Guitar Hero Live Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii-U, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
Guitar Hero had the career trajectory closer to a breakout pop act than a legendary rockstar. Under Harmonix’ management it took tentative first steps into the gaming landscape, garnering a devoted fanbase. Big boss Activision then came in and signed the franchise; soon enough Guitar Hero was everywhere. Meanwhile, Harmonix, like an independent singer-songwriter, took time crafting magnum opus after magnum opus (excepting Lego and Green Day Rock Bands, perhaps). Guitar Hero lived in Rock Band’s shadow but popped out megahit after megahit, surviving on brand loyalty. Soon it crashed and burned, taking the whole genre with it, driving its name into the dirt. When it announced it was returning, mere weeks after Rock Band announced a comeback, it seemed as if history was about to repeat itself. Thanks to the ingenious team at Freestyle Games, this is radically not the case. This is the Guitar Hero reinvention.
While the base mechanics remain the same - it’s still strumming along to notes that flow down a fretboard highway - almost everything else has been approached from a wholly new angle. The most blatantly obvious is that gone are the animatronic bands of yore, along with any computer generated images entirely. The decision to use FMV as a background is audacious; our preview included a look at how these elaborate sequences were made and, by God, is it a laborious, lavishly expensive enterprise. Trust Activision to greenlight a game that required a camera bolted to a robot arm whizzing around at breakneck speed. There’s something to admire in the sheer creative process behind the sets - from the design of the two festivals on offer, the handful of stages at each and the entirely fictional but on-the-nose bands.
The ‘Live’ portion is made up of these sets, the first-person camera tracing everything from pre-show jitters to the ultimate success or failure in front of a crowd of thousands. No wonder the codename for the game was Stage Fright. There has never been a game that puts you so viscerally in the moment - it’s almost a shame that you tend to concentrate on the note highway. It makes for a brilliant spectator game too; while stripping back to guitars and vocals, anyone else in the room can look for easter eggs in the footage. There’s also something decidedly unnerving to have a crowd of real people turn on you when you start to mess up - a thousand disappointed faces worse than any broken note streak.
Spanning genres, each setlist has an appropriate fictional band, groupies and stage decoration befitting of their style - be it girl-pop, metal or smug twats. The tracklist itself feels biased towards newer material but the fact that even the inclusion of Skrillex is amplified by the inventive choreography speaks volumes of Guitar Hero Live’s ballsy approach. Of course, most players will be focused on the scrolling fretboard, trying to work their fingers around the new button layout. Gone are the five colours, replaced by six buttons, three-on-three, creating approximations of chords, barre chords and the like. It’s brilliant - veterans get something new to learn while it differentiates itself from Rock Band. Hero Power is still there, activated by a button or tilt, as is the whammy bar. It’s a sturdy guitar too although the neck could do with a bit more length. Nonetheless, Guitar Hero has reset the bar of entry, reducing everyone down to the same level as they learn from the start.
The other half of the game comes in the form of GHTV. Imagine MTV for the Youtube generation - a constantly playing set of music videos, overlaid with note charts and all entirely free. Two separate channels, complete with scheduled programming, loop videos allowing you to jump in at any point. Playing a song earns you Hero Coins, the in-game currency you can then spend to unlock plays - the ability to play any song from the repertoire at your leisure. Scores are uploaded to a leaderboard keeping the competitive spirit alive. It’s fantastic - a dip-in-dip-out service that genuinely feels generous. Of course, there are microtransactions - real money can be used to buy party passes that unlock all content for a set amount of time - but they never feel needed or intrusive.
Each level you gain unlocks new Hero powers and decorative items to purchase (again, using in-game currency predominantly) and throughout all of the game there’s the option for a vocalist or second guitarist to join in the fun. By stripping back to the core of the series - the guitar - Freestyle gave themselves the freedom to experiment and it’s really paid off. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in its approach. Rock Band stuck to the same tried and tested route - a worthy approach that was consumer friendly but somewhat staid. Guitar Hero has thrown out most of its history - the faux flames, the bullshit ‘rock’ cliches - and landed on something that is fresh, vibrant and pretty damn revolutionary. Of course, it’s also damn expensive but that’s the attitude to take - risk everything to forge your own path. In veering off in the opposite direction to Harmonix, Freestyle may have given the music genre the kiss of life, avoiding any potential rhythm-game conflict. This is a game that can sit proudly and (say it quietly) above Rock Band - a visceral, totally different experience that just works a treat. What started as an odd curio has surprised us all.