When the original Guitar Hero was released in 2005, it was an exciting change for games. We hadn’t seen a console version of a rhythm game that featured plastic instruments, and the use of the guitar controller coupled with a solid soundtrack provided the power needed to kickstart an entire decade of music game franchises. However, much like many franchises, Guitar Hero saw a sharp decline as innovation and gameplay gave way to sequels. Hoping to change that, FreeStyle Games went back to the drawing board and delivered in every way possible.
When you first pick up Guitar Hero Live, you probably won’t be too shocked. The controller, another guitar, feels the same. You might even think (like me) that you jump right into the game on it’s hardest difficulty, expert mode. One song in, and you’d realize how incredibly dumb that thought it.
While the game follows the similar structure as the previous titles, Guitar Hero Live has brought with it an entirely new button system. Gone are the 5 colored buttons, replaced with just 6 keys: three black on top, and three white on the bottom. Going from colored keys to black and white may seem easy enough, but it’s the positioning that causes problems. With the frets being right on top of each other, finger placement must be that much more precise, and it almost at times feels like you need to have actually played a guitar in order to get it right.
While the game starts off innocent enough on it’s two lower difficulties, it really starts to crank things up when you get higher. “Advanced” difficulty begins to toss in newer wrinkles such as open notes and chords (notes played using both black and white buttons), but it’s expert mode that brings true insanity along, tossing in mix-and-match three note chords and a much faster note movement. You’ll need to perfectly in sync with the song to get it down. Creating an entirely new way to play was a risky move, but one that paid off, as now the game is that much more challenging to play, creating a more rewarding experience for when you get better.
The “live” portion of Guitar Hero Live is there because the game is just that. No longer are you a member of an animated rock band playing endless shows. Instead, you are now the rock star. The game switches perspectives and puts you into a first person view of a concert.
Along with that, the team has added crowd reactions to the game; if you’re performing well, the crowd will go crazy and sing along with you. Should you start messing up, however, and you’ll start to see “U Suck” signs along with some very angry stares from your bandmates. It’s all done in an effort to provide more realism to the game, and it succeeds nearly effortlessly in doing so.
While the new way to play and view are all major pluses, the thing that really makes Guitar Hero Live great is it’s new mode, GHTV. Guitar Hero TV is a service that operates a lot like old MTV shows: there are two channels to select from, both of them streaming music videos 24/7. Much like a TV station, both channels run on programming guides and will cycle through certain genres as the day progresses. When you wish to play, you simply jump into the game and whatever song is in progress and begin to jam out with the video. This function serves as a great way to circumvent the traditional “pay for songs” model that previous games have done, allowing you free access to 200+ tracks. While the service is great, there are some pretty disappointing downsides.
While you can play individual songs from the games catalog, you won’t be able to do so without the use of “plays”, an in-game currency you earn by earning coins and ranking up through GHTV playtime. Should you run out of plays, you can buy more, but they cost real life money. There is also no way to add songs permanently to your game (through either in-game or real life currency), so you’re stuck either hoping it comes up during your GHTV playtime or by continuously spending play tokens on it. Still, the free-to-play method is still better than prior methods, as you don’t necessarily have to spend any money outside of the $99 it costs to buy the game in order to play every song available. I’d take that any day of the week.
Overall, Guitar Hero Live arrives as a much needed breath of fresh air in the rhythm gaming genre. After the constant over saturation of its predecessors, it’s nice to see FreeStyle Games take an entirely new approach and hit the mark perfectly. The game is not free of flaws, but it does present itself as a clear example of a studio trying to right the wrongs of previous games, and as far Guitar Hero Live goes, it’s a job well done.
This review is based on a review copy of Guitar Hero Live for PS4, sent by Activision.