Video Games Review: Guitar Hero Live (Xbox One, 2015)

With Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4 hitting Australian store shelves within a week of each other, the music and rhythm genre that dominated lounge rooms everywhere only five years ago is officially back from hiatus. With Guitar Hero Live, developer FreeStyle Games is attempting to bring something new to the table. The question is: will rhythm game fans find all this newness to their liking?
Where Harmonix chose to stick with a more traditional rhythm game approach in Rock Band 4 to help ease returning players back into the genre, FreeStyle Games really wants you to feel like you’re starting over. The differences are apparent from the moment you open the box; the first thing you pull out will be the new guitar which, while it looks and feels very similar to previous Guitar Hero instruments, bears a major difference. Gone is the standard five-button fret arrangement, replaced with a new six-button layout in two rows of three – one row of black buttons and one row of white.

The way this translates is that when actually playing the game, rather than dealing with five note lanes as in previous titles, you only have to deal with three. However, you now have to deal with two different types of notes, the black and the white, and must jump between them to hit single notes, power chords, et al. The simplicity of the design is immediately apparent: place three fingers on the neck buttons and you never have to move them again (though this didn’t stop my pinky intrusively searching for fourth and fifth buttons that werent there and wrecking my multiplier). Within that six-button frame there are so many different variations for the developer to play with in their note charts. It’s like trying to play Ikaruga with a guitar controller, it’s madness.

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The note charts themselves are pretty well constructed across the board but I do still feel that competitor Harmonix have the master’s touch when it comes to creating them. That just comes from pure developer experience – Rock Band’s note charts have always felt more natural and fluid than Guitar Hero’s due to the fact that it was Harmonix who created Guitar Hero in the first place. They’ve had years to perfect their craft and this comparison only serves to highlight some of Guitar Hero Live’s weaker note charts. This is FreeStyle’s first full-fledged Guitar Hero title, though, so I’m willing to cut them a little slack. Their experience making DJ Hero and DJ Hero 2 back in the day was clearly valuable. Give them time, they’ll figure it out.

It was the getting used to the new configuration that really hindered my first few hours with Guitar Hero Live and I can already see it being divisive among people who love the rhythm and music genre. I’ve spent the last eight years playing these games in one very specific configuration. Rock Band is one of my all-time favourite game series. I’ve lost quite literally hundreds and hundreds of hours to these games. I’m very good at the old configuration. Picking up Guitar Hero Live, I found myself getting frustrated and confused even on lower difficulty settings. Reprogramming my brain to accept this new configuration took hours and, even after having spent days with this game, I still haven’t quite got the hang of it yet. For people who are new to the music genre, this could actually be the perfect jumping in point that FreeStyle clearly want it to be. For veterans, you’ll know within your first hour whether this is your cup of tea or not.

The thing is, even when I was struggling to make my fingers work properly, I could tell that this shit was really, really fun and I found it started to show off what the new layout could do after stepping up to Advanced difficulty (what used to be called Hard). It certainly feels more tactile than your average music title, helped along by the guitar itself which is of a very high build quality. The buttons are nice (the white ones are smooth while the black ones are a bit rough for some fingertip feedback) and the strum bar is satisfyingly clicky for those who like to really hear and feel themselves hit a note. There’s a nice big Hero Power bar along the wrist line with a pair of start buttons at either end, conveniently within pinky’s reach.

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My concern is that Guitar Hero Live doesn’t have the same ability to stand up under drunken scrutiny that Rock Band 4 has. When you get right down to it, these are party games and parties generally involve booze. I can still play Rock Band when I’m shitfaced – I might actually be better at it drunk than I am sober – but if you were to hand me Guitar Hero Live on the same boozy night, I haven’t got a hope of making that guitar do what I want. This is key; in trying to simplify the experience, they’ve kind of just … complicated it in a different way.

Alright, moving on. There’s so much more to talk about besides the mechanics.

The most visible change to the formula in Guitar Hero Live is that FreeStyle have made the interesting decision to abandon the in-game graphics of previous titles in favour of live-action first-person footage of real bands and audiences. As gimmicks go, I have to admit, it’s a pretty good one. The game opens on a brief soundcheck with a roadie that teaches you some of the basic mechanics before you’re thrust on stage to play some 30 Seconds to Mars. Your band mates all look nervous but excited. The drummer gives you an encouraging nod and you turn to face the front of stage and hit your first notes, catching sight of an indistinct crowd beyond a thin curtain. The roar of the crowd greets the sound of your strumming and on your first power chord, the curtain drops, a huge wave of sparks blasts into the air before you and you are confronted with what may be the biggest crowd of actual, real live people you’ve ever seen in your life and they’re all looking at you. They’re flipping the fuck out, jumping and screaming and holding up encouraging signs and smiling at you – it’s so intense.

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This would be interesting enough by itself but each band you play with and each crowd you play before is dynamic and will react to the way you’re playing in real time. If you’ve got a perfect streak going, nailing all your star power phrases and never dropping a note, the crowd will be going absolutely bananas and your band mates will be ecstatic and energised. If you start to miss notes you may find the crowd staring at you in confusion and your band mates worriedly urging you to get it together. Miss even more notes and the crowd will start booing, throwing bottles and holding up insulting signs (who brings a “YOU SUCK” sign to a concert, you jerk?!) and your band mates will openly criticise your bad form with eye rolls and angry head shaking, unable to believe you’d let them down like this. The line between these changes is a fine one – it sometimes feels like you’re playing to an audience full of hyper-picky Rush fans (“Play it exactly like it is on the record or we riot!”). It’s really engaging and I wish I could see more of it – so often I’ll be completely focused on the note chart, fighting with my brain to actually match the cues I’m seeing, that I completely tune out all the other stuff that’s going on. It’s certainly much more interesting for anyone who’s watching you play.

There’s occasional holes in this otherwise outstanding presentation – some laughably cringey acting, signs that make absolutely no sense – one just read “EXCITED”, providing nice audience feedback but looking a bit strange, and I think I saw another one that read “WHOOSH” but I could be wrong – and because the game doesn’t really know your gender, there’s at least one member of every band – some male, some female – who make serious bedroom eyes at you when you’re playing well which, if nothing else, is good for the ol’ self esteem.

In terms of track lists, you’ve actually got a number of options to choose from. There’s the standard Guitar Hero campaign which is broken up into a pair of music festivals, one set in the US and the other in the UK. You play through these festivals in sets of three songs to unlock those tracks, all on-disc, in Quickplay mode. It’s all fairly straightforward and it won’t take you more than a few hours to knock it over, especially on easier difficulty levels. The majority of these on-disc tracks are relatively new songs and surprisingly poppy ones at that. It seems rock really is dead at the moment. Some, like The 1979’s “Girls” and Arctic Monkeys“R U Mine?” are great fun to play, but whoever thought Eminem’s “Berzerk” and Skrillexs “Bangarang” would be fun to play on a guitar needs to be put in the bin and told to stay there.

The other mode on offer is called Guitar Hero TV and will be, I think, where the majority of players end up spending their time. GHTV is an interesting way to approach the problem of DLC songs by simply not having any. What it does instead is it broadcasts playlists of songs from the game’s substantial online song list 24-hours a day. You can jump into any playlist and enjoy the songs that are on offer until the next program starts in half an hour. Programs will jump between genres and there are two channels so that you’ve always got a bit of choice. While playing these songs, you’ll be treated to the licensed actual music video of each performance which, I’m sure, is going to cause YouTubers and streamers no end of copyright-related headaches.

The trade-off with GHTV, of course, is that you can’t actually pick any of the songs you’re playing and this is where the whole thing starts to make me a bit cranky. If I want to pick out individual songs from the online library then I have to pay for them by sacrificing what’s called a “Play”. You get a finite number of Plays to use and if you want more you have to buy them with coins, a simple in-game currency accrued at a glacial pace by playing songs in GHTV’s playlists. If you’re impatient you can, of course, skip all the grinding by paying real world money to buy a second in-game currency called Hero Points which will let you buy a large quantity of Plays really quickly. There’s also the option to buy what’s called a Party Pass which lets you access the entire online library with as many Plays as you want for a 24-hour period. When you run out of Plays, it’s back to either grinding through the GHTV playlists for coins or open your wallet again.

This just doesn’t set well with me. Yes, it gives players access to a potentially staggering amount of songs as FreeStyle secure licenses but to do that they had to throw player agency completely out the window. You could argue that Rock Band’s DLC store offers a far pricier alternative but I’d rather pay $2.50 for a given song and be allowed to play it whenever I want. I’ll happily take that over having to grind through fifteen songs I’m not really interested in to be able to afford five Plays. The real kicker is that if I play a song on higher difficulty levels, there’s no real reward for doing so. Playing a song on Beginner or Expert difficulty, both bring in roughly 150 coins. Surely cranking up the difficulty should net me some extra coins, right? A simple modifier like that would go a long way to mitigating my problems with the microtransactions. In fairness, the game does throw a few free Plays at you when you level up via the in-game Status system but it still feels like I’m getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop here.

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I’ve done my fair share of grumbling in this review but there is an awful lot to like about Guitar Hero Live when you get right down to it. The new button layout, despite being brutally hard on veterans, may well be the breath of fresh of air the genre has been looking for and the presentation in GH Live mode is truly brilliant (dorky bits and all). Yes, there’s rough edges but this series needed someone with this level of talent and vision to move it forward. Guitar Hero Live is proof that FreeStyle know what they’re doing. I hate being the “what’s next?” guy when this game that they’ve slaved over for so long has only just come out, but I’m so excited to see what these guys can really do with Guitar Hero.

Rhythm games are finally back and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Let there be rock.

Review Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Incredible presentation; New guitar is cool and definitely different
Lowlights: GHTV feels like a bum deal; Scorchingly hard for rhythm veterans to pick up
Developer: FreeStyle Games
Publisher: Activision
Released: September 20, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS

Reviewed on Xbox One

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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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