Furious Fretwork: Guitar Hero Live Is Not for the Timid

Rocking All Night Long Will Take Skills.

The YouTube Live center is located right next door to the LA office for Konami. Just a few weeks back, journalists got to play the entire campaign of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain over a four-day period. Activision only offered three hours to demo Guitar Hero Live, but it was enough time for me to realize that I’m officially excited to play the final retail version next month… and that I might need a four-day weekend to not suck at it.

NOTE: Impressions below are based on playing a near-final build of the game.

As seen at this summer’s E3, Guitar Hero Live offers two modes: the first is GH Live where players perform onstage via a first-person POV with live footage of fans screaming with excitement (or booing, depending on how well you do). The other is GHTV, which offers the artists’ music videos with an enormous selection of songs streamed online. On the show floor at E3, the bells and whistles of the new Guitar Hero certainly looked cool but, as is often the case when playing at E3, the audio was hard to hear. For a game like this, audio is a huge part of the fun.

Thankfully this recent event offered VIP rooms and headphones. (Some of the units were still hard to hear, though.) The result was a much better representation of the latest iteration of Activision’s groundbreaking game, which offered five tracks to sample: Royal Blood’s “Little Monster”, Soundgarden’s “Been Away Too Long”, The Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling”, Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”, and Pierce the Veil‘s “King for a Day” (ft. Kellin Quin).

The star, as you might have heard, is the brand new guitar controller. (Rock Band 4, it should be noted, can use the old instruments.) The new sleek design layout has six buttons on the neck, in two rows of three, with three white buttons on the bottom and three black ones on the top. (Or some combination of, obviously.) This is where playing GH Live gets really tricky.

Gone are the days of colored buttons that meant pressing from left to right. While I’m excited to play more (three hours is not enough time!), I was absolutely terrible at getting my fingers to remember the white ones versus the black ones. I messed up nearly every time.

According to Tyler Michaud, Senior Director of Product Management at Activision, think of GH Live as the campaign mode. Every song (the final list is TBA) comes packed on the disc. While there will no doubt be leaderboards and other ways to compare your progress with friends and the world at large, GH Live can also be an offline experience. GHTV, on the other hand, is only online as the songs are streamed. The music selection to demo GHTV was much bigger, probably over twenty songs, which meant the music selection was also much more eclectic. I was happy to see Haim’s “The Wire”, The Pretty Reckless’ “Going to Hell”, and Kings of Leon “Sex on Fire” (an overplayed song, for sure, but very fun as a GH level). There was even a track by indie darling Passion Pit and a country tune by Carrie Underwood.

It’s interesting to note that the touted live feature of GH Live is clearly the big hook for the new game, where the audience applauds or boos your performance, but honestly it gets old (especially if you're just booed constantly). I’m way more interested in learning how to become an expert with the new guitar while I enjoy watching the music videos of bands I adore. GHTV will be streaming new content that could be up weekly or even daily. GHTV lacks the live crowd scenario like GH Live, but it just “feels” more like a real live social experience to me as this mode will no doubt have a host of online features like sparring against friends, comparing leaderboards, and the like.

While I was frustrated at being so terrible at GH Live, it should be noted the feel of the guitar was very good. The weight was just right, and the buttons felt solid. Developer Freestyle games created DJ Hero, which I believe is one of the best music games of that era. I’m anxious to get my rock on once again when the game is released next month, but I’m gonna need plenty of rehearsal time before going online.

Guitar Hero Live drops October 20th for $99 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and iOS.