I get it, instrument based rhythm games have gone the way of the dodo. They’re so 2007, from a time when DLC still something of a dirty word, nothing was always online, and people were drowning in their plastic peripherals.
It came as some surprise then, that 2016 was set to revive both dormant giants of the let’s all get drunk and wail on plastic instruments genre. Rock Band 4 was coming, with all questions directed towards how its next gen appearance would handle old DLC, and old instruments. The answer was simple, but the outcome was not. It was a hellish mess that in many ways, Harmonix are still recovering from.
While the rebooted Guitar Hero flew quietly under the radar of almost everyone. Guitar Hero Live was going back to the series’ roots. While Harmonix doubled down on the convoluted, full band appeal of the Rock Band franchise, FreeStyleGames (an Activision studio) decided to learn from the lessons of the myriad of middling guitar hero games, and instead, find out what made the whole thing rock in the first place.
They did, and nobody really cared. Guitar Hero Live splits the experience in two, scaling it all back to just guitars, with vocals as an option, if you want to wail while you whammy. There’s Live mode, and GHTV. The first mode is a single player only experience, where you and your axe take to the stage with a range of live action bands, in different sets, across different venues, festivals, and genres. Yes, that’s right, live action, as in you see real people on stage with you, and a real crowd cheering you, and booing you depending on your performance. It’s the core Guitar Hero experience taken to the tenth degree, and it works better than I can ever tell you in words.
It just feels good. It’s thrilling to see each new venue and band, the song selection covers just about every genre, and the look and feel of each band fits with the varying degrees of music. Songs by Katy Perry and Avril Lavinge are bundled into an all female’s band set, the folk rock of Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters and Men is condensed into a weird woodland gig in the UK, with beards and banjos abound. It feels like a musical odyssey rather than a rock dominated playlist with some pop shoehorned in.
Of course, if you’re in anyway familiar with Guitar Hero and Rock Band games of yore, you’ll know that a live band just makes those DLC problems all the more pronounced. The price of £2 or £3 per song was always justified by the fact that the tune needed to be animated to the in game crowd, and notes needed to be written for every difficulty. With Rock Band, and Band Hero, it got worse. Notes for vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and even the occasional keyboard. DLC was slow to roll out and pricy too. That’s where GHTV comes in.
GHTV is Guitar Hero with monetisation, but rather than being insidious, it’s the perfect example of how to do it right. You don’t buy songs, you buy plays of them, but that’s not the complete picture. GHTV has two channels of music streaming 24/7, and you can jump in and play random songs completely for free. Every song on rotation is yours to play, if you’re willing to wait for it. Rather than have a live action band or an animated one, the background just shows the song’s music video.
GHTV adds a few more modern gaming conventions to the mix, too. As you play songs, you rank up and earn coins. The coins can be used to buy song plays, new power ups, player cards, fret designs, and even permanent upgrades - such as multipliers. When you’re playing GHTV, along the left side of the screen, you’ll see what other players are playing the song, and more importantly, how well you’re doing against them. Landing in the top 3 will net you bonus coins, experience, and progress towards achievements - and a feeling of smug superiority.
Here’s where the multiplayer comes in, too. A second player can seamlessly jump in by picking up their axe and pressing a button. They’ll join in the middle of the song without disrupting your experience. You can play different difficulty levels, and you can’t fail a song. So a novice and an expert can jam together with no loss for either party. The only criticism I have here is that player two can’t collect coins, level up, or buy their own upgrades, but their power-ups and permanent boosts do match those of player one, so there’ s no major loss there. The game is generous with coins and free plays, meaning realistically, you never need to actually spend a penny on micro transactions. You can buy a party pack that gives you unlimited access for twenty four hours, but for casual play, you don’t need to drop a dime.
Plus, the wealth of music available on GHTV is quite insane. Everything from the peppiest of pop, through to classic metal and rock. The Gaslight Anthem, AFI, Four Year Strong, Pearl Jam, Jack White, Fun, Panic at The Disco, Paramore, Rage Against The Machine… I could go on and on. There’s a majority eclectic library, with nary a dud in the bunch.
Guitar Hero Live also reimagines how the guitar works. The peripheral that comes boxed with it is a sturdy, mature looking piece of kit, with no cheap stickers or garish coloured buttons to be seen. The notes are handled different too. Rather than five primary coloured buttons, you instead get two columns of three, with white and black buttons corresponding to the fret colours. Notes can be a combination of either across the three rows of the note track.
There’s also notes that involve pressing both buttons on the same fret at the same time, or also involve open strumming with no fret held. These usually give a satisfyingly crunchy riff in each song that is a sheer joy to play. The frantic finger picking of Guitar Hero Live feels a world away from the stretching between notes that the other games often devolved into on higher difficulties. It takes a few songs of getting used to, but once it clicks, it feels completely natural, and for any who’s ever picked up a real guitar and played a little bit, it feels much more like the real deal. In higher difficulties, some of the button presses correspond very closely to real notes.
So, it’s a crime that Guitar Hero Live went relatively unnoticed by the wider world, despite rave reviews from many in the gaming press. I picked it up at a bargain price in a Black Friday Sale, and I’d happily go back and slap down my money for the original sticker cost after seeing how much of a joy it is to behold. Sales-wise, the game performed poorly, and many of the studio behind it were laid off by Activision. It’s a darn shame that we might not ever see a Guitar Hero Live 2, because I think this is the best of the series by a wide margin.