Perhaps the most interesting thing about Guitar Hero: Live is that it combines three outdated ideas to create something which feels utterly fresh. Teaming the tired franchise with FMV and 90s-style music television stations sounds like the sort of thing you’d pitch before you left via a window, but it works. Guitar Hero: Live’s combination of forms innovates while Rock Band stagnates, and the result is one of the best rhythm action games ever made.
While the core of Guitar Hero remains the same – play notes as they descend down a ‘highway’, don’t fuck it up – there are big changes to the framework of how and when you play songs. Separated into two main categories – Live and TV – each is distinct in its rules and presentation. Live sees you play a series of sets as different fictional bands: finishing the sets unlocks songs for quickplay. It’s closest to the trad GH/RB model, and it’s here where the aforementioned full motion video comes in: as you’re playing, you see the crowd, your band, and the backstage elements as if you were there.
It sounds fucking terrible, but it works. The scenes are overacted – there’s a roadie at the start who gives you the (overlong) tutorial and spends most of his time talking to you as if you were a child – and some song intros go overboard, with you huddling up and then walking on stage. But they’re surprisingly professional in how they’re lit and shot, and it gives the whole ‘playing a plastic guitar and pretending it’s real’ an even more absurd edge.
Sadly, developer Freestyle Games (which made DJ Hero) has gone a bit overboard with the crowd and band’s reactions to your playing. There’s no denying watching the crowd respond well to your performance is good for the ego, even if they’re a bit suspiciously good-looking and clean for a gig where most people will be on so many drugs they could open their own Boots. But play badly – and by that I mean miss a few notes – and they round on you like YouTube commenters on, well, anything. The sound drops out, the crowd starts booing, and the camera swings round to show the lead singer getting in your face, the drummer snarling, the keyboard player expressing disgust. The fucking keyboard player, which on the evolutionary rung is one below particularly fetid dog shit. It’s incredibly off-putting, and doesn’t help when you’re switching up a level, especially as the jump from regular to advanced difficulty is a bit too far.
When you get tired of being booed off stage because you got bored midway through Mumford and Sons (a band so repellent they may as well be fronted by Idi Amin), you’ll inevitably check out the TV portion of Guitar Hero: Live, which houses the old-style MTV networks and has music videos accompanying songs (instead of braying idiots). The model is almost entirely different, as you would expect. Instead of sets, there is genre programming: at set times different playlists will load, and you play along to whatever is on rotation at that time. So you could have classic rock for 20 mins, then indie, and so on and so on.
Again, it shouldn’t work, but it does because you’ll want to just fire into whatever’s on and see how the songs have been interpreted. It’s also a great way of finding tracks you haven’t heard or wouldn’t recognise from a list: you’ll no doubt uncover some gems. And if you don’t want to play at that time, then come back later when you know your faves will be on.
It’s an interesting system, one which removes the barrier to entry of ploughing through setlists to unlock the particular one you want. That TV also has a straight-up song list you can pick and choose from seems counter-intuitive in a way (why would you wait to play a song, especially after you’ve heard all the tracks?). The answer is that it’s a way to introduce a microtransaction element. Each song from the list requires one token to play, and while these tokens can be earned (and, in my time with the game, were fairly plentiful) by playing along to the channels and leveling up your hero, there is potentially a time when you’ll want to play but can’t and, rather than invest the time, you may be tempted to shell out. More likely, however, you’ll be incentivised to earn tokens and other items in-game: you receive bonuses for playing on consecutive days.
I never needed to splash out more cash, with the game dishing out tokens as I played, keeping me topped up. Either way, TV is both a throwback to a way we used to consume music and an engaging, interesting twist on the Guitar Hero format. You’ll want to throw it on to see what’s up next.
On the hardware front, Guitar Hero: Live has changed its guitar’s button configuration, ditching the five-buttons-in-a-row setup and replacing it with six frets arranged in three rows. Long-time players used to moving their hands and using their pinky (like me) may struggle in the early going: muscle memory will see you instinctively try and move down the board, and the adjustment to playing split notes is painful at first.
Spend a few hours with Live, however, and it all makes startling sense. With little hand movement, it’s possible for normies like me to more easily memorise note charts, and naturally work out finger position/transition without being told/having to constantly practice. The satisfaction of hammering on and pulling off sequences has always been one of the core appeals of Guitar Hero, and the splits between high/low notes makes it even more powerful here: it’s easy to get the impression of virtuoso playing due to the constant switching of finger position, making even simpler songs feel like they’re worth a go. Chords are now more accurate given the split frets as well, and the whole thing is immensely satisfying, being both more and less difficult yet somehow a great reinterpretation of the form. Your mileage may vary on the tracklist, but there’s enough classics in it for me, and the note charting is rarely poor.
So, somehow, against the odds, Guitar Hero: Live has given life back to a series thought long dead. I laughed like a pissed hyena when it was announced, but Freestyle has achieved something close to excellence here.
Version Tested: PS4