It's been a while. Sure we've been to the odd party over the last five years where Guitar Hero and Rock Band have featured, but even that was probably 3-4 years ago. Guitar Hero was pretty much the hottest commodity in gaming for a couple of years. Every artist wanted a piece of the pie. Activision grew its Guitar Hero branch to gigantic proportions. Just to paint a picture for you: Van Halen got their own Guitar Hero edition. Van Halen's best songs, minus those featuring Sammy Hagar. That was apparently enough for a dedicated Guitar Hero release in 2009.
The market deflated quickly following the early success (perhaps most impressive was Guitar Hero: Aerosmith selling more than 3.6 million copies), and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock in 2010 marked the end of an era.
Over-saturation. Over-milking. Over. It was all over.
But five years later we're sitting here with a new guitar, a new game and a brand new concept for Guitar Hero. DJ Hero developers Freestyle Games were tasked with reinventing what once was a billion dollar gaming behemoth, this time for modern gamers. And what they came up with is very different. If the original Guitar Hero creators Harmonix stuck to the same basic concept with Rock Band 4, then Guitar Hero Live takes a lot of chances. It's refreshing, yet familiar. But is it enough to reignite our interest in plastic guitars?
First things first. The new Guitar Hero controller offers innovation with its six fret buttons. One line of white buttons, one line of black, and these combine to form 10 distinct notes (3 black, 3 white, 3 black and white, and the basic strum note). More complexity than you had in previous titles, but it also offers more accessibility as the first two difficulties don't make use of black buttons at all. In fact we think the easiest difficulty only uses the strum bar, but that was so boring we didn't last more than half a song (simply to try it out). Regular difficulty uses all the notes, but doesn't fill up your highway completely, which advanced and expert tend to do. It's an interesting setup that allows our pinky to go on vacation (thankfully), while three fingers are forced to work really, really hard. A weekend of Guitar Hero Live and we feel our age as our aching hands need to soak in cold water.
The guitar itself appears to be of good build quality. The fret buttons are a bit squeaky, though, and the strum bar is very loud. But that may just be us banging on it a little too vigourously.
As was typically the case with previous games, graduating from Casual to Regular for newcomers, from Regular to Advanced for players with some experience, and from Advanced to Expert for pros, takes quite the effort. And this isn't helped by the exclusion of a training mode where you can learn separate riffs. Hopefully this is something that can be added via an update as it's quite a humbling experience to go from the high 90s on Regular, to being destroyed on Advanced during your first attempts.
Guitar Hero Live fundamentally boils down to offering two ways to play. Either the first-person live-action festival gigs in Live, or the music video jamming found on GHTV. First impressions of Live are good. We start out with the festival Sound Dial from "Stoneford Castle" in the UK, whereas in the "Portland Cloud Orchestra" (think of The Arcade Fire, with tambourine players dressed in gowns with flower garlands) we take on some indie anthems.
It's fun and the first-person atmosphere works much better than we would have expected. Particularly when things are not going well, then the jeers from the crowd and the furious looks from our band mates actually affects us. And that's great (no, really, it is). We can't honestly remember a single animation or frame from any of the previous Guitar Hero or Rock Band games that actually made us care beyond the highway of notes coming toward us. It's also something that makes the game more fun for the audience in the living room. It's clear that the developers had some fun with this, playing with stereotypes.
Checking around with colleagues, most seem to detest this live-action take, but we appreciated the work that has gone into it. Every time you start messing up and you see the transition from "good version" of the band and crowd over to the "bad version", and we're excited to see just how it's manifested. You'll likely end up hating some of these fake bands, while you might love others. The same goes for the tracklist by the way.
The Live section of the game offers thirteen sets with a total of ten bands across two festivals (there's the US Rock the Block in addition to Sound Dial). Each set consists of at least three songs, some of the latter ones as many as five songs. There's a set with Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry and Rhianna. And one with Kasabian, Linkin Park, Eminem and Skrillex (now that's a combo). It's got a little something for everyone, but also fails at delivering something consistent that your typical Guitar Hero fan will enjoy. This game doesn't really have a central theme and thus ends up being all over the place. It's difficult to imagine any one person actually enjoying each and every set of the career mode.
The tracklist is fairly light on metal even if there is plenty of that too, especially in the TV section. At launch there are more than 250 songs available, but naturally the vast majority of these are for streaming (there are just over 40 first-person tracks on the disc). A surprising amount of the rock bands on there contribute with tracks that are a little surprising - Red Hot Chili Peppers offer "Higher Ground", Alice in Chains are there with "Stones", and Pearl Jam has "Sirens". If we're honest, these are not the songs we'd like to play from those bands.
There are plenty of great songs on there as well, The Strokes' Under Cover of Darkness, Weezer's Buddy Holly, The Killers' When We Were Young, and for those who like to channel their inner Tom Morello - which we do - there are two Rage Against the Machine songs (Guerrilla Radio, Bulls on Parade) as well as Cochise by Audioslave. There are tracks from The Arctic Monkeys, Green Day, R.E.M., Rush, Queen, Soundgarden, The Dandy Warhols, The White Stripes to name a few. And there are some classics from the likes of Pat Benatar, Judas Priest, Iggy Pop and Blondie. As we make this list what's there grows on us, but there is a tremendous amount of filler as well. That said, you will find songs you'll enjoy playing. Oh, and there's Blink-182 on there too.
The TV sections offers two channels setup like MTV pre-reality shows. Songs are playing 24 hours a day in different blocks and you just tune in and start playing to earn credits and level yourself up. You can then unlock new hero powers for use in the TV section, new highways, and player cards. You can access all these songs on demand as well, but that costs credits and although there are plenty of credits to spend early on, we still feel that this introduction of an economy kind of goes against the idea that you can play whatever songs you like at any point. It's not an ideal solution. There is also premium TV content.
It's a weird way to label it as it doesn't cost an entry fee, but the idea is the content is available for a limited time and offers extra bonuses. Currently there's a live set with Avenged Sevenfold available, some "Guitar Hero classic" and "indie rock blockbusters" (Interpol's All the Rage Back Home is one of the songs on there); you unlock them by playing certain songs (you can also outright buy the right to play them, but it's really simple to unlock them at a difficulty level of your choice). We're not sure whether new content will only be delivered this way or if there are also more regular songs planned for release. As such the TV section shows a lot of promise, but it remains to be seen just how Activision treat this novel way of pushing new content to players. If they lose interest in a couple of months then we'll be stuck with a selection of songs that don't update and that we can't access with total freedom (as there's an economy in play), or worse if the selection shrinks as time passes. There's really no way to know for sure.
Naturally this all has to do with licensing costs. Streaming content to the game is a way for Activision to provide us with a massive song list at no extra charge. These licensing issues also mean that the various streaming and share features are turned off on console.
Guitar Hero Live mainly caters to the lonely guitarist, where Rock Band 4 caters to people who like to play at parties and in a band. Sure you can play with two guitars and add a microphone for some vocals, but the fact that Guitar Hero Live mainly aims at the soloist is evident by the fact that a "party pass" that unlocks the entire catalog for 24 hours is a microtransaction. That's right, if you have a party you either have to pay a fee to access the entire song catalog, or your friends will eat away at your play credits in TV mode. The songs in the live section are accessible via quick play at any point and don't fall under the same economy. And that's another thing, there's no one place where all the songs on the disc are selectable. Songs are either Live or TV songs. It's really not designed with a party in mind where the guitar switches between players with every song.
So how does it play then? Well, Guitar Hero Live delivers good logically mapped out songs for the most part. There are some rhythms that feel a little off, but that may just be us listening in too much on the drums. That fact that there are no drums included doesn't bother us much, in fact it's good that Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live offer something very different. But for some the fact that this isn't a full band simulation might be a deal breaker. This product is very much all about the guitarist, the lead guitarist to be specific.
Guitar Hero is still a lot of fun, more so than we remember, so perhaps the hiatus has done wonders. The new guitar works out really well, and it feels like a quality build, though the clickety-clack of the strum bar is very loud (yes, we tend to hit it hard). There are lots and lots of songs, some are actually really good and the first-person sets are not a gimmick and actually add something. That said, we're not sure about the TV section and the economy that seems to mainly offer friction as a means to push us towards microtransactions, and the weird decision to put barriers to playing songs freely during parties. The lack of a practice mode where we can learn more difficult riffs is also a downer. If you're new to these sort of games, we'd say Guitar Hero Live is a better choice than Rock Band 4, simply because it offers more songs and a more modern take on the concept.