FreeStyle Games aren’t reinventing the wheel with Guitar Hero Live, they’re reinventing the controller. Puns aside, this is by far the series’ biggest innovation in long history, and all the British developer had to do was add one extra button. For those who’ve yet to catch a look at the new instrument, it sacks off the old model’s fourth and fifth frets in order to introducing a second row of buttons beneath the remaining three.
What that means for the game is that notes will now be either be coloured black or white as they cascade down-screen in time with the music, in order to differentiate between the two rows. Naturally, on lower difficulty settings, it’s hard to appreciate the rewarding sense of complexity this seemingly minor peripheral revision brings in tow, as on any setting lower than regular (there are five in total) you’ll mostly be playing entire songs using the top or bottom row exclusively.
Turn things up a notch, however, and it’s a different story. Aside from having to maneuver your fingers along the fretboard, you’ll also have to monitor their vertical positioning. When you factor in notes that use multiple button presses and the new power chords (holding blacks and white notes in the same column) the difficulty starts to ramp up.
As with the original Guitar Hero games, adapting to the controller is a learning process. Whether you’re a newcomer or have spent hundreds of hours playing earlier versions, a certain degree of patience is needed before you can become a virtual rock god. That said, those with prior experience are bound to have the upper hand, even if they do occasionally grope for phantom frets with their pinky finger. Thankfully, the new controller feels much more ergonomic with a reduced risk of cramps. If you’re prone to multi-hour jamming sessions you’ll still be liable to seize up on occasion, but it’s nothing compared to the agony earlier games in the genre put us through.
Although Guitar Hero’s foundation remain completely intact, the many elements orbiting this central pillar of gameplay have been reshaped and refined to suit a current-gen audience. Nothing embodies this shift more than Guitar Hero TV, an all-new game mode that steps in to replace the series’ underused online multiplayer. With all the speculation perpetuated by social media and message boards, it’s easy to get the wrong impression of what TV has to offer, but it’s actually another rather straightforward innovation.
As the name suggests, Guitar Hero TV is a network of music channels that run 24/7. Upon logging into the servers, you can select which two of the current channels you wish to play and jump straight in. Naturally, as a TV station, you will have no say over which songs crop up on the programming schedule, though there will be hints as to which ones are queued for later in the day. It should also be noted that many of these songs aren’t available offline and as such can only be played via Guitar Hero TV.
It’s this approach to aggregation that will rub on a select number of fans. Although there’s an option to freely pick individual songs from TV’s evolving catalogue, you’ll need to use “Plays” in order to do so. They’re a type of in-game currency awarded for earning XP and ranking up, but which can also be paid for using coins of Guitar Cash. While coins are earned at a steady pace just through playing, the latter option allows players to pony up real money for a quick handful of Play tokens.
In other words, Guitar Hero TV is a free-to-play service within a retail game, but that’s nothing to be worried about. Previously, if you wanted to pad out your songs bank with extra tracks, you’d be looking to pay a couple of quid at a time. This way, as long as you’re happy to play along with the TV channel, you can get your hands on an extended library without having to cough up a penny. Even TV’s “Premium” sets, which allow early access to the hottest upcoming tunes, can be accessed for free, giving players the option to complete challenges or spend some virtual bucks.
When actually playing Guitar Hero TV, everything’s the same bar the on-screen visuals. Instead of the series’ familiar troupe of cartoon parodies, the interface will directly overlay the corresponding music video.
As a matter of fact these 3D rocker caricatures have been wiped from Guitar Hero entirely. Although endearing in their heyday, by Guitar Hero 5 they looked as worn and fatigued as the series itself. Retiring the pulpy aesthetic, FreeStyle has opted for something much more sharp and refined, boasting some of the best production quality the genre has ever seen. When playing sets through the game’s Live game mode, you’ll be treated to a first person view of a live concert. Bandmates, backstages, and crowds are all shot on film, brought to life by a slew of impressive post effects.
Quite frankly, before playing Guitar Hero Live, I thought it was a dumb gimmick. However, once I had the guitar in-hand and the volume cranked up, I couldn’t help but feel totally immersed. Crowds, made up of real people will bounce and chant, chiming in at every chorus as frontmen and fellow musicians make their presence known. The first person angle will occasionally lead to moments of awkward eye contact, but it’s convincing all the same. Furthermore, your on-stage performance will be reflected in both how the band and audience address you. Fudge too many notes and they’ll start to boo or make frustrated gestures, but nail a sequence and they’ll become electrified by your skill.
Guitar Hero Live is exactly what the franchise needed after its five-year hiatus, and I’d go as far to say it’s what the whole genre needed. Although naysayers will lament the lack of more instruments or complain about the non-permanence of extra songs, for many, Live will become the quintessential party game and is already set to be a permanent fixture in my sitting room.
Version tested: PlayStation 4
A copy of the game was provided to us by Activision for the purposes of this review.