I look out at the crowd and see hundreds of my biggest fans screaming, singing, and dancing along as I riff to their favorite songs. But then those screams of adoration suddenly turn to boos as my fingers stumble along the frets. As I flounder, I can read the lips of the horde ahead of me, and they’re not saying kind things. I take a moment to gather myself and dive back into my song, nailing notes at a newfound level of precision that has me back in the good graces of the crowd.
That, in a nutshell, is Guitar Hero Live. The new take on the series puts the player in the bodies of several different guitarists in bands playing at a music festival. But unlike the third-person camera views from past Guitar Hero titles, Live lets the player see through the eyes of the guitarist as he or she looks out into the live-action crowd.
None of this is animated. The game plays out like reality would. The fans begin to boo when I miss notes, bandmates cast dirty looks, and the sounds emanating from the guitar are simply awful. But, when I begin nailing notes, the fans realize how in love they truly are, and they go back to singing along and dancing.
This new perspective is a mixed bag. On one hand, it often makes Guitar Hero Live feel authentic and real. I feel like I’m really in a band, and I feel like a boss. On the other hand, it’s also kind of cheesy. Some of the crowd reactions are so over baked, and the acting is so amateur and cheesy.
This makes up the offline version of Guitar Hero Live; the player can roll through setlists just like bands at a festival would. The other option is GHTV, which I like to describe as a playable Pandora. Two stations are available at a time, and they cycle every half hour. Each station is different. One focuses on metal, another on chart-toppers, another on indies, and so on. When I tune in, I jump right into whatever the rest of the world is seeing, and I just play along. I rack up points that I can trade in for on-demand plays. For every few songs I stream, I usually gain enough coins to pick a song of my choosing from the 200+ songs on the GHTV tracklist.
I really like this approach for the most part; it allows for a new sort of discovery and replayability that other games in the genre have never had. This forces me to try out new music, and it’s a fun way to broaden my musical horizons. On the other hand, I dislike that I cannot purchase any of these GHTV songs like DLC. I can buy coins for instant plays, but there is no way to simply buy the song to play whenever.
In GHTV, the music videos for the songs play in the background while the track plays. During breaks in the track where there’s no guitar, the note highway and HUD even disappear so I can sit back for a moment and just enjoy the video. This all makes for a fun visual that is much more visually appealing than watching some generic band play like in the old games. This allows me to really connect with my favorite songs and learn something new with the ones I don’t know.
Game modes aside, the gameplay itself is phenomenal. The new Guitar Hero controller has two rows of three frets, so my fingers don’t move around as much as they did before, but the movements I do make feel more natural. I don’t play guitar, though my ukulele-playing roommate agrees that the hand positioning feels natural.
The new setup does take some getting used to. “Back in the day,” I used to be able to play most Rock Band songs on Expert (the hardest of four difficulties), but when I picked up Guitar Hero Live’s new controller, I had to start on Casual (the second out of five difficulties). After about an hour, I worked my way up to Regular, and the next day I made it to Advanced. Expert is sheer madness that I am only able to handle on certain songs.
The new guitar layout means that although I have a basic understanding of how it works, it still presents a new learning curve that takes plenty of getting used to. Since the colors of the frets have been replaced by black and white, distinguishing what’s what in the heat of a difficult song is an issue for me. For some reason, I find it difficult to tell if I’m looking at second white fret + third black fret or second black fret + third white fret. If that doesn’t make much sense, it’s because it’s hard to explain and easier to see.
I have to condition my brain in a new way that is finally starting to click after a few days. I love this added challenge, and it makes Guitar Hero Live feel more authentic, yet not so irritating that I will give up. The difficulties are perfect and allows me to always play at a level that challenges me but doesn’t turn me away.
As for the controller itself, I have mixed feelings. I love the fret layout, but other parts of the guitar aren’t great. The position of the whammy bar makes it all to easy to hit the dedicated GHTV button. Yes, there is a button that, with a couple clicks, can take me from anywhere in the game right to the GHTV menu. I like that. But hitting the whammy bar almost always causes me to hit the GHTV button which pauses my game and asks if I really want to lose all progress and go to the menu.
The Hero Power button unleashes a special move, of which there are several in the game. I like its placement, parallel to the strum bar. Even though I had issues with its placement throwing me off beat at first, I have since learned how to tilt my hand as to tap it while I strum. There are also two small pause buttons on either side of the Hero Power button, and these are incredibly useful.
Possibly my favorite aspect of the controller is that I can navigate the Xbox menu and even power it off with the guitar. I have no need to deal with my standard controller while I jam, and for some reason, that efficiency makes me happier than it probably should.
The tracklist is expansive and eclectic. Some will cry foul that there’s too much pop and dubstep (yes, Bangarang is in the game) and not enough classic rock. Though that may be true, given their GHTV model, I think that a more diverse setlist is in order. Furthermore, it exemplifies the world of music we live in that, like the name of the game, is very much alive.
Guitar Hero Live is the most difficult, addicting, diverse, immersive, and enjoyable music/guitar/band game I have ever played. Even so, it has its shortcomings in the fact that I can’t buy the GHTV tracks I enjoy and since the crowds seem really cheesy at times. Nonetheless, Guitar Hero Live is a solid game with a great new concept that I heartily recommend.