After a few year hiatus, Guitar Hero is back. However, unlike Rock Band 4, the series comes back completely retooled, instrument and all.
This reinvention gives Guitar Hero Live a definitely edge this year, and makes it one of the best entries in the series.
When you open the box, the first big change you’ll notice is the guitar controller. Instead of the five colored buttons, there’re now two rows of three buttons: a row of black and a row of white. For longtime players, it’ll take a bit to get used to the new, smaller format when compared to the previous format. However, newcomers pick up a bit quicker since it’s only three buttons to learn now.
Even with this curve, veterans will find themselves quickly getting back into harder difficulties. In the earlier songs I jumped up to advanced pretty quickly, where there are some basic chord combinations with white and black buttons, paired with empty strums, runs of notes and more. Compared to the colored buttons, this feels a lot closer to a more authentic experience just because you move your hand between both sides of the neck.
Honestly, when on harder difficulties, the mix of vertical cords (holding white and black buttons at the same time), and the split cords will give you a good challenge early on. In fact, I think this is a lot of the reason FreeStyleGames focused just on the guitar and not other instruments. Except for singing, there’s no bass, drums or any other instruments. The vocals are nice if you have someone extra that wants to join in, but GHL is definitely a game focused on one and two-player guitar playing.
In the game, there’s also the change of the modes featured, Guitar Hero Live and GHTV. The first mode no longer uses cartoony avatars to bob around in the background. Instead, there’s live footage of lip-synching bands, complete with a live crowd, to let you see firsthand how you’re doing.
Each set is three songs long, and starts with some backstage banter before coming face to face with the crowd. As you play, you’ll see one of two videos play. Good play is rewarded with a cheering crowd and a band proud to have you as their lead guitarist. However, poor play shows the crowd becoming hostile toward you and the band ready to throw you to the wolves.
While it may not seem groundbreaking, it’s really a much better way to show a good and bad performance than by a sliding scale and star rating. If you start playing worse in a song, the video blurs and gives you the bad video, and blurs back when you start doing better again.
Overall, there are 42 songs, mostly from the past 20 years or so, to take on either solo in the Live mode or against a second player in the free play mode. There are some odd choices, such as “Berzerk” from Eminem or “Bangarang” from Skrillex, but overall there’ll be some songs that everyone likes.
Now, let’s talk about the reason you won’t have to buy DLC songs here: GHTV mode. The mode acts like MTV, playing random songs one after another, with themes that change every half hour. As you play, you can compare your score against group of other people to see who gets the highest score. At the end, you earn tokens and level up to take on special challenges.
In this mode, the only microtransactions available are the ability to purchase tokens to play individual songs. You don’t purchase the songs itself, but can use tokens for repeat plays, or even buy a 24 hour pass to play unlimited songs, great for when you have a group over.
The only other thing tokens are used for is to buy new note highways and player cards. However, considering you earn tokes as you play through random songs on GHTV, there’s really no reason to buy more tokens, unless you have a group of friends that REALLY want to play one song over and over.
This mode is a blast to play. You can find new songs and artists you may enjoy, and see exactly how you stack up compared to other gamers. Plus, with songs periodically switching during the life of Guitar Hero, there will be plenty of chances to try even more songs.
Overall, Guitar Hero Live is a big surprise. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought Activision could come up with any new ideas for the series. Now, I’m genuinely interested to see what will happen with the modes in the game, and how the series can keep evolving with these new features.