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Guitar Hero Live Review

by William Schwartz

If you’re going to revive a series that was previously put to bed because of a lack of innovation and oversaturation in a short period of time, Guitar Hero Live is the way to do it.  Freestyle Games’ take on the popular rhythm series feels fresh and fun because of changes made to the formula.  Long gone are the cartoon characters and backdrops, in its place are live action gameplay and music videos housed in two distinct game modes. One puts you in a first person view of playing in an actual band and the second is an MTV-esque mode called Guitar Hero TV.  The five colored button system has also been done away with, in its place is a new six button system that has three white and black notes.  Guitar Hero Live feels both completely new yet entirely familiar.

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For fans of the series, the changes made to the guitar and note structure aren’t something that were necessarily being clamored for.  However, it does feel more intuitive than the single line of colored buttons that both Rock Band and previous Guitar Hero games used.  This new structure, which features three black buttons on the top and three white buttons on the bottom better emulate the feeling of actually playing an instrument.  Guitar Hero Live is a game that you’ll once again need to learn, and that’s always been part of the fun for the series in my book.  The regular tier difficulty is challenging even for veterans of the series, and the difficulty curve to achieving mastery on the advanced and expert levels is something that will really take some time for those that are up for the challenge.  The challenge to mastery doesn’t just end with figuring out how to incorporate that fifth button into the equation like it did with previous games, the new layout allows Freestyle Games to test your dexterity with a number of different note types that can really be rewarding to hit once the new system starts to gel.

The game is broken down into two distinct and new experiences.  The first of which is the Guitar Hero Live portion of the game. This uses live action and a first person camera to put players onstage at a concert event.  Do well and the crowd and your bandmates will react postively.  Do poorly, and they’ll throw trash at you.  There’s really no middle ground, the background will go fuzzy and the cheering crowd will grow violently against you.  It’s quite jarring and does well to let you know that you are doing horribly.  If you’re the type of person with stage fright, this is exactly the nightmare scenario that you’ve been avoiding your whole life.  The presentation and quality for these live events is pretty well done with actors playing their parts to envelope you in the experience.  Some of it can come off as cheesy at times, but everything is designed to sell you on the experience of being in the band.  For better or worse, Guitar Hero Live’s live component is an interesting direction for this single player experience, one that does a much better job of selling the illusion.  The roar of the crowds and the admiration of your bandmates, no Guitar Hero game has matched this type of immersion.  At launch, the live component to the game has a number of different bands and venues to complete, with set lists for each, matching the band’s genre.

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Guitar Hero TV is the second half of Guitar Hero Live and it ditches the live first person presentation for a music video backdrop.  Guitar Hero TV is by far the most controversial thing about this game, as it works on a system of “plays” that allow you to access the song catalog in full.  Though it also lets you free play through a series of playlists, but you can’t choose the songs you are playing.  If you want to play a specific song, you need to use a play.  Now, these plays are earned by playing the game and progressing through the game’s XP system.  Simply play songs and perform well and you’ll earn plays.  These plays come fast and furious during the opening levels, but as you continue to dig into Guitar Hero TV they start to trickle in.  You can easily burn through all of you plays for Guitar Hero TV and then are at the mercy of the playlist in this mode.  So what’s the solution?  Well, if you don’t feel like playing the game to earn these jukebox credits you can purchase “Hero Cash” to buy them.  Hero Cash is purchased for real world currency in the PlayStation or Xbox Store.  One way or another you are paying, and that’s either by using your time and efforts to play through the playlist of songs that you may or may not be interested in, or you are paying with your wallet.  It’s a very weird system, one that isn’t necessarily horrible, but then again, not having access to play a full catalog of titles that you paid full price for is somewhat offputting.  While it can be fun to play through the playlists from Freestyle Games, if you don’t want to do that your options are pretty limited to either paying for a 10-pack of plays or purchasing an unlimited plays pack that allows you access to the full song catalog for 24-hours.

The silver lining is that there is a pretty robust XP and unlocks system that’s tied to the GHTV mode that keeps it interesting and feeling less like a chore.  If you like the gameplay it doesn’t really feel all that egregious until you absolutely want to play a specific song and you don’t have the plays to do so.  Playing through GHTV also has you competing with others who are currently playing your playlist so there’s always an element of competition.  You’ll earn XP and unlockables as you make your way through each level, and you’ll also unlock Premium Shows, which showcase footage taken explicitly for Guitar Hero Live, and reveal new songs exclusive to these premium shows.  To unlock said “Premium” content, you just have to meet certain requirements, like a certain XP level or completing songs with a certain number of stars.

This is Guitar Hero Live

At the end of the day though, the backdrops for these rhythm games are just that.  The music and gameplay are the stars of the show.  Guitar Hero Live’s changes to the button structure make the game more enjoyable to play in my opinion, but despite having a pretty massive song catalog Guitar Hero Live feels like it tries to please too many musical tastes. While older Guitar Hero games focused acutely on songs that seemed like perfect fits for this type of game, Guitar Hero live sees the inclusion of weird entries like rap songs from Eminem, Dub Step from Skrillex, and pop hits from the likes of Avril Levigne and Rhianna.  Guitar Hero Live certainly features an eclectic mix of songs and mileage may vary if your musical tastes aren’t varied.  On the Guitar Live side of the game, where you can free play to your heart’s content, there are over 40 songs to choose from.  In Guitar Hero TV there is something like 200, which will likely increase going forward.  Regardless, both sides of the game feature a very diverse soundtrack and has room to expand with weekly updates to the game.

The Verdict

Freestyle Games has reinvented Guitar Hero with Guitar Hero Live and with this push into the future its taken some notes from the industry at large with its inclusion of microtransactions and a robust XP and leveling system.  The gameplay will still scratch that itch for something different and challenging with both the live action and music video game modes feeling like perfect fits for the genre. However, the plays system that seems to only exist to push players into “optional” purchases feels unnecessary and restricting.  That said, there is something really special here, perhaps even genre-defining.  Endless gameplay is to be had in Guitar Hero TV, and if that’s what you’re looking for you’re fingers will soon be begging for mercy.

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Guitar Hero Live

  • Available On: PS4,XB1,X360,PS3,Wii U, iOS
  • Published By: Activision
  • Developed By: Freestyle Games
  • Genre: Music/Rythm
  • US Release Date: October 20th, 2015
  • Reviewed On: PS4
  • Quote: "Guitar Hero Live is a bold step in a new direction for Rhythm games. While everyone might not take kindly to the restrictions put on players in Guitar Hero TV, there's a seemingly endless number of playlists and challenges to complete, with room to grow going forward."
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