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Guitar Hero Live Hands-On: A Rhythm Game’s Rebirth

Posted by Cat on June 20, 2015

guitar hero live thumbThe Guitar Hero you knew is dead and gone – and that’s a good thing. After a five year hiatus, the former rhythm game giant has emerged from its Odinsleep, completely reimagined. Guitar Hero Live slips the shackles of the series’ sordid past and much to our surprise has discovered new ways to rock the genre.

When Guitar Hero debuted in 2005, it was lightning in a bottle. The brain child of music game maestros Harmonix and controller developer RedOctane, Guitar Hero put a plastic guitar in players’ hands and started a living room revolution of rock star fantasies. Venerable game publisher Activision bought the brand and RedOctane early into the series’ success, and parted ways with Harmonix who continued to evolve the genre into something that better emulated playing actual music with Rock Band. Meanwhile, Activision pushed for the bottom line: churning out games as fast as possible. In 5 years, 25 Hero-branded titles came out across every conceivable platform – filling homes with plastic peripherals and burning out the market.

Guitar Hero Live shows a reflective and intelligent approach to the brand by considering its core audience: casual gamers looking for a unique rhythm experience. Unlike Rock Band, the Guitar Hero games weren’t interested in connecting gamers with the nuances of literally performing music, but the simple pleasure of beat matching buttons in a rock ‘n’ roll setting. This is a rhythm game built to be exclusively that. Plastic guitar in hand, you’re ready to shred.

guitar hero live controller

The reinvention of Guitar Hero lies directly in the guitar itself. It’s an all-new experience. Gone are the five colored buttons in a row down the guitar’s neck; replaced by six smaller buttons – three on top of three. When the notes come streaming at you like in the old days, they’re now either black guitar picks pointing up (the top row) or white picks pointing down (bottom). No more pinky stretching to master that dreaded orange button in expert mode. It’s “easy to pick up and hard to master” says Emilie Villeneuve of FreeStyleGames – the new developers of Guitar Hero. She’s right. The new system was immediately intuitive from a gaming standpoint. In fact, the only thing holding me back from diving right in was unlearning the hand movements from the old controller.

I came in skeptical, but I could feel right away what a difference the simpler controls made. The learning curve was minimal. FreeStyle has distilled Guitar Hero into it’s optimal form: a game of timing and reflexes set to your favorite songs. The rock star fantasy aspect of the game is in full swing as well, and in a truly unexpected format.

guitar hero live

The “Live” in Guitar Hero Live comes from its single player mode where you can play along with the game’s included tracks (74 and counting) from a first person perspective on stage across several venues, from clubs to festivals. Gone are the cartoon avatars, this is real life. FreeStyle filmed with live bands in front of live audiences – all reactive to the song you’re playing and how well you’re doing. It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll fever dream where you’re the star guitarist and have the power to either destroy a show or play a legendary set. Crowds will cheer or boo you, meanwhile, your band mates will either rock beside you, or if you’re flubbing notes, harass you. The drummer’s scathing “fuck you” death stare as I feebly plucked my way through “When You Were Young” is one of my favorite memories from this year’s E3.

The stage is just one mode of play. Not quite as impressive a gameplay experience, but equally original is GHTV. It’s a streaming music video station that you can interact with. On day one of the game’s release, GHTV will start airing a curated selection of over 200 classic music videos, with more regularly added to the rotation. You can just leave it on and have a temporary portal to the MTV of yore, or you can jump in at any time and start playing along, the gameplay superimposed over the video. Users can also play GHTV tracks at will, but for a virtual price of “plays”. Plays are an in-game currency you earn by playing the game. If you need a quick fix you can buy more for real money. You can also purchase permanent access to a song, but FreeStyle doesn’t anticipate many people doing either of these options. With that in place, traditional downloadable content of songs and track packs as seen in Rock Band and prior Guitar Hero titles are gone. In their stead is “premium content” such as exclusive performances from bands like Avenged Sevenfold that you can play along with. By all present accounts, the game is being made to be supported as a constantly growing standalone title. Buy Guitar Hero Live and you should be rocking for a good long while.

It’s easy to read that I wasn’t a fan of post-Harmonix Guitar Hero, but Guitar Hero Live quickly won me over. FreeStyle’s spin on the series turns over a new leaf creatively and conceptually. Provided that the powers that be at Activision don’t take any future success the game might have as an invite to once again bleed the genre dry, the return of Guitar Hero heralds in a new age where coexistence among music/ rhythm games is possible. If you’re looking for a gaming experience that’s indelibly tethered to the act of making music and collaborating with friends, then Rock Band 4 is more your speed. If you loved clicking away on a guitar controller and racking up points to fun rock visuals – Guitar Hero Live is the game for you.

The game drops this Rocktober 20th. Check out all our E3 coverage and join the discussion on the Nerdy Show Forums.

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About Cat

Cat is Executive Producer of The Nerdy Show Network as well as Lead Host of the titular Nerdy Show podcast and one of the site's founders. Her illustration, graphic design, and writing both journalistic and fictitious have appeared in various publications and public spaces.

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