Guitar Hero Live is not the Guitar Hero you remember. Gone are the fictional fantasy worlds and over-the-top shredders on stage. Now we have a band rocking an actual stadium with screaming fans hanging on every note or the song’s actual music video playing like it was on '90s-era MTV. A new controller layout makes playing the GH guitar feel more realistic than ever. I got the chance to try it out at a private pre-E3 event, and what I thought would be an ordinary music game experience really impressed me.

The on-screen experience doesn’t really differ much from previous games outside of the background visuals. The note highway still rises from the bottom of the screen, and the notes still travel from down the stream. There are some new visual cues, with certain notes, my favorite being a gold note signifying an upcoming note streak milestone. Of course, every time I saw it I instantly felt the pressure and miss the note, but more adept players will appreciate knowing that their 300-note streaks are just a few clicks away.

The song selection is some of the most varied in Guitar Hero history, focusing less on songs that only have great guitar riffs and branching out into genres it’s never explored before. There’s hard rock, heavy metal, pop, and even a little bit of country represented in its ever growing library, and we’re still pretty far away from launch and the “hundreds of songs” the game promises to include. I’m excited to see just how weird the game gets, as more music is always good music in the Guitar Hero universe.

FreeStyle Games

The meat and potatoes of the experience though is the new controller setup, which will absolutely take some time to learn. The buttons feel the same as before, just split in half, and it’s the movement between the two halves that messed me up the most. Notes will signal which half to be on in two ways: color (black for the top half and white for the bottom half) and direction (the black notes point up and the white notes point down). Even with these visual helpers, there’s going to be some bumps in the road for new players.

I probably didn’t help myself out by choosing Pantera’s “Cowboys from Hell” as my demo song, as that track understandably comes with a ton of notes to play, but I felt like it would give me the best opportunity to learn the new GH way. The speed of the track made figuring out the new controller quickly a necessity, and about halfway through the song I was finally rolling. Guitar Hero Live's creative director Jamie Jackson spoke about how in previous Guitar Hero games, most people topped out on Medium difficulty, which really only required three fingers to enjoy. That mentality comes through here in the new layout, with the focus on only needing three fingers (though I did still reflexively throw a pinky in a few times). It requires a new level of dexterity in my fingers that challenged me, but once I got it down it felt completely natural, like I was playing individual strings instead of laying my finger on whole frets.

I used to think that I was a total rock star playing the Guitar Hero franchise, focused on the performance more than the guitar playing, but with Guitar Hero Live I now feel like I’m playing a real guitar, using my entire hand to play notes instead of a few fingers. I’m wondering if this new ability would translate to a real guitar at some point, but that might be a little ambitious. For now all I can say for sure is Guitar Hero Live’s new direction, especially in its redesigned controller, is rocking hard.

Guitar Hero Live launches Oct. 20 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U.