By Will Bonaddio
Are you ready to rock!? After a 5 year hiatus, Guitar Hero is back with some new tricks up its fret board to reclaim the rhythm game crown.
If you’ve seen the trailer or watched any demos you’ll know the Guitar Hero Live's big point of difference from previous entries’ (and rival game Rock Band) is the departure from cartoon-like visuals and the introduction of live actors and green screens to bring sets to life via full motion video. The first time you fire the game up you’re handed a guitar by a roadie backstage and work with him to sync up his sound levels and your own TV’s audio/visual settings. It’s a cheesy, yet representative, introduction to the game’s presentation style and reminded me of those Mega CD FMV ‘classics’ from yesteryear. Once synced, you meet up with your stereotypically emo bandmates who already look pretty dated (I fear this games’ visuals won't age too well) and, after some psyching up and high fives, you walk onstage together. Seeing our drummer nod at me with encouragement from behind his kit before the camera shifted to look out at the vast arena’s cheering crowd for the first time genuinely gave me goosebumps and it really does feel like you’re there. Not only was the 3 song set reflective of the way my band looked, but covering Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark,” You Me At Six’s “Lived a Lie” and “The Kill” by 30 Seconds to Mars meant the gig had a cohesively anthemic feel. It was also really fun to play.
Anyone who’s ever played a guitar rhythm game will be very comfortable here. The brand new guitar peripheral includes 3 top (white) and 3 bottom (black) fret buttons which are trickier to master than I’d imagined, but despite not playing a plastic guitar for 3 years I was still getting 4 out of 5 ratings on Regular difficulty on my first play here. In the same way that playing the game hasn’t changed drastically, neither has the way you look at the game and what’s going on around the fretboard highway. That is: you don’t. For all the amazing crowd effects and gurning bandmates shown onscreen, your eyes rarely divert from the notes you need to play. It was only when I was a spectator that I could fully appreciate the intricate details of the show behind the stream of black and white notes hurtling towards me.
Rather than strapping a Go-Pro to an acting guitarist’s head, FreeStyle Games used robots from the car industry to record your onstage perspective, ensuring a good or bad performance (or often a bit of both) remains in sync with your song. If you start to miss notes and perform badly, the scene will shift to a more negative reaction from the crowd and bandmates, all while in exactly the same spot onstage. The transfer from positive to negative (and vice versa) is a little clumsy, with a coloured fade to a markedly different reaction which can quickly switch back if you start consistently hitting notes again. Seeing your lead singer shaking his head at you and mouth “What are you doing!?” brings your clumsiness to life far more than, say, a flashing red tinge and 'DANGER' appearing onscreen; however a more gradual change in reaction from a bouncing and screaming crowd to a bored-looking audience with their arms folded (and then back again) would have been more realistic.
While bandmates are happy to praise or reprimand you onstage, it’s a shame that you never really get to know them or the group's history before you play. Walking out onstage and seeing your bandmates give you a thumbs up or “Good luck!” style comment are your only real introduction, however once you’ve played all sets for the first time you’re given individual band bios which helps bring them to life more. It’s a shame this isn’t provided earlier, as some context to the band’s journey would help set the scene and get you more invested in your role within the group’s performance.
Out of the box, this is the strongest set of songs I’ve ever seen in a guitar rhythm game and, beyond the full motion video, the set list is really what sets Guitar Hero Live apart from Rock Band 4. In Career mode you’ll be playing a wide variety of genres via the likes of Royal Blood, Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys, blink-182, Green Day, The Who, Pearl Jam, The Killers, The Rolling Stones, Eminem and Skrillex(!?) straight from the disc, but it’s the Guitar Hero TV mode where the choice of songs becomes potentially infinite. Players can either tap along to music videos broadcast live in themed curated playlists such as “Metal Now” and “Indie Knockouts,” or use Play Tokens to select songs on demand. While it’s frustrating that you can never truly own the songs, Play Tokens are easy enough to earn so unless you’re throwing a Guitar Hero Live party it shouldn’t be too necessary to buy them as long as you’re playing regularly. The list of GHTV tracks was 200-strong on release day and leant heavily on early 2000 rock (Stacey’s Mom, Down with the Sickness, The Rock Show, My Own Worst Enemy, Chop Suey! and In Too Deep were all played on my first session), but with the list increasing and the "GHTV: Pop” playlist being broadcast as I type, the breadth of genres is likely to grow.
GHTV is the real jewel in Guitar Hero Live’s crown. There’s no doubt that Career mode’s footage showing you play along with a band’s set onstage makes a big impact on the first few plays, but creating your own playlists in GHTV offers longevity and is much more personal and fun. Linked to the Guitar Hero Live community, you can see how your performance compared with other players globally which is a great reason to keep coming back (I'm currently the 828th best player of One Direction's "Live While We're Young" which I fully intend to improve). You’re still likely to take in as much of the official music video playing behind the fret highway as you would the fake band (i.e. very little), but in the few seconds I can look away from which note to press I’d rather see Hayley from Paramore waving sparklers singing “Still Into You” at me than a cringe-inducing grin and nodding of the head from an actor pretending to play bass next to me live on stage.
Playing with a friend is where Guitar Hero Live really lets itself down. Multiplayer with 3 others joining in on vocals, bass and drums made 2010’s rhythm games the ultimate party, but even playing Guitar Hero Live with two guitars or a guitar and mic lacks any camaraderie. Both guitar players look at their own fret highway and what you do has no impact on your co-player’s game. I had no idea how my friend was doing until the end of song rating and it didn’t matter anyway. Different multiplayer modes to encourage helping or hindering your bandmate could have really brought a new element to the game, but instead you simply play your own one-player game while sharing the screen – making this one of the most antisocial multiplayer games I can remember playing.
There’s no doubt that the rhythm genre needed a break, it had reached saturation point and people simply weren’t buying tweaked versions and setlists of essentially the same game. Bringing performances to life with live action footage has given Guitar Hero Live the headlines, but it’s GHTV that shows they’ve listened to what people want from a rhythm game with an evolving playlist to keep that same game fresh. Guitar Hero Live may have a new guitar and introduced a black/white note system, but this is still the same rhythm game you’ve played before in a shiny new package. It’s enough to keep you coming back for more and is genuinely fun, but with a better multiplayer and slightly more polished presentation this could’ve been something really great.