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Guitar Hero Live beat Rock Band 4 by ditching everything we knew about rhythm games

The beauty of the new

Guitar Hero Live should be terrible.

Its plastic guitar isn't compatible with any of the past games, nor are any of your existing guitars or DLC songs compatible with Guitar Hero Live. There are no drums. The five-buttons-down-the-neck approach has been replaced with two rows of three buttons, and the interface has been changed to reflect this. The background for each song is live-action video, which makes no sense for a game released in 2015.

You can read our review for the rest of the changes and updates. This is a strange game, and I'm shocked that Activision was brave enough to upset every possible apple cart in pursuit of something new and interesting.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised the game came out so different, while playing so well. Guitar Hero Live was developed by FreeStyleGames, the team that gave us the wildly underappreciated DJ Hero series.

In those games you spun plastic turntables to mix two famous songs together and, while the series never seemed to reach the commercial success of Guitar Hero, it featured an amazing soundtrack and was great fun once you understood how it worked. It may not have replicated the DJ experience with even the limited "realism" of the Guitar Hero series, but it created a fictional version of spinning that felt satisfying to the player, even if they didn't quite understand what they were emulating.

While Rock Band 4 played it completely safe by paring down an experience we already knew and expected, Guitar Hero Live did literally everything it could to rethink the existing formula. Getting used to the new guitar takes time, but you'll find that sense of flow after figuring out the game's odd version of chords and learning how to move around the neck of the new controller.

Which is why I find myself returning to Guitar Hero Live night after night, even though I expected to prefer Rock Band 4. Rock Band 4 is very good at what it does, but I've played hundreds of hours of what it does.

Rock Band 4 feels like Rock Band, which is perfectly fine if that's what you want. But I go to rhythm games to relax and find that blissful state of competence that comes when your fingers move before your brain tells them to. Rock Band 4 delivers that, but the sense of satisfaction is dwindling. It's like chewing a piece of gum that has already been through your mouth.

Guitar Hero Live makes me feel like I'm learning a new skill, even if that skill is as "simple" as playing a fake plastic musical instrument. My fingers have to try harder to find the right positions, and nailing a solo as your fingers move both left and right while also going up and down feels great.

That changed mechanic, mixed with the rapturous live-action video where all of the very attractive band members give you bedroom eyes when you do well, creates an environment that feels not just fun but positive, as if you're sharing these moments with a band that is also having the time of their lives.

It's an illusion, of course — the video only adjusts if you're doing well or poorly — but you can tell that the actors had fun shooting these scenes, and it makes all the difference. The videos are cheesy and slightly goofy, but then again, so is most rock music. Using live action for the backgrounds should have been a disaster, but instead it's endearing and sincere.

Why worry about customizing your character? Guitar Hero Live makes you the character, and presents the game as if you're playing a concert in first-person view. Why worry about animating the backgrounds when you can just present a sort of PG-rated version of a big festival crowd? When real people start singing along to a song you're playing, it's a rush, and reading the signs the crowd holds up when you're doing well is oddly life-affirming. One, for example, just says, "I feel proud of you."


Guitar Hero Live should be terrible, but instead it's an inviting, warm-hearted look at playing guitar. It feels completely distinct from the rhythm games that came before it, and that's a huge advantage when you're trying to kickstart a genre that many had long considered dead.

The familiar has its own advantages, but Guitar Hero decided to forge its own path. It was the right decision.

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