Since the dawn of music games, Guitar Hero has fronted the pack in terms of abject fun; it started with a relatively small set of unlockable tracks and two guitars on PlayStation 2. In the span of a couple years, it expanded to drums, vocals and the exploded into a series of artist-specific expansions with an eclectic mix of “artist picked” songs.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rock Band emerged, boasting a more “technical” experience, filled with a bunch of pay-to-play song downloads, and a rabid fan base which morphed into the first true contingent of fake guitar hipsters. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dark horse of the guitar game franchise, Rocksmith, which uses an actual guitar to teach…not just play games.
Still, despite a couple technological hiccups, Guitar Hero consistently continued to be the “fun” franchise of the group, with wacky characters, random situations and a successful track list that fueled many a virtual mixtape. A huge part of this fun was the overly stylized aesthetic, that became a staple of the Guitar Hero experience.
In a lot of ways, Guitar Hero LIVE is a reboot of the original Guitar Hero, in that it’s mainly driven by two guitars. But that’s where the similarities end. This time around, the guitars have a new layout, with the six buttons stacked in two rows of three. Instead of the previous multicolor note chart, the new system has light and dark notes, and the fret buttons have smooth and cross-hatched schemes for tactile differentiation.
It’s a system that I haven’t managed to master, to be honest, and I find myself dropping into “casual” mode just to play for funsies. Meanwhile, other, far more seasoned players are transitioning almost seamlessly (if online scores are to be believed), so chalk my ineptitude up to old age and being rusty.
Probably one of the biggest draws of Guitar Hero Live is the utter departure of animated players bouncing around the screen; they’ve been replaced with ACTUAL people and ACTUAL crowds, to give a more authentic feel. Start screwing up, and you’ll get a dose of sarcasm from your bandmates, and actual heckling (including thrown objects) from the crowd. It’s an interesting dynamic, especially for those who are waiting to play, as it gives them something to follow. If you’re playing, though, it can end up being a big box of distraction…especially if you get distracted by girls in bikinis bouncing around to your song.
(Let the record show, bikini girls are actually fairly minimal in your overall “story” experience…I just lost consistently while they were on screen)
The story itself features about 42 tracks (more if you pre-ordered), and is broken up over several venues (with several interchangeable bands), in three-song “mini-sets”. Each venue features a unique crowd that reacts based on your performance, and you’ll notice their approval spike corresponding with a light flash on the screen; the flash switches the crowd either up or down the enjoyment spectrum, so you’ll notice more boos, less clapping and yes, cups and trash getting tossed at you. As you complete sets, you’ll be able to unlock em for free play, and you’ll be able to play each song as a “one off” whenever you feel like it.
The real gem of this new set is GHTV (Guitar Hero TV) which is basically an interactive MTV that allows you to play a constantly revolving series of music videos, 24 hours a day. Each channel features ’round the clock “programming”, which means you’ll ALWAYS have something to play, in your choice of (currently) two channels, which alternate styles. Each channel has it’s own individual block of programming, and you’ll be able to jump in and jump out at your leisure. Add to that, the classic videos play in the background while you strum along. It’s pretty damn nifty, and a huge nostalgic kick for us old timers.
As you play, you’ll be ranked against other players who are also playing the same song, and at it’s completion, you’ll find out how you placed. Higher placement = better rewards and increased leveling. Rewards come in the form of tokens, which can be redeemed for player card customizations or as “Play” tokens, which allow you to play a single specific song. The rub is, if you’re looking to practice a specific song (or if you REALLY want to co-op a specific song with a buddy), you’ll need to “purchase” a Play token. Unfortunately, unless you want to grind through 10+ songs to get a single token, you’ll need to purchase said tokens with actual money.
Add to that, there’s no drum support (at this time), and both guitars are essentially lead (with minor rhythm mechanics), so people who wanted the “bass easy out” will be disappointed. Likewise, if you’re looking to play dual guitars on Xbox One, you’ll need to snag a USB hub if you’re looking to plug ‘em in on the front…otherwise you’ll need to use the two rear ports, which could be difficult to access if you’re having sync issues. On the upside, if you don’t have a USB mic lying around, you’ll be able to use your phone as a microphone via Bluetooth/internet devilry, so there’s that.
All in all, even though the rollout seems like a distinct step backward, Guitar Hero Live still manages to be insanely challenging, incredibly addicting and, thanks to GHTV, have a ridiculous bar set for replay value. It essentially turns the former “unlock everything” aesthetic to a new level, since you’ll never really get to pick the songs you want to play indefinitely (unless you stick to the GH Live setlist). That being said, the mix of tracks and videos you can access 24/7 via GHTV is fantastic, and the seamless list of music can make a single session turn into hours. And the competitive/leveling aspect of it pretty much makes it turn into a musical Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
Plus, for $150 you can get two guitars, and be able to use your phone as a mic…and with Rock Band 4, $150 is barely scratching the surface. Still, if you’re looking for a pure, technical experience with a definitive tracklist, Guitar Hero Live might not be for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a fun, jukeboxy party title, it might just be up your alley.