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‘This is Guitar Hero Live’ Hands-on Gameplay & Impressions

by William Schwartz

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When I got rid of the plethora of plastic instruments in my house a few years back, I assumed that it would be for good — a door closed in my gaming history never to be opened again.  I figured it was a trend that had been extinguished due to over-saturation, a fad that had run its course.  I played all the Guitar Hero games though, mastering just about every track they threw at us over the course of six entries.  For me, Guitar Hero wasn’t necessarily the party game that it was for most people.  Sure, I played Guitar Hero in social settings, with friends, at parties… who didn’t.  But I liked to tackle its hardest challenges.  I liked the dexterity challenge of learning to play some of the face-melting tracks that those games featured. But you know what?  After six games in that short amount of time, with very little change to the formula, there really wasn’t much more to master.

I recently attended a preview event for Guitar Hero Live, and as a disclaimer to what you’re about to read, Activision flew us out on their dime and housed us for this event.  This wasn’t the first time I saw the game though.  Guitar Hero Live was at E3, I played it there briefly. I wasn’t entirely impressed in the ten minutes I got to spend with it.  It was a game that seemed very confusing, very different from its predecessors, with more moving pieces in terms of game modes.  Long gone were the cartoonish characters like Judy Nails and Johnny Napalm, replaced with a live-action experience that puts you in a first-person perspective of performing in a band, in front of crowds that react to your performance in real time.  I was introduced to this weird Guitar Hero TV system as well, that played music videos in the background, working on a system of “plays” that seemed to be built specifically for micro-transactions.  It just didn’t come together for me, it just didn’t feel like Guitar Hero.  Then again, it was ten minutes.

This is Guitar Hero Live

After spending about three hours with the game recently, I’m still somewhat conflicted.  I’m glad that Freestyle Games, the new developers in charge of the series, have changed up the formula.  I think that they’ve made very meaningful changes to the gameplay.   These changes make Guitar Hero Live feel unlike previous Guitar Hero games, and that’s a good thing.  I don’t think we need more of the old Guitar Hero, at least not in terms of gameplay.  These changes start with a controller that has been completely redesigned.  It features six buttons, two rows of three that are color coded in black and white.  This layout makes the gameplay feel more like a real guitar when you start ramping up the difficulty because of the complex combinations that are thrown at you.  There are just more ways that the developers can challenge you, and Guitar Hero Live will be a new challenge for even the most experienced Guitar Hero players.  I considered myself pretty proficient in the old games, but the old five-button layout feels archaic now that I’ve had a chance to sink my teeth into the new system.  I spent a lot of time playing the old Guitar Hero games on every skill level, and fell flat on my face when trying the advanced stuff in this new game.

The old Guitar Hero games had this learning curve too.  Everybody remembers when it finally started clicking for them.. (maybe), you were incorporating that orange button, playing more difficult songs on higher difficulty levels.  Guitar Hero Live feels like the opportunity to have that learning experience all over again. It’s kind of refreshing that it’s not just the same thing with a new skin.  The core systems are still there in terms of playing notes on the highway, but it’s a completely different animal and something that takes a little while to wrap your head around with the new button layouts.  Live is rewarding, challenging, and possibly more intuitive than the old Guitar Hero games, giving you an incredible sense of accomplishment when it all starts clicking.  Coupling this with the first person perspective, and reactive crowds, it starts to make sense.  Change is hard, and Guitar Hero Live changes the way you have to think about playing songs, but in a good way.

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The ‘Live’ side of Guitar Hero Live is an interesting divergence for the series.  Depending on how highly you held those cartoon characters from the old games, you may or may not like this aspect.  It’s incredibly well done though, taking footage from concerts and putting you onstage in different settings — From small venues to massive festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers cheering you on, or booing you if you perform poorly.  At the end of the day though, while you’re playing the game it’s kind of hard to see it all anyway.  There’s are some interesting cuts in the camera work that give you a chance to see what’s going on around you when there are breaks in the guitar play, and the crowd definitely gives you audio feedback.  There’s also going to be footage from different concerts, and new footage added to the game from different concert events.  Avenged Sevenfold’s lead singer was on hand to reveal that footage from a festival they performed in would be included in the game, an image of which you can see above.

I like Guitar Hero Live, the new challenge is something I’m looking forward to taking on. I also like the live concert aspect, but as I said before, I am a little bit conflicted.  A lot of that conflict comes from the music line-up in the game.  Where previous Guitar Hero games had some of the all-time best Classic Rock and Metal tracks, Guitar Hero Live feels likes it’s going for a different vibe than previous games in the series, offering a more modern, festival-type line-up with many bands or acts that you might not have heard of. Some don’t really feel like they would fit in any of the previous games in the series.  There are going to be plenty of songs to play, and we had access to quite a few good ones, but it’s unclear why some of the classic fan-favorite tracks from the previous games are nowhere to be found.  Maybe they just don’t fit into that music festival vibe.

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To be fair, we didn’t play the final version of the game and there are more songs to be announced ahead of launch.  So this very well may change, and in this era of DLC there will most certainly be tracks added to the game post-release, although no plans of this nature were revealed to us.  I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression, Guitar Hero Live is certainly not full of songs you’ve never heard of, it’s just that Free Bird isn’t in it.  I didn’t see any Dragonforce, Raining Blood, or Psychobilly Freakout.  There were some tracks I saw on the list that I just thought I’d never play, or that I’d never heard of, or just bands and artists that I wouldn’t have traditionally expected to see in a Guitar Hero game.  There were plenty that I had.  Red Hot Chili Peppers, Avenged Sevenfold, Pantera, The Black Keys, Pearl Jam, there’s a very wide net cast with Guitar Hero Live that extends into a number of different genres.  Everybody’s musical taste is different, if you want to see what songs are in Guitar Hero Live, just head to this list that we’ve been updating and you may or may not agree with me.

There’s a lot more to Guitar Hero Live than I had time to explore in the three hours.  I was really focused on the mechanics of the instrument gameplay and whether that worked for me as fan of the series.  It definitely did, but there’s a lot more here to dig into.  Vocals have been added to the game, which lets those who like to sing along join in on the fun.  Vocalists are given their own lyrics highway at the top of the screen and any USB microphone will work for that.  I can’t really speak to how good that aspect of the game is as I didn’t try it out.

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The other half, and maybe more robust side of Guitar Hero Live is the Guitar Hero TV mode.  It’s a new spin on a music video network.  A place where you can play your favorite songs, but instead of the live venues, you play to the backdrop of a music video.  I got to see a number of these different videos, and this really does work well.  Here, you can compete locally with friends or challenge others online, and Freestyle Games says that this will serve as a place where new music can be discovered as the game updates over time.  GHTV also features a pretty extensive progression system that allows you to earn in-game currency that can be spent on a variety of content.  New note highways, new premium content like concert footages, player cards, and other items.  Again, we did not get a chance to see how well tuned this system is, but it looks promising.  Especially considering we were told that everything in the game can be earned without spending a dime.   Something that we weren’t quite sure was the case when it was first announced.

These three hours with Guitar Hero Live flew by, and frankly I wanted more time with the game.  I guess that’s a pretty good sign considering where I was mentally on the series before playing it again.  I just didn’t want more of the same, and that’s not what Guitar Hero Live is, thankfully.  Obviously the game isn’t done yet and this isn’t a review, but I’ve already started thinking about where I’ll have to stash this new plastic instrument when GH Live releases on October 20th.

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