The duel of the plastic instrument games continues! Back when these games were originally popular, Guitar Hero focused on gimmicks and ended up getting crushed over time; meanwhile, rival Rock Band nailed the fundamentals over and over again. Toward the end of the era, Guitar Hero was selling poorly even by plastic instrument standards, with the final entry Warriors of Rock flopping in a painful fashion.
Today, Guitar Hero’s back with Guitar Hero Live, which takes the rhythm series in a relatively new direction in the hopes of blazing new ground. Does it manage to pull this off? Spoiler: yeah, it does, it’s great and you should probably go buy it.
Before we even get into the game itself, it’d be wise to talk about the newly redesigned guitar peripheral. There are no drums or bass here, just lead guitar and vocals, so you’re going to have to get acquainted with it. As plastic instruments go, this one gets my vote for the top of the heap. It’s much more subtly designed than the average instrument peripheral, meaning it’ll be a bit less embarrassing to leave sitting around your living room. It’s also wireless with the help of a dongle and I found it to be highly responsive in use. My one complaint in terms of functionality is the guitar’s use of AA batteries instead of a rechargable setup, but I’m sure we’ve all still got a few of those laying around. As far as I can tell this axe lasts for quite a while on a pair of batteries, so you won’t have to break the bank buying more.
The important change here, though, is the layout of the fret buttons. No longer shall we toil under the tyranny of five colored frets! Instead, we’ll toil under six; the frets are now divided into three sets of black and white arranged at the top of the guitar’s neck. This means that you don’t have to stretch your hand over to reach the orange button anymore, which is a pleasant surprise. A less pleasant surprise is the fact that your old peripherals are no longer compatible, so it’s off to the junk heap with them…or I suppose you can use them with Rock Band 4. Your DLC’s not coming back either. Alas.
The point is that there’s a new layout and it drastically changes the way the game is played; you’ll probably need an hour or two to reacquaint yourself with how things work. I found the six-button layout to be much more comfortable for long play sessions than the previous setup, though I think that people with huge hands are going to find their fingers unpleasantly cramped. The game also feels a little easier early on once you’ve got the hang of six frets, but the difficulty is rapidly ramped up over time.
Oh, and a quick note about platforms: this one runs on all manner of consoles as well as mobile. The mobile version is similar and you can even purchase a bundle with a mobile-ready guitar peripheral for around $100. If that’s a little rich for your blood, T-Mobile will happily finance it for 23 months, which is kind of hilarious. The game experience is largely similar to what I’m about to describe if you’re playing on mobile, assuming you’re using a guitar controller and can accept that you’re playing on a phone or tablet which doesn’t have quite the same horsepower that a PS4 might; if you’re not, it’s a little more taptastic and significantly less pleasant, so stick with that financing deal.
So that’s hardware. When we’re talking about the software side of things, Guitar Hero Live is essentially divided into two halves. On the one hand you’ve got the standard Live mode; on the other you’ve got GHTV. They’ve both got their own appeal and provide a noticeably different game experience, so it’s worth checking out each.
Live mode is probably closer to the standard Guitar Hero experience that you’re imagining when we talk about this series. It’s essentially this game’s career mode. You play a set of songs and are judged for doing so, with good performance unlocking more songs. This mode gets its name from the fact that, unlike previous Guitar Hero titles as well as Rock Band 4, we’re not watching digital character jamming onstage anymore. Instead, through some bizarre camera trickery involving rolling a robot around onstage (seriously, look up how they did this, it’s impressive) we’ve got an FMV rendition of a crowd that you’ll be playing for from the guitarist’s perspective.
This isn’t quite as lame as it might sound, and I’d argue that the digital characters were getting pretty long in the tooth so it was time for a change. It does mean that you can’t customize your rocker anymore since you can’t see them, so if you’re one of the .05% of people who cared about that in previous games, well…sorry. As for the songs themselves, we’ve got around 40 tracks here which run the gamut from classics like The Who and Pearl Jam to, uh, Eminem and Katy Perry. Even Avril Lavigne takes a break from shilling the C-list Korean MMORPG Black Gold Online to contribute to Live’s set list. Yes, really, that’s what she’s been doing all this time. Why’d she have to go and make things so complicated?
The relatively lackluster tracks do drag the Live side of things down a bit. The heaviest hitters in terms of modern, popular, expensively-licensed music that makes sense for a game about rock music are probably Fall Out Boy, Bring Me the Horizon, Halestorm and Jack White. These aren’t bad, but it’s still difficult to clean up from the fact that you’re playing “Waking Up in Vegas” by Katy Perry in a Guitar Hero game. I hate to say it, but if this was all the music available then Rock Band 4 might actually have the advantage. The FMV thing is still very cool regardless and there’s a lot of flavor throughout, so it’s worth checking it out…
…for an hour or so, anyway, before you switch over to GHTV. This is the main course of Guitar Hero Live, and in my mind it might be the thing that saves plastic instruments. What we’ve got here is basically an interactive version of 1990s MTV, an endlessly rotating series of playable songs divided into several channels. Rather than the robotic FMV craziness that is Live mode, here you’ll play songs over their official videos.
GHTV is noteworthy because of how it upends the traditional DLC model in favor of something vastly more consumer-friendly. When I first saw this back at E3 I was a little skeptical; the way this mode was described struck me as an endless cashgrab, essentially converting Guitar Hero Live into a DLC platform and little more. As it turns out, it’s closer to the free-rotation scheme we see in games like League of Legends or Dota 2.
GHTV’s channels are divided up into “shows,” themed blocks of songs that last for around half an hour to an hour each. Tune into a channel and you’ll be able to play whatever comes up; while doing so, your score is automatically and dynamically compared to others paying the game song, eventually ranking you among nine other players. When it’s over, you’ll earn rewards based on your score (and how long you were actually playing the song, since the format means it’s possible to jump in mid-track) and start on the next. You can sit there playing random songs and passively competing for high scores for hours.
It’s kind of entrancing and probably my favorite experience with a plastic instrument game since the original Guitar Hero. It doesn’t hurt that GHTV doles out hit after hit after hit – there’s two hundred songs here, you’re going to find something that suits you sooner or later and just like classic MTV you’re going to find new favorites by catching them randomly.
Those rewards I mentioned include Status levels and Coins. Gaining Status allows you to use Coins purchase new customization options, including new note markers and highway designs. Coins can also be used to purchase Play Tokens, which let you bypass the whole system and just pick a song out of the game’s sizable library to play through, with each run costing one Play Token; Play Tokens are relatively cheap in terms of Coins and are also given to you for free in fairly large numbers through gaining Status, so I didn’t find myself wanting for more. Finally, doing well on specific songs will unlock Premium Shows, which are themed set lists that offer special rewards like Status upgrades for successful play; these are tough and tend to attract much more difficult competition than the rest of GHTV, so be ready to get your butt kicked.
It’s 2015, so naturally, you can microtransact your way around a lot of this. The premium currency is called Hero Cash and it’s basically used to skip all of the above, letting you buy fancy customization items, Premium Show access and more Play Tokens without futzing about with Coins or high scores. Honestly, I found that GHTV was generous enough with its currency that this is almost entirely unnecessary. My impressions at E3 were perhaps a little too skeptical, as at no point did I feel pressured to buy Hero Cash; instead, the unlock challenges for Premium Shows just got me pumped to do well when those songs showed up in the rotation.
One note, though – it’s not actually possible to unlock a song for play permanently and you’ll always need to use Play Tokens, which is another subversion of the usual DLC model. There’s probably a discussion to be had here about the permanence of digital content and yadda yadda, but this review’s long enough already. Certainly, this might leave a bad taste in your mouth if you’re used to how things are usually done. Personally I didn’t mind it, and I consider the loss of this functionality reasonable in the face of the entire library of DLC being available for ingame currency. It’s a significant contrast with Rock Band 4, which is a game that really doesn’t want much to do with you if you haven’t bought and won’t buy DLC. The amount of free content that GHTV throws in your face is staggering by comparison.
So with all that said I can officially declare that plastic instruments are back…for now, at least. Guitar Hero Live is a solid game that merits a look from vets and new players alike. I hate to gush, but in all honesty this is really good stuff that reminds me why these games became popular in the first place. Rock Band 4 isn’t a bad game and certainly deserves its share of attention, but Guitar Hero Live is vastly more welcoming to new players and offers a much greater degree of innovation. It might also offer a scary glimpse at the future of gaming with DLC that you can’t purchase on a permanent basis, but for once I’m not feeling that cynical. The point is: check it out. You won’t be disappointed.