musicians who will play covers of famous songs alongside you. The idea is to capture the essence of a live show, with the audio adapting to location - from small clubs to gigantic open-air concerts.
Freestyle Games has recorded full songs in front of a live audience, with automated camera pans focusing on their reactions, your bandmates, and the stage you're strutting your stuff on.
It's very different to what's come before. And while you've got that fret board at the bottom of the screen to concentrate on, your surroundings now have a much bigger impact on the overall experience.
The new take on the concept works. Before we go 'on stage', we stand alongside the rest of our band backstage, putting our heads together one last time, pumping ourselves up for the show to come. We walk out onto the stage, past giant speaker towers and huge lighting rigs, and take our position in front of the screaming crowd. It's a real life location, and we're in front of a 'live' audience. We'll admit it: we're overcome with stage fright.
The only shield, the only weapon, between us and the milling crowd is the guitar in our hands. The new controller is chic, looking much closer to a real guitar, though perhaps the scale is still a little smaller if compared to the real thing. The body's black, the neck wood brown, and the buttons are now moulded into the frets, two rows of three. It looks a lot more authentic, but is still built with different difficulties in mind: play with just three buttons, across two rows or try more complex shapes.
You need nimble fingers to hit the correct notes in order else the crowd mood - and your band's - will shift quickly. But it's different when you're meeting other people's eyes rather than a mostly-faceless polygon crowd of old. Before it was a few badly-recorded boos. Now you can see the disappointment on the faces of the people you're playing for - and with.
That said, It's a little harder to adapt a live-action video to your real-time performance, but what the studio's done is switch between different video takes on the fly, with only a quick white flash suggesting any stitching.
There are fans down in a mosh pit at the front of the stage. As we stumble over on-screen instructions, the mood turns ugly and we're about to be pelted with drinks. The camera pans to our side, and we see the band's keyboardist shakes his head.
It's a little hard to concentrate. But it's not just because of the realistic atmosphere. Because while those on stage with us may be good musicians, they're not great actors.
Live-action video in games has always had an air of the slapstick about it. Rarely do we get great acting to make what we're watching during a game believable. We wonder if it'd be any different performing next to the real thing. As it is, we question how long you'd have to spend with the game before the live-action concept - including the scripted entry on stage and the different reactions - loses its charm.
Activision talk about taking the approach of a modern music festival. That might not suggest a career mode as seen in previous games, but a different indication of progression via the mix of venues; smaller, intimate gigs up to and including these rammed festival spots.
And that approach to a modern festival means opening the doors to a wider range of artists: it's not just rock anymore. The devs reference "rock, folk, EDM, hip-hop, country and pop acts", as well as an artist list that includes but isn't limited to The Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Gary Clark, Jr., Green Day, Ed Sheeran, The War on Drugs, The Killers, Skrillex, The Rolling Stones, The Lumineers, Pierce the Veil, and Blitz Kids.
The other big change to the presentation is Guitar Hero TV. GHTV is a "24 hour music video network" with multiple channels feeding you different genres of music and official music videos. At any point you can choose to play along to the videos. But the setup is also tied into the game's multiplayer, with a real-time leaderboard ranking of other GH players around the world. Pick a song, throw down your best performance and try and break in at the top of the charts.
But as before, the real joy of Guitar Hero is playing with friends rather than pursuing the solo career. Hearing the different skill levels performing next to each other was entertaining in itself. The local cooperative multiplayer vibe was great, though we're still waiting to see what the new-gen version of this feels like.
The move to use live-action video is brave, while ensuring that Guitar Hero Live will probably be able to appear on any platform that is able to play videos. Standing on stage with the actual bands as they perform their songs would have been an absolutely incredible feature, but it's probably very difficult to achieve.
The full track-list has yet to be revealed, though Activision promises regularly updated song lists to pick from. And we've a few more lingering questions about how and if the new Guitar Hero adapts its older mechanics to a new-gen refresh. The overriding one is the simplest: how will Guitar Hero Live perform when it debuts later this year?
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