Rhythm games needed a comeback.
After the genre fell off, both Activision and Harmonix/Mad Catz (the publishers for Guitar Hero and Rock Band, respectively) decided, around the same time, that it was due for a resurgence. Rock Band 4 hit a few weeks ago, and while it kept the promise of bringing over all of the downloadable songs from previous versions, it meant having to stay the course rather than trying new things.
Guitar Hero Live — out now on Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 4, and Playstation 3 — doesn’t play it safe. It forgets all of the series’ previous DLC, abandons the traditional plastic guitar for one with a new layout, does away with custom avatars, brings in a more modern look, and even tries its hand at some free-to-play elements. That’s a lot of new, risky things to throw into one title.
Activision and developer Freestyle Games are really banking on this being the way forward for rhythm offerings, and after playing Guitar Hero Live, I’m confident they’ve made almost all the right choices.
And it might be exactly what rhythm games need.
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What you’ll like
Guitar Hero TV sets a new high bar for rhythm experiences
If Guitar Hero Live just offered a new collection of songs to complete, I probably wouldn’t have been interested in playing it at all — even with a new guitar controller to make the game feel more novel. I’ve had more than my share of working my way through tracks by difficulty. I want something new.
Luckily, Guitar Hero TV, the online portion of the game, is exactly the kind of momentous change I was looking for. When you log into GHTV, you’ll jump right into one of two “channels” — a more intense, metal-oriented channel or a lighter, poppier one. And then, you’ll just play whatever track is on at the time, with its music video as the background. Both channels are 24-hour streams from a massive new collection of artists, complete with commercials for tracks you can play on demand as well as MTV/VH1-style bumpers. The stream is queued in advance, and you can even look at a schedule to see what kinds of music will play at what time.
Playing on the channels will give you coins and experience. Coins let you buy upgrades for your guitar (like score bonuses) and play tokens (which you use to play a single song on demand) while experience unlocks new power-ups and new looks for your player card and fretboard. Whenever you play a song in GHTV, you’ll also enter a 10-person leaderboard. The better you perform, the more experience and coins you’ll earn. It’s a good incentive to do well, and it’s just the right amount of competition motivating you to improve and play on higher difficulties instead of coasting on easier settings and getting bored.
Being able to turn on my console, load the game up, and immediately play three different songs without having to deal with menus or loading times feels absolutely magical. I couldn’t pick which tracks I encountered, but as someone who likes to discover music, this is now my favorite way to play. I’ve stayed in the channels for hours at a time, switching between them if I’ve already played a certain selection that day, and I’m going to have a hard time going back to anything else.
The microtransactions are actually fair
The channels give you access to more than 200 songs (as of launch), but if you want to play a particular one, you’ll have to spend tokens, which you can either spend money on or earn by playing music in the two channels. You can’t own a track, however — just play it. That’s not ideal, but it’s a great trade-off for having access to this much music all at once. You can also buy a $6 “Party Pass” that lets you play anything you want for 24 hours.
Finally, in order to enjoy newer selections before they’re introduced into the channel ecosystem, you’ll have to play certain songs and earn three stars on them, either through the channels or by using tokens to play them specifically.
It’s not a perfect system. The real-money-to-fake-currency ratio is not only high, the amount of points you buy and the amount you spend are different. That means you can’t spend all the points you buy in one go. But in practice, I haven’t felt the least bit compelled to spend the $10 Activision included with our review copy of the game. GHTV provides a ton of content for free, and if I really want to play a certain track, I can use the play tokens I earned.
The redesigned guitar breathes new life into playing music
Adding to the novelty of GHTV’s channel system, the new guitar layout has revitalized this type of rhythm experience for me. Instead of five frets laid out horizontally, the new guitar has six frets arranged in a three-by-two formation. You don’t ever have to slide your fingers around on the guitar, so you won’t lose your position as easily. The new configuration also opens up more chord and note combinations, like playing chords in a V-shape or playing four notes at once. The top half of the buttons also have a lattice texture, and the bottom three are smooth. While this might make playing a few chords feel strange at first, it stopped hurting after my fingers got used to having to move up and down instead of just side to side.
Regardless of the layout, though, having to relearn how to play plastic guitar has made tracks I performed in other games feel new. I’m happy to learn new music, play on a lower difficulty, and bumble my way through because this retooled system rekindled my love for the genre.
The soundtrack is impressive
With more than 200 songs available through Guitar Hero TV, I haven’t had to replay most selections more than twice. Some tend to pop up a lot more than others (I’m really getting of tired of “Stacy’s Mom”) in the GHTV channels, but I’m playing new music regularly, and most of it feels varied in both genre and play style. After a couple of days, I switched from Regular to Advanced difficulty, and it felt like every new track was teaching me how to do new things with the guitar, like hold down a new chord or holding three notes in an L-shape after switching between two-note chords. By the time I’m bored of the launch lineup, plenty of new ones will likely be available for me to try right away. And after I take an extended break from Guitar Hero Live, I can jump right back in without having to buy a ton of DLC. That’s saying something.
What you won’t like
The Live experience is disappointing
I’ve spent most of this review talking about the online side of Guitar Hero Live because the “Live” portion isn’t much to talk about. In this part of the game, 42 songs have been split up into different fake band performances taking place from the perspective of the guitarist. Full-motion video plays in the background instead of 3D models. You’ll hear DJs talk about your performance and hype up your next one in the menus. A different fake band plays each three-song set list, tying everything together in a way that feels more natural than past releases. The interface has also gotten an uplift to match the Live aesthetic, and it makes the entire game feel more mature.
It’s an interesting new approach (and the new look is slick), but you don’t have much reason to replay the set lists or play songs individually unless you’re going for high scores. The online side is much more enticing and includes all of the on-disc tracks in the rotation. The Live part of Guitar Hero Live is worth seeing once, but it seems like the least important part of the package. It feels like a backup mode in case the servers go offline.
The vocals are marginalized
Guitar Hero Live also lets you sing vocals, but you wouldn’t know it at first. You can only try vocals in tandem with the guitar, so you’ll either have to do both, have someone else join in, or just completely disregard the guitar note track and sing instead. Vocals feel like an afterthought, but I appreciate them being there, I suppose. You can also get a companion app that lets you use your phone as a microphone. But, I found the detection of vocals across all the mics I’ve tried (including my phone) a bit spotty.
Don’t plan a Guitar Hero party
With two guitars and vocals, Guitar Hero Live lets you play with a maximum of three people. But if I’m ever going to plan a party centered on a rhythm game, Rock Band is still my choice. Guitar Hero Live doesn’t let you play with as many people, and despite being able to have two guitars, you can’t play bass parts. It’s not a huge loss, but I definitely felt the absence of bass sequences during Jack White’s “Lazaretto.” This simply isn’t a group experience. I consider the second guitar a backup since the one I’ve been using thus far has started to squeak.
Although Rock Band still has the bigger catalog, more instruments, and backward compatibility, Guitar Hero Live is progressive, nimble, and, well, lively. The new guitar and GHTV system get me truly excited about playing rhythm titles again. After seeing what Freestyle Games has done, Rock Band’s enormous library, and the promise of making it available across releases feels like a crutch by comparison, tying that franchise to its established model. I’ll still hop back to Rock Band to play drums, but right now, Guitar Hero Live is where you’ll find me clanking away, waiting for the next time I get to perform Ida Maria’s “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked.”
Guitar Hero Live is out now for Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and iOS. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of the Xbox One Guitar 2-Pack Bundle and two microphones for this review.