Last year marked the return of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero. While some people did add both games to their collections due to the cost of entry, most chose one or the other. Last year, I jumped back into Rock Band and remembered why I loved the genre to begin with. Now, thanks to a significant price reduction on Guitar Hero Live, I could finally see what the folks at FreeStyle Games have done with the long-running franchise. Is the price cut an indication of the quality of the game, or are they trying to get people in the door at a more appealing price? Based on my time with the game, it feels like the latter.
What Is It?
Guitar Hero Live is a solid music game with a solid soundtrack. In the past it focused on the hard rock to metal genres, but with this new installment to the series FreeStyle Games have opted to take a much broader approach to the song catalog. The game features 42 on-disc songs that skew more towards the late 90’s and 2000’s in terms of musical eras. They’re clearly trying to appeal to a younger audience with the inclusion of acts like Eminem, OneRepublic, and Fall Out Boy, but there’s some good classic rock tracks on there as well. The game definitely favors the more pop-rock genres, at least as far as the on-disc tracks go. Whether you like (or have ever heard of) the bands on the soundtrack is a personal thing, so it’s a bit unfair to say the soundtrack is bad. It isn’t, it’s just not what series vets are used to.
This brings me to the key difference between Guitar Hero Live and its predecessors. The gameplay has changed significantly since the last time we’ve had our hands on a plastic axe. The five colored fret buttons have been replaced by two rows of three buttons. The top three buttons correspond to black notes, the bottom three to white notes. It doesn’t sound like much of a change, in fact at first it might seem like they’ve made the game simpler to appeal to a wider audience and that there’s no challenge to be had with the new system.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
When you first start playing it, sure, things seem easy enough, especially on the casual or basic difficult level. When you play on regular difficulty you will start to see shades of how challenging the game can be, with black/white chord combinations, barre chord transitions, as well as a few good hammer-on and pull-off sections depending on the song. This wasn’t too intimidating at that difficulty, and it didn’t feel overwhelming for me. When you move to advanced or expert difficulties you’ll get more complex note and chord patterns as well as faster scrolling charts to accommodate the extra notes. Guitar Hero Live does a nice job of keeping the difficulty curve reasonable, which will keep a lot of folks from giving up on it.
To play all of those fancy notes, there is a new guitar controller. I’ve had my hands on two of these. One shortly after launch, and one that came with the copy of the game I bought just now. The launch hardware seems to have had some issues. The buttons didn’t feel particularly good and there was quite a bit of squeaking from them if you hit them at an off angle. That doesn’t appear to be the case with the controller I have now. The buttons feel good, they don’t squeak, and they’re very responsive. Maybe a bit too responsive in some cases, as I’ve dropped combos by accidentally brushing up against an upper or lower button while transitioning from chord to chord. The strum bar feels very nice. It has that traditional clicky feel that all Guitar Hero hardware have had. On the whole, the new controller, at least the ones shipping now, are quite good.
Why Should I Care?
Guitar Hero Live is split into two sections: Live and TV. These may as well have been two separate games. Live mode consists of the game’s Career mode, where you play as the guitarist for bands performing at two fictional music festivals. Each of the festivals and bands playing in them has their own unique vibe and personalities attached to them. Between shows you’ll hear commentary radio announcers, as well as seeing fictional social media posts popping up. That’s just the front-end. During songs, the game puts you literally in the head of the guitarist. Through full-motion video backdrops you’ll see all the backstage goings on as well as the performances themselves. Perhaps some of the characters are a little overly hyper. I will chalk that up to the endless energy of youth, before the weight of the world crushed their souls and turned them into jaded, cynical people. Or maybe they’re overacted a bit. I’ll leave that to you to decide. One thing that should be obvious to anyone watching them is that quite a bit of work went into their creation. So at the very least don’t dismiss them out of hand.
Each show in the two festivals has you playing three to five songs with little to no gap in between. At the end of each, you’ll be given a rating based on how well you kept the crowd happy. That’s one thing that the game does have trouble with. It seems like every single crowd at these shows are bipolar. They’re either loving everything you do or they’re cursing the day you were born. There really should have been a ‘meh’ state, where they’re not really super into your playing but don’t totally dislike it either. It’s a small detail, but worth pointing out.
TV mode is a 24-hour streaming music video network with a free-to-play mechanic wrapped around it. It’s divided into two free streaming channels with curated playlists, as well as a handful of time limited Premium shows. Premium shows are where new songs debut first before they are added to the on-demand catalog and free channels. They also have some pretty nice rewards for placing in the top three at the end of the setlist. You can gain access to them by meeting certain star rating thresholds for specific songs, or spending one of the two in-game currencies. First there are song Plays which allow you to play any of the on-demand songs in the network’s catalog. Once you’ve spent all of your plays, you can purchase more through the in-game store. Three plays are worth 1800 Coins, while 100 plays will cost you 50,000 coins. You’ll earn coins for every song you complete in the free channels, so this isn’t quite as bad as it might appear initially. You’ll also earn plays by completing song goals or as daily rewards. Finally, if you’re having a party and don’t want to mess with plays at all, you can buy a 24-hour Party Pass for 6 actual dollars that will give you unlimited plays.
Then there’s Hero Cash. You can spend Hero Cash to enter Premium shows if you don’t want to play through the required songs and get the necessary star ratings. Hero Cash can also be used to purchase Plays, but that doesn’t seem like a very good way of spending the much-harder-to-come-by currency. Hero Cash can be earned through placing 1st in Premium show setlists or purchased with real money in amounts ranging from $1 to $20. Even with all of the free-to-play style elements included in the game, it’s generous enough with awarding plays that it doesn’t ever become an issue.
What is an issue is the lack of a practice mode. I didn’t let Harmonix off without pointing that omission out, so I’m not letting FreeStyle Games off either. Seriously? Why is it that neither developer was able to include such a useful mode? Maybe they were afraid people would just use Practice Mode to play all the songs for free and not bother using GHTV? Whatever the reason is, there’s no excuse to not have this in there.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
While the career mode is a short-lived experience that may only occasionally go back to, Guitar Hero TV is where the real meat of the game is. With every song you play, you’re competing against 9 other players or their offline ghosts. It gives a nice sense of satisfaction when you come in first. What’s more compelling though is the serendipity of just tuning into GHTV and jumping right into a song already in progress. With each song you play, you’ll earn stars (XP) as well as those all important coins. You’ll also level up your profile and gain access to Rivals mode, which allows you to compete one on one with another player. The only drawback to this is there’s really no way of choosing who you go up against. You just get matched with another player and see their highway next to yours, much like the Pro Faceoff mode in past Guitar Hero games. It would have been nice to have a more direct mode of competition, but all-in-all, GHTV is a thoroughly enjoyable mode.
Guitar Hero Live is a great example of how a seemingly simple change can fundamentally alter how a game plays. This is a new Guitar Hero, and for a first installment, it’s well worth your time.