Guitar Hero Live Review (PlayStation 4)
For a time, the rhythm game genre was flush with games vying for your attention. While it could be argued there was a bit of oversaturation in the marketplace, the disappearance of these peripheral-based games happened so suddenly, it was as if they never existed at all. Then a funny thing happened. Somewhere out in the ether, the idea for a resurgence took hold. It was as if someone shouted from the rooftops, "Let there be (virtual) rock!" Freestyle Games answered the call for Activision, and the Guitar Hero franchise was never the same. In fact, it was better than it ever was.
It all starts with Guitar Hero Live's new controller. Eschewing the familiar five buttons/five frets configuration that's been the predominant format for the last ten years, Freestyle Games opted for a change. Now, the controller uses six buttons across three frets, with two buttons set atop one another. The buttons now act a little less like, well, buttons, and more like multiple guitar strings being pressed at once. The idea is that with the layout organized as it is, the controller gives the impression you're making a chord on a real guitar instead of proving your dexterity with all your digits. While these are still just inputs and not actual strings on a physical guitar, the focus on three frets does make you feel like much more of an actual player than before.
And don't think that having things confined to just three frets and fingers makes Guitar Hero Live dumbed down in any sense. It's just as challenging, if not more, than previous entries thanks to the clever note highways and how Freestyle uses the smaller button configuration for maximum effect. In addition to striking single notes across the six buttons, there will be times when you've got to hold down a combination during a song. These start out simply enough by tasking you with holding two buttons on a single fret for a note, but as you increase the difficulty, you'll have to hit buttons across all three to form a chord. It's appropriately challenging for novices, and even takes some practice for real-life axe-wielders. Ultimately though, it's incredibly satisfying when you can pull it off. Being good at rhythm game guitar in the past was one thing; being good at this asks you to forget almost everything you knew and start again.
Where Guitar Hero Live also deviates from the well-worn path is in how the songs are presented. For years, we played along with virtual avatars, shredding copious amounts of notes alongside caricatures of rock legends and wanna-be icons. Now, Guitar Hero Live puts you right in the middle of the on-stage action in new full-motion video captured concerts. You are no longer just the puppet master, you are the vessel through which a band's guitar sound lives. Honestly, the trailers and videos released don't do the "campaign" justice. It's not until you're out there on the stage, living in the moment with the rest of the band that Guitar Hero Live's fresh approach really sinks in.
Of course, it's also a little silly at times. You can't ever actually fail, but you can perform miserably. Every show starts with the crowd at a moderate level of excitement; they're glad to be seeing you in concert but it's up to you to make this a night they'll remember, one way or another. The same goes for your bandmates. Whether it's singer, drummer, bass player, sousaphone guy or roadies, everyone is reacting to how you're playing. Sometimes that can lead to arguments on stage and lots of people shaking their heads at how horrible you are. Other times your bass player won't stop staring you dead in the face because you're in such a fantastic groove. Those moments can be a bit awkward, but they make you feel like you're a part of something.
The illusion can break a bit when transitioning through the highs and lows of a performance. Whenever you upgrade or downgrade your ability by hitting notes or not, the screen flashes quickly to move the crowd and your band from mood to mood. There will be times when the crowd is chucking garbage at you one second, and then thanks to a few well-timed strums on the controller, their mood will instantly switch to mere mild disdain. It's most humorous when the signs in the crowd (do people do that anywhere but wrestling shows now?) change from confirmations of how hard you rock to declarations of how much you suck with the blink of an eye. Still, it's a fun way to put you in the mood, and more often than not, we found ourselves empowered by positive reactions from all the actors playing a role.
Outside of the Guitar Hero Live experience, which is home to just over 40 songs, is Guitar Hero TV. If you've been wondering where the MTV of yesteryear went, it's right here in Guitar Hero TV. Ditching the FMV sequences, GHTV throws note highways directly over the actual, official music videos for bands of all kinds. It's all right there, streaming constantly every day for you to jump in at any time and play. There are two channels with programming blocks that offer 30- or 60-minute blocks centered around pop music or heavy metal (and whatever else), and they work rather seamlessly.
On the side, you'll see a little leaderboard with everyone else currently playing that song on that difficulty, and you can see how well you're performing in real time. Finishing higher earns you more experience and coins, which in turn allow you to level up for more Hero Powers, purchase stylized note highways or emblems, and get you Plays to try out tracks on their own independent of the streaming service. Hero Powers online have proven so far to be relatively meaningless. Unlike the core game where hitting Hero Power activates a multiplier, the online versions do things like clear the note highway for a short duration, and increase or decrease the difficulty for a short time. They're not all bad, but there's little reason to use them when in the moment.
Plays on the other hand are a bit more important if you want to do more than be limited by what's available on the streaming channels at any given time. There is not any actual DLC to purchase for Guitar Hero Live. Instead you use Plays to "rent" a song for one playthrough. You can purchase an all-day pass with real money, but Plays are earned frequently enough that you'll never really have to do that. It's sure to ruffle some feathers that you'll never own any of the extra content available through Guitar Hero TV, but for the format and how easy it is continue along with the free-to-play aspects, we didn't mind too much. Since the songs will constantly rotate, the music will stay fresh without you ever having to worry about plunking down cash to try the newest of the new.
The same holds true for GHTV's Premium content, which are limited access events to earn you more virtual goodies. You can pay outright to access them immediately, but by playing any of the qualifier songs either streaming or with Plays (and getting three stars minimum), you can play these challenges for free. While the qualifiers will put you against other humans online, the Premium matches drop you in against virtual competitors with names that should be familiar to longtime Guitar Hero fans.
This method ensures a fair scale for earning the goods, and allows you to enjoy the special, focused content without having to concern yourself too much with competition. If you happen to not place high enough, you just have to play the three qualifiers again to get back in. To be sure, Guitar Hero TV wants you to spend money. There will be people who will. It doesn't affect the in-game action at all, and is completely optional. You'll always be able to access everything in the game at your leisure without paying a cent more than the cost of the game and the guitar to get you started.
There are some multiplayer aspects, including the ability to add a second guitarist and perform vocals if you desire. Both players will always play the lead guitar (on different difficulties if you desire), and you can play with two guitars in both the offline and online portions. There doesn't appear to be a way to get more than one network profile active at once though. It's not a deal breaker, but some might be turned off by the inability to earn trophies or achievements of their own when playing together. Singing is totally optional, and adds very little to the overall package. It's there if you want to use it and have a USB microphone, but it's not very technical, and merely appears to add another way for a third person to join in on the action.
Guitar Hero Live brings Activision's former fan-favorite franchise back to the fold in new and impressive ways. Handing over the reigns to the DJ Hero team was probably the best decision the publisher made in the rhythm game department since agreeing to publish the very first Guitar Hero a decade ago. Support for Guitar Hero TV is key to the longevity of this re-imagining of the brand, but as it stands now, Guitar Hero Live is the exact kind of revitalization the series needed to be relevant again.
This review was completed with a retail copy of Guitar Hero Live provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.