Guitar Hero Live
PS4, Xbox One
Just ten years after the series’ inception, its title finally fits. What’s changed? Your perspective, shifting from some spectral boom arm loitering just offstage to standing on the boards and looking out onto a crowd of thousands. Initially at least, this also convincingly instils a little of the stage fright that must come with facing down so many expectant bodies. In the absence of a full ensemble of plastic-instrument-wielding friends, it’s the next closest thing to feeling like you’re playing in a real band, but Guitar Hero Live’s jaw-droppingly clever film work has been built in service of placing you, and you alone, centre stage.
Play well and the crowd – along with your digital bandmates – will prove an encouraging influence. Fumble too many notes thanks to your sweaty, nervous hands and you’ll incite the disapproval of a baying, projectile-hurling crowd. Even full water bottles don’t sting as keenly as your drummer refusing to make eye contact and shaking his head in abject disappointment, though. The transition between these extremes is masked with a quick, though hardly subtle, camera blur, which can occasionally throw up some jarring changes of heart from those around you. It’s easy to win the fans back if lost – especially if you activate Hero Power, Live’s take on Star Power, either by tilting the guitar or reaching for an awkwardly placed button. That tendency to flip-flop, however, means you’ll face some extremely fickle crowds while acclimatising to the new setup.
There’s variance in bands’ performances, too, although great care has gone into ensuring each member correctly mimes every note, beat and word of the song you’re playing. The effect is a stunning upgrade over the fuzzier interpretations of the polygonal marionettes that fronted earlier Guitar Hero entries, but depending on where you fall in the spectrum of regular gig attendee to regular X-Factor viewer, the cast’s practised expertise is somewhat undermined by an excess of earnest enthusiasm, which makes it all feel a little sanitised. Not all of the performers are a natural fit for the songs they belt out either, and you’ll regularly be exposed to the kind of cringe-inducing backstage pep talks we imagine some teenage pop singers happily submit to before graduating to a career of drug-fuelled Instagram nudity. But while events and performances might not always ring true, this drama-school take on touring life is certainly no more cheesy than somebody leaping around their living room with a plastic guitar stung around their neck.
Not that you’ll have much time to analyse the cast’s acting chops while the music’s playing. Despite the new firstperson viewpoint, you spend most of your time with your attention once again riveted on the familiar note highway at the centre of the screen as it spools all manner of unfamiliar combinations towards you. All those new icons and formations are a result of Guitar Hero Live’s second big innovation: a new guitar that arranges six buttons into two rows of three. The new design ensures that even in the moments when you’re not convinced you’re at a real gig, you’ll feel like you’re playing something akin to a real guitar. The six-button arrangement allows developer FreeStyle a remarkable amount of variation, making barre chords, power chords, hammer-ons and pull-offs feel pleasingly natural to guitarists, and solos particularly satisfying. The cost of this advance is that Guitar Hero vets will have to relearn their craft, but it also makes for a more natural jumping-off point for anyone inspired to pick up a real six-string after playing the game. At its best, Guitar Hero Live’s redesigned peripheral will make you feel connected to the music in a way that a linear five-button setup can’t, and makes for a more meaningful difficulty curve as you progress from simple strumming to just the lower three buttons and then onto the game’s raft of new shapes. It’s hard to go back after trying it, but the loud clack of the strum bar will make some players wish they could splice in the new Rock Band guitar’s quieter guts. This more complex design has provided FreeStyle with a fresh challenge when marking up songs, too, and the initial selection of tracks feels inconsistent – at least on the standard difficulty – when it comes to the level of challenge on offer. Songs such as The Joy Formidable’s Whirring or Bruno Mars’ Lazy present repetitive, easily aced patterns, while others chuck in daunting difficulty spikes halfway through that feel more like Advanced sequences. Still others feel disconnected from the music entirely – playing Bob Dylan’s Thunder On The Mountain or Disturbed’s Down With The Sickness on Regular difficulty feels like you’re fighting the music to follow a loosely related onscreen transcription. Upping the difficulty to Advanced in these cases reconnects your fingers and the music, but the leap in complexity requires no small amount of additional talent. More worryingly, we quite often found the guitar line we were meant to be following was too low in the mix, occasionally even inaudible. Asking a badtempered sound engineer to dial up your output in the monitor really has no part in the rock god fantasy.
Thankfully, among the initial offering of more than 200 songs, there are many more examples that work than don’t. Yes, the fact the likes of the aforementioned Bruno Mars and One Direction feature among more credible guitar icons will prove divisive, but it’s clear evidence of Live’s broad target demographic. The absence of flames and barbed wire from the logo is no accident either – FreeStyle wants everybody to be able to find something that will appeal to them, whether that’s honouring Joe Satriani’s requirement that every bar have at least three times as many notes as are
Live’s jawdroppingly clever film work has been built in service of placing you, and you alone, centre stage
strictly speaking necessary, or simply strumming along to a Passenger anthem. We’re still not convinced that Skrillex’s inclusion makes any sense at all, however.
But any misgivings with the playlist are quickly quashed by Guitar Hero’s most brilliant addition: GHTV, a streaming service that feels like the offspring of ’90s music television. GHTV offers you a choice of genrethemed channels (pop and metal at launch, with more to follow) that play music videos 24 hours a day, its library thematically subdivided into 30- or 60-minute ‘programmes’. Only occasionally does GHTV take a break from the onslaught of fresh music to throw in an arty, charismatic ident. Every song you play pits your performance against a group of other players who have been judged by the matchmaking algorithms to be of similar ability, and at the end you’ll be presented with a leaderboard. There are also global leaderboards to look at if you want to compare your finger work to the world’s best. While FreeStyle places its filmed gigs front and centre, it’s the constantly shifting GHTV that will provide Guitar Hero Live’s real longevity, the developer promising a continuously updated library that will shape itself around the whims of players, and dispenses with the notion of paid-for DLC tracks.
In their place, the game allows you to spend Play Tokens on firing up your favourite tracks on demand, rather than wait for them to come up in rotation on whichever channel you’re tuned in to. You earn Tokens every time you level up, and you can buy them in packs using the coins earned from playing songs or with real money. They’re handed out at such a generous rate, however, that in over 20 hours, we’ve yet to come up short or find ourselves needing to spend any type of currency on them, real or otherwise. In the initial rush of working your way through the starter library, levelling up as you go, you’ll likely amass more Play Tokens than you know what to do with. For particularly committed players, and those having friends round, there’s also the option of the Party Pass, which gives you access to every song in the GHTV catalogue for 24 hours for £3.99. It’s a paywall that feels less generous than the rest of the package, but if you’re happy to just play along to FreeStyle’s channel programming, you can do so at no extra cost.
As well as the streaming channels, there are Premium Shows, which give you access to newly added content early, or are tied to real-world concerts – the first of these being three Avenged Sevenfold songs from their 2014 Download set. You can unlock them either by spending Live’s premium currency, Hero Cash, or by getting a three-star rating or higher on three specific songs. Ranking high in a Premium Show’s leaderboard will net you all manner of multipliers that will be applied to a number of your subsequent performances.
FreeStyle’s greatest achievement is that it’s made the rhythm-action genre feel fresh again, creating a game that’s as raw and exciting as the series’ debut. Like a stage diver, Guitar Hero Live commits wholly to the unknown in the hope there will still be an audience to support it after the leap, and that unguarded bravery results in a few bum notes. But you’ll barely notice them in the heat of the moment, and the game consistently reminds you why you first picked up a plastic guitar all those years ago.
Configurations such as the above require you to place a finger on each row, in this case feeling like a reversed power chord. Matching the various note arrangements quickly is a greater challenge than with the former setup