Rock to its foundations.
While Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4, which released only a few weeks ago, both aim to revive the peripheral-based rhythm genre, Guitar Hero Live's approach is the complete antithesis of its competitor's. Instead of banking on the past, so that players can use their legacy instruments and DLC catalog in a game with pretty much the same gameplay from five years ago, Guitar Hero Live reinvents the franchise with a six-button guitar while taking advantage of online streaming to bring official music videos in Guitar Hero TV and incorporating modern filming techniques to make it feel like you're playing in a concert with real musicians and in front of a real crowd in the game's Live mode. Innovation is the main draw here, and Guitar Hero Live is more or less a successful experiment, though not without a handful of fidgety drawbacks.
Freestyle Games ultimately decided that the original five-button guitar needed to evolve in both its look and its complexity, upgrading it to a sleek, black and gold six-button guitar that features two columns of three buttons each. One column is black and the other is white, and which column is closer to you will depend on whether you're right-handed or left-handed. The objective of the game is still the same—hit the appropriate notes as they scroll down the screen by holding down the right buttons and strumming at the right time—but the number of possible combinations have increased exponentially. Since there are three lanes of buttons this time around, there are only three lanes on the screen instead of five. However, multiple variations of notes can run along the track: black, white, and black/white down each lane, and also an open strum that covers all three lanes.
In fact, the core challenge of Guitar Hero Live is chiefly note recognition and being able to translate combinations of notes quickly into how your hand needs to be shaped to cover the buttons correctly. The easier difficulties don't throw out too many notes at a time and give you plenty of resting areas so that you can absorb the next sequence of notes without being overwhelmed, while Expert will throw even veteran Guitar Hero players (like myself) into a frenzy trying to keep up with the steady stream of chords and complicated fingering, not to mention the use of hero power (or star power) and those crazy solos that ask you to glide through both rows of buttons like butter.
As a challenge, the complexity is a welcome change and Score Heroes will relish being initially perplexed by the six-button layout before mastering the note placements. Switching from one-to-one correspondence for each lane on the track to three-to-one correspondence is no joke, and it took me several hours to get comfortable enough in Advanced before cracking Expert. And it will take me a few days before my mind can get into the flow and read the notes on the track without thinking.
The downside is that the learning curve is now incredibly steep and a portion of casual Guitar Hero players will likely decide in the first ten minutes that they would rather spend their time learning something else (some would derisively say a real guitar) or switching over to Rock Band where the gameplay feels much more familiar. The buttons are also tightly confined on the upper part of the guitar's neck, so players with thick fingers will feel cramped while those with small hands will need to twist their wrist around to hit frets across the board. At the same time, it takes about an hour to truly test whether you can get accustomed to the six-button layout, which is longer than many people have time for or have access to without purchasing the game outright in the first place. That said, it's a challenge worth taking if you have the patience and the skill.
Another problem is the limited calibration system which is difficult to gauge properly. Rock Band 4's guitar has a built-in system so that the calibration is simple to synchronize, but I fought with the Guitar Hero Live's calibration system over the course of three hours, toggling on and off the “game calibration” option that's supposed to fix the calibration on the fly numerous times. Nothing seemed to work apart from doing a bit of guesswork and manually choosing the option that fit best, even if it still felt off for several songs.
The lack of a practice mode is equally disappointing, making it more needlessly difficult to nail a full combo on a song. And considering that the challenge brought by the six-button guitar, the inability to view the entire leaderboard for a particular song devalues the experience for score-hunting players who will want to know where they place in the field.
The other draw for Guitar Hero Live is the sheer technological prowess between the realistic on-stage experience in the eponymous Live mode and the music video streaming in RPG-like Guitar Hero TV mode. Acting as the story mode of sorts, Live mode pits you in the first-person role of a guitarist who is about to head on stage with one of the game's many fictional bands in two fictional music festivals, with the caveat being that these bands are comprised of actual musicians and the music festivals are filled with a live audience. Each stage asks you to complete a short setlist of songs, and while there's no way to fail, how you perform will determine how the crowd and your bandmates react in real-time.
Essentially, your player flips between two realities (yes, realities). Play well and you enter a world where your bandmates nod in approval and the crowd cheers with positive posters; miss a handful of notes and you enter a world where your bandmates shake their heads and the crowd throws red Solo cups at your face. The background transitions between these two realities with a quick fade-in and fade-out so that it looks seamless, a technological feat of camera work that will be appreciated by those watching you play the game on your couch. In a certain sense, of course, this more lifelike approach to the experience isn't that “realistic” given that crowds don't react so immediately and guitarists don't normally look at their bandmates about a hundred times during a live performance. And if you're really performing that poorly, someone will likely kick you off the stage or punch you in the face just to save you from embarrassment.
The negative reactions from both the crowd and fellow bandmates can feel like rubbing salt into a wound, especially for players who are learning the game for the first time or stepping up to a higher difficulty. Having a crowd hold up signs saying that you suck doesn't really tell you anything if you already know you're not hitting the right notes. That said, this isn't the real issue here: It's that these bad performances don't ultimately matter in the long run. You can fail every setlist in Guitar Hero Live and still progress through the mode and unlock songs in quickplay.
So at a certain point, out of curiosity, I decided to intentionally fail every song and actively choose to live in the negative universe, relishing in my power to end the careers of multiple fictional bands and sucking the joy out of swathes of angsty, pissypants teenagers. I felt nourished by their hatred, their posters saying “You're a loser!” and “Shame on you!” (which I imagine they brought to the show because that's what fans do?). Oddly enough, being a rock troll was just as entertaining as being a rock god.
While Live mode is the main highlight, being that this is Guitar Hero Live and all, Guitar Hero TV will be the mode that you're likely spend the most time playing. Here, you can flip between two channels (with more coming soon) that stream music videos online at all times, scheduled out in blocks like a real TV channel. Each song broadcasted on GHTV comes paired with the song's actual music video which is streamed in the background, and every song is available as a part of the GHTV music catalog which, for the most part, is separate and distinct from the songs available in Guitar Hero Live mode. As you complete songs, your score will be matched in real time against other players who are actively playing on the same channel (or against fixed scores posted by other players).
In other words, you can't play any song in GHTV whenever you want. To select a song in the GHTV catalog, you need Play tokens which can be purchased by spending in-game coins, earned by leveling up your status level, or bought outright using premium HG currency. There's no need to purchase premium currency at all, and in general, it takes roughly about 40-60 songs to earn enough coins for 10 Play tokens. This, in short, is a system that Activision hopes to bank on for additional revenue, so you'll need to gauge whether to engage in this microtransaction model or not.
Otherwise, GHTV has a robust tracklist, which will become even fuller over time, and the RPG-like elements will draw hardcore players with the ability to earn experience points toward higher levels and prestige. With enough coins, you can even upgrade your guitar by permanently increasing your score multiplier or the base number of points that a note scores, and change up your hero power for different effects and even higher scores.
On top of that are premium setlists where you can earn special items and player cards while celebrating special performances, like a live performance from Avenged Sevenfold or hearing songs from bands for the first time. Accessing these setlists requires either spending premium currency or using several Play tokens on specific songs and scoring high enough to satisfy the objective. So far these objectives are rather forgiving, like scoring three stars on any difficulty level, so it only takes time to unlock the premium setlist.
The issue, though, is that once you unlock the premium setlist, you need to place first in ranking points against arbitrary scores set by AI opponents to nab the special prize for the premium setlist. However, if you don't place first, you have to waste time and more Play tokens to re-unlock the premium setlist all over again. So unfortunately, it's in your best interest to drop your difficulty level intentionally when playing the premium setlist.
It must be asked whether Guitar Hero Live needs a six-button guitar in the first place. In my estimation, the advent of both Live mode and GHTV would have elevated the base experience enough that the original five-button guitar would have worked just fine. If it's a matter of innovation and of requiring players to purchase a new peripheral, the developers could have added several features to the original design without removing the backwards compatibility of prior Guitar Hero instruments
That said, the added challenge of the six-button layout and the solid GHTV mode will appeal to expert rhythm players looking for something new, and the game does have several options for local co-op with another guitar player and a vocalist, though it doesn't compare to Rock Band 4's local multiplayer options. Though Guitar Hero Live is rough around the corners and may not convince casual Guitar Hero players to return to their guitar-shredding ways, it sets a new standard in technology for peripherals, presentation, and online connectivity.