Guitar Hero Live review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Activision
Developer FreeStyleGames
Release Date Oct 20, 2015

Guitar Hero Live is the most surprising game I've played all year — surprising both in how much it diverges from its own history, and in just how much I loved those divergences.

You can toss out almost everything you know about peripheral-based rhythm games, save for the basics: Guitar Hero Live still has you holding buttons and strumming in step with popular music. But everything about Guitar Hero Live — its mechanics, its presentation, its plans for expansion — walks a different path than its predecessors. It is not the Guitar Hero you know, but you've already played the Guitar Hero you know; I guarantee you have not played anything like Guitar Hero Live.

I guarantee you have not played anything like Guitar Hero Live

All of Guitar Hero Live's changes hinge upon its most audacious adjustment: The neck of its guitar contains six fret buttons aligned in two adjacent rows, rather than five buttons in a straight line. These inputs are represented in-game by either black or white notes on three tracks, indicating which row's input you're holding down.

The implications of this one simple change are endless. The six-button guitar simulates real guitar playing much, much better than its five-button counterpart, with more advanced songs actually throwing rudimentary chord shapes at you. It also makes for a way more interesting difficulty curve, with lower settings sticking to just one row, and the highest setting representing the most challenging fake guitar-playing I've ever seen in a game.

The best thing about the six-button guitar is that I was absolutely terrible at it at first, which is an experience I haven't had playing plastic guitars since the original Guitar Hero launched a decade ago. Steadily getting better at that game as I scaled its difficulty settings was hugely rewarding; Guitar Hero Live has a whole new hill to climb, and climbing it is a delight.

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it feels really well-made

The guitar itself is one of the better plastic axes I've held. The different rows of buttons are clearly textured, which makes learning how to move between them a bit easier. It's got a nice weight to it, with a satisfyingly clicky strum bar that leaves no doubt to whether you've strummed. The tilt sensor is occasionally a bit overeager to deploy your Hero Power, but otherwise, it feels really well-made.

The guitar doesn't look like the rhythm controllers you're used to, but even more substantial changes can be found in Guitar Hero Live's two modes: Live and TV.

Live is the more traditional of the two components, although that's not exactly a fitting descriptor. You fill the role of guitarist across a handful of fictional bands playing at two fictional music festivals, all the while playing non-fictional songs. The whole campaign is presented in honest-to-God full-motion video, all filmed from the perspective of an on-stage guitarist, whose view pans nervously between their roaring audience and calm, cool, collected bandmates. Both parties react differently to the quality of your playing, with the video feed sparkle-wiping between adoring and jeering crowds, depending on how well you're shredding.

If that sounds cheese ball, you're right, it is. It's a seven-layer cheese ball, with cheese-flavored crackers for dipping. But it's a much more charming treatment than any virtual audience or band has ever provided.

First off, there's a self-awareness to the whole thing that keeps it from being even remotely cringe-worthy. Each band is almost a cartoonish simulacrum of the real-life bands they're imitating. This pseudo-self-parody peaks with the pop-punk outfit Yearbook Ghosts, whose members literally skateboard onto the stage. Audience members hold up giant signs (which I'm pretty sure they don't let you bring to music festivals), which offer nonsensical proclamations like, "Soooooo excited right now!!!" It's as preposterous as it is endearing, and it's infinitely preposterous.

the fake bands have a lot of character

The love FreeStyleGames felt for these fictional bands is evident in the detail that went into this presentation. Strong performances unlock bios for each member of the band, allowing you to learn more about the drummer for Vivid Screamr, or how the lead singer of The Jephson Hangout got their start.

Those fake bands have a lot of character, but the need to match them with real counterparts limits the playlist somewhat. Nearly all of the 42 songs in Live were released in the 2000s — save for a single three-song set, none of the tracks could really be considered "classics." It makes sense in the context of the game, as seeing those fictional bands singing Queen and Rolling Stones tunes would require a hefty suspension of disbelief. It makes for an insubstantial setlist, but given the game's sole focus on guitars, you're at least guaranteed they'll have some pretty fun riffs.

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Live's biggest disappointment is its tracklist, but that's where the TV half of the game comes in.

Guitar Hero TV gives you access to two channels (with a third channel set to go online after launch), which are constantly playing music in genre-specific blocks. At any time, you can hop into those channels, either through the menu or the GHTV button actually built into the guitar, and start playing along with the song that's currently playing from the hundreds available in the catalog. All the while you're competing against other matchmade players' high scores, and earning experience and gold, allowing you to level up and unlock new Hero Powers and aesthetic customization options.

Those songs are offered up in a much different presentation than the first-person FMV of Live, but they're not lacking in polish. Between the music videos that back each song and the slick interstitials between every few tracks that briefly showcase new additions, the presentation has a classic MTV vibe that really suits it.

Here's the hump you have to get over to enjoy Guitar Hero TV: You can't actually purchase and own new songs through the platform. It's not a game where you'll eagerly await new content drops, spend your cash on your favorite songs and add them permanently to your library.

If you want to play a song of your choosing from the catalog, you have to expend a "Play" to do so. It's one of a few currencies in Guitar Hero TV, which you'll unlock either through leveling up, through spending the coins you'll earn after each performance or with real-life money. There's also an option to spend real-life cash on a Party Pass, which lets you play whatever songs you want in the full roster for 24 hours.

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On one hand, this completely pulls the rug out from under hardcore players who try to master songs on their hardest difficulties. Guitar Hero Live is pretty liberal with its distribution of Plays, dishing them out in gracious quantities every few levels or so — but it likely won't be enough if you're hoping to repeatedly practice some tracks to perfection.

On the other, I've played more songs for free through Guitar Hero TV than I've ever bought in a rhythm game before. You're losing some curation, for sure, but there's so much room for discovery just by channel surfing. Hopping onto the service takes seconds; you'll play new songs you haven't heard before and constantly move forward through Guitar Hero TV's various progression hooks. The whole system is just hugely digestible.

Wrap Up:

Guitar Hero Live takes the series in a bold new direction

It's hard for me to mask my excitement about Guitar Hero Live, because in my opinion, there's nothing more exciting than a developer who's capable of outsmarting an entire genre's fanbase. Guitar Hero Live isn't just well-executed; it's clever and innovative in ways that no one other than FreeStyleGames ever imagined. My fears that Guitar Hero Live would be wringing blood out of the franchise's stone were unfounded; at some point, FreeStyleGames found itself a newer, better stone altogether.

Guitar Hero Live was reviewed using a retail PS4 band kit provided by Activision. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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