Guitar Hero Live Aims to Retune the Rhythm Genre

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In 2008, Guitar Hero was the video game franchise equivalent of a rock star legend. Almost anything it released was instantly popular, and it seemingly had it all. What came next was almost out of a “Behind The Music” segment. SEVEN games in one year, many of which did not live up to the potential, and the release a flashier, sexier competitor: Rock Band. Guitar Hero didn’t stand a chance, and so it did what most aging rock stars do: fade away.

Normally, the story would end there, but not today. Yesterday morning, Activision announced that it would be getting the band back together to try and reinvent the genre that helped put the rhythm genre on the map. That’s right, if you can believe it, another Guitar Hero is coming out. 

Guitar Hero Live will be coming in 2015 for $99.99, and if it didn’t have its trademark highway of notes, you wouldn’t even know it was a successor to the Guitar Hero franchise. I was lucky enough to get some time with the game during an event in NYC, and was surprisingly blown away by what I saw. 

New Axe

What you’ll notice immediately upon picking up the new guitar is that the buttons aren’t there… or so it seems. To those who played Guitar Hero, you will remember that the guitar peripheral given to you has five buttons, or frets, in one row going down the neck of the instrument. According to Eric Hirshberg, many players just couldn’t get past medium difficulty, and the addition of extra buttons to be used by the ring and pinky finger were too difficult to learn for most. Due to this, the team at FreeStyleGames completely revamped how the controller works.


FreeStyleGames’ main objective for Guitar Hero Live was to make the guitar easier for newcomers, yet be harder to master for veterans of the series, and they’ve succeeded. Gone is the single row of buttons on the instrument. In its place, there are two neat rows of three frets. As you can see in the picture above, the top row of buttons are indented with a small black circle, and the lower buttons have a white circle. Those are there to help you when you play. Instead of having to use all five fingers to play, you only need three, though that doesn’t make it any easier.

You might also notice that everything on the guitar is not as colorful as it was. Not only are the five fret buttons gone, but the use of colors as fret indicators has been axed as well (pun intended). Instead of worrying about what color each button is, FreeStyleGames is looking to make you think less while playing, and letting you live out your rock star fantasy.

Become The Rock Star

Guitar Hero Live doesn’t want to be the stylized, cartoony game it once was. They want you to become the rock star, and to make this dream a reality, they’ve turned to the only thing that could possibly work: real people. In the reveal trailer (below), we see what we think is a small little intro video to the game. You are the guitarist for a band getting ready to go out and perform. As you get on stage, we start to realize this isn’t just an intro, this is the game.

Something that drove the team to come back to Guitar Hero is the desire to make your fantasy come true. In previous games, while you were playing as a rock star, you found yourself watching the band perform as if you were an audience member. In Guitar Hero Live, not only are you the rock star, but you’re walking around the stage and looking down at the swarm of people watching you.

The crowd in GHL is special in that it will react to your performance in real time. If you start messing up notes, the crowd begins to stare and boo, trying to get you off the stage. Once you start doing better, the crowd gets back into it and starts having fun.

Eric Hirshberg said that the company would only bring Guitar Hero back if they had a meaningful breakthrough in the series. They didn’t want to just create a “Greatest Hits” game of updated songs for newer consoles, they wanted to bring an entirely new experience to the way we know rhythm gaming. To do that, they introduced us to a new way to play rhythm games.

The Future of Rhythm Gaming?

This might sound strange to say, but Guitar Hero actually came out before the iPhone. In fact, Apple’s device was only two years old by the time Guitar Hero begin on its descent into the bargain bin. Spotify, and other streaming services, hadn’t hit it big yet when Guitar Hero was in full swing. The way we find and listen to music has changed, and Activison wanted to embrace that by introducing GHTV.

GHTV is, as its name states, a TV channel for Guitar Hero. Sort of bundled with the game, you will have the option to either start up Guitar Hero Live or go into GHTV. Think of GHTV like old school MTV. There’s music playing all the time. Pick a channel to listen to, or search by specific genre, and you are taken immediately into the music video of whatever song is playing.

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Once you’re thrown in, you will also immediately begin to play the song along with the video. GHTV will also allow you to play with your friends and compete against them to earn premium content and of course, to give you bragging rights over who’s the best rock star. The function also has an MMO feel to it, as you can also be thrown into a game and compete against someone as soon as the songs start up.  You won’t have the real time crowd reacting to you, but it’s a clever way to integrate more songs into the game. According to some reps for the game that I spoke with, GHTV will be continually updated and they hope to have close to 150 songs ready for it, with much more coming.

GHTV, and Guitar Hero Live for that matter, are not just for consoles. They aren’t even just for television. During the reveal, Eric Hirshberg ended the conference by holding up his phone and unplugging whatever it was connected to. The large screen shut off, and GHTV then popped up on his phone screen. That’s right, Guitar Hero Live will also be fully playable on tablets and smart phones.

Hands On

When it was finally my time to play Guitar Hero Live, I can’t act like I wasn’t excited. The footage and idea of a fresh take at Guitar Hero had given me that familiar itch to play some plastic instruments.

As I stepped up and grabbed the guitar, I will admit I was a bit cocky. I don’t consider myself amazing, but in the older generations of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, I never had a problem getting through songs on the Expert difficulty. Perhaps I should’ve been a bit more humble because only a minute or two into the song, I found myself having a feeling I haven’t had playing a rhythm game in a long time: confusion.

Everything about what I was doing was different. The learning curve for veterans of the series will be tough. Throughout the song, I found myself moving my hands to where there were no buttons in anticipation. I expect that with practice, all of those missteps can be fixed, and anyone could succeed at the lower difficulties. Once I had played through a song or two, I decided to try the games hardest difficulty, and my only train of thought during that was “Well… shit.”

The game is flat out tough on its harder difficulties, with the game making you shift your fingers in ways it just isn’t used to. There is no failing in Guitar Hero Live, so the only penalty I had was the crowds constant jeering… and my own shame. Even after failing miserably, however, I found myself compelled to keep playing. The itch had come back.

Can This Work?

I’ll be very honest and say that I enjoyed almost every second of my play time with GHL, except for maybe when I was crashing and burning on Veteran mode. The guitar peripheral doesn’t feel too plastic-y as they once did, and the concept for the black and white buttons is an interesting one. It allows newcomers to not feel hindered by not knowing how to move all of their fingers at once, and also creates a brand new challenge for veterans to overcome.

The brightest thing about the game, however, is its GHTV service. That will be what either keeps Guitar Hero alive in the future or causes them to falter once again. As it stands, it is a pretty brilliant way to bring music into the world without us having to consistently pay for new songs. There’s no word on whether or not this will be an entirely free service, but if it is, Activision could have just changed the way we do DLC in rhythm gaming.

While I didn’t get a chance to speak for a while with some of the members of FreeStyleGames, I got enough time to get some (very early and very speculative) responses. The tracklist has yet to be finalized, but according to at least one person I spoke to, they want to aim for nearly 100 songs to be in game, not counting the GHTV service. While nothing was concrete, they did say that they would have more to show at this years E3.

On the eve to the event, a lot of people already knew what was going to be announced, and no one seemed to care. Guitar Hero was that aging rock star trying to trot out for one last tour, and no one was buying it. After today, that seems to have changed. Guitar Hero might not be back, but it certainly is ready for its second chance.


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