Guitar Hero might be back, but Guitar Hero Live isn’t the game people remember.
Sure, the basic concept is the same: players accompany pre-recorded music on a plastic guitar, hitting buttons to match “notes” that scroll down the screen. It’s a simple idea that relies almost entirely on the novelty controller, which provides a basic wish-fulfillment fantasy. It’s not really playing guitar, but it feels close enough.
Everything else, though, is totally different. Guitar Hero Live forgoes the series’ traditional, cartoony 3D avatars for a first person view, rendered via prerecorded live action footage. The “live” audience – and the fictional band – react to the player’s performance, cheering when he or she is doing well, and booing when he or she isn’t.
It’s a neat idea, but it’s not nearly as important as the game’s other big change: the new controller.
Old Guitar Hero games had a guitar controller in which five multicolored buttons were spaced evenly across the controller’s “neck”; in order to hit the notes, players had to move their hands up and down the plastic guitar. It’s a solid concept, and one that’s remained pretty much unchanged since Guitar Hero’s premiere. Rock Band 4, Guitar Hero Live’s main competitor, still uses this design.
Guitar Hero Live doesn’t. Instead, there are six buttons – two rows of three each. The colors are gone, too; the new controller only has black (the top row) and white (the bottom one). And while yes, the layout means that players won’t need to move their hands anymore (or use their pinkie fingers), the new system changes everything.
Navigating two dimensions – horizontal and vertical – instead of just one is an entirely different skillset, and judging from Guitar Hero Live’s E3 demo, it’s going to take some adjustment. It’s not bad – in fact, once the new scheme starts to click, the new controller feels more authentic than the old one – but even for Guitar Hero veterans, this is going to take some getting used to.
That can be frustrating, especially when playing on a big screen in front of a bunch of other (and more talented) players, but it’s never unfair. Guitar Hero has always been a game of skill – practice, and players will get better – and it’s not like the learning curve is steep. It’s just different.
Guitar Hero Live’s other changes were a lot more difficult to evaluate on the show floor, but that might have less to do with the game and more to do with the E3 environment. Learning a brand new controller in a couple of minutes is hard enough. When it’s difficult to hear the music (the Guitar Hero Live booth didn’t have headsets, just speaker systems that only partially blocked noise from the other displays), and a FreeStyle Games developer is excitedly describing the games’ new features, and an impatient Activision PR rep is pacing anxiously in front of the booth urging you to hurry up, it’s almost impossible.
That could be why the live-action interface didn’t make much of an impact. Most of the time, players focus on those notes coming down the screen, not the background visuals. When the crowd reaction changed, it was hard to notice. And when the music itself is muddled, the good and bad crowd noises all sound pretty much the same.
That being said, Guitar Hero Live is also pretty fun. Guitar Hero Live’s song selection is more eclectic and less rock-heavy than Rock Band 4’s, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on players’ individual tastes’. As mentioned before, the new controller isn’t immediately as intuitive as the old one, but it’s not impossible to use, either. Things started to click after one run through of The Killers’ “When You Were Young”; presumably, after an hour or two with the game, the new button layout will feel totally natural.
Guitar Hero TV, the game’s online mode, was a little more confusing. There are a few different elements at play in this mode, and a hurried demo wasn’t necessarily the best place to explore them.
Essentially, Guitar Hero TV acts like a digital television channel lets Guitar Hero fans play along with a live stream of classic and modern music videos (the demo cued up, apparently randomly, a Faith Hill song). Playing Live gives players access to online leaderboards, and playing in TV mode earns in-game currency that can be used to unlock other features. According to the FreeStyle Games developer, Guitar Hero TV will learn players’ tastes, and start putting together channels of songs they might like.
While the developer representative couldn’t say anything – in fact, he insisted that most of the content will be free – Activision confirms that Guitar Hero TV will include microtransactions. It sounds like Guitar Hero Live follows a free-to-play model: players can unlock everything via gameplay, but paying extra makes everything happen faster – but it’s still too early to say for sure.
Despite the imperfect conditions, the Guitar Hero Live demo was compelling, and when the demo ended, we were ready to get back in line and try again. For some players (this one included), Rock Band 4’s track list might be more appealing, but don’t count Guitar Hero Live out just yet – that new controller, and the new challenges it represents, make for a very appealing alternative.
Guitar Hero Live will be released on October 20, 2015 on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U.