Also On: PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U
Online: Leaderboards, GHTV
Five years ago we apparently ran the video game music genre into the ground. Activision and Harmonix both think that we’ve waited long enough with the return of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. It feels about right for me, as I can truly say I was missing music games and have really been looking forward to both this year. Guitar Hero Live, unlike Rock Band 4 (our review here), changes up the formula a bit, both by the way we play and how we access music. Those are changes for the good, and they have had me standing in front of a TV with a plastic guitar late into the night all over again.
The first major change you can’t help but notice when you open the box is the new guitar controller. Gone are the colorful set of five buttons in a row. Now we have two rows of three buttons on top of each other, white for the bottom row, and black for the top row. This was a brilliant idea. Now the developers had the opportunity to create an approximation of real guitar chord shapes. It’s still no substitute for what you can achieve on a real guitar, but it feels more natural to me. Plus there are more ways to combine the buttons and interweave the top and bottom keys making for an insanely challenging expert mode. The learning curve is steep, but thankfully I had some preview time at the LA event, so I was at least prepared for advanced mode when I opened up the package from Activision.
Guitar Hero Live brings you straight into a tutorial, and then totes you right out on stage where you play a set in the new Live mode. Think of the Live mode as the old setlists or career modes. This is where you play the songs packaged on the disc to unlock them for Quickplay. The twist here is that all the cartoony characters are gone, and instead you are playing in first person view on stage of a music festival. Yes, with the live video, it feels a little bit like a Sega CD game. The view is fine, the direction is questionable. Like on stage playing in front of thousands of people, am I really going to look over to the sound mixing dude for a thumbs up? Let’s be honest though, are we really watching the video in the background while playing the song, or are we focusing on the note track?
The whole music festival idea behind Live was pulled off pretty well. It’s certainly more interesting than just playing a list of songs in a row. Live is set up as two festivals, one running in the US and one in the UK. There is a schedule of acts showing the time and stage where the groups will be performing. They gave the fake bands a whole background story, revealed through festival photographs and notes, that is revealed as you beat songs and complete certain challenges. I actually enjoyed going through and reading the extra info in between sets. There is an announcer who narrates what you’ve done and what acts are coming up. Plus there is a fake Twitter feed in the bottom corner where fans comment on the groups and the festival in general. I thought it was a nice touch. While you are playing live on stage, the crowd can get really into the song and start singing along (of course they sneer and boo if you suck). This is both cool and crummy at the same time. I loved it the first time I played the song on stage, but you can’t turn it off. Even when you go back into Quickplay, it plays the same video with the same crowd effect, making it unable to hear the song cleanly.
Unfortunately, on Xbox One, there is a nasty audio/video bug in Live mode. When lots of effects go off on the screen, like star power or when a 100-hit streak explodes on the screen, the framerate drops significantly, which slows down and distorts the audio and video in the game. It happens just about once every song, and maybe more subtly every time you activate star power but less noticeable (audio distortion). It is wildly noticeable how clean looking and sounding GHTV is by comparison, as I’ve never seen the bug in that mode. We have not tested this on any of the other consoles.
Live mode is okay, but the real reason to own Guitar Hero Live isn’t for the songs on the disc, it’s for GHTV. GHTV is a 24-hour Guitar Hero music television network. That may not sound like much, but it is truly an amazing piece of work. At launch there are over 200 songs available on GHTV, spanning two music channels. The current schedule is to add another channel and around 70 more songs by the end of the year.
From the GHTV menu you can view the two available channels and their lineup for the next few hours, just like a TV guide. Channel one is focused on rock while channel two is more geared towards pop and indie music. On the rock channel you’ll see a schedule something like this: 9:00-9:30 Rock Anthems — 9:30-10:30 Metal Hour — 10:30-11:00 Rock Goes Big. That gives you a general idea of what songs from the 200+ list may be coming up. These songs are streamed with the actual music video playing the background behind the note track, and everyone playing that channel of GHTV is playing the same song together at the same time. The presentation is done so well too. Every 15 minutes you get a short break where it previews and features select songs/videos, and when the channel is changing between shows, they each have their own intro movie clip.
The TV channels alone are very addicting. There is something fun about not knowing what song is coming on next, like a Spotify or Pandora radio station. I’m a big fan of the current GHTV song list, much more so than the on-disc songs. I often find myself enjoying music I hadn’t heard before, and I have a very hard time turning the game off when the next song coming up is one I love. “Dammit, the Deftones are on! Ok, one more song. Oh and now Chevelle is next?? Ok, one more song.” Then there’s the competition of facing off against other players around your level. As you are playing a song on GHTV, so are many other people, and you get a live leaderboard showing your place against them.
Another huge addition to GHTV is premium shows. Premium shows are an ever changing reward system to the regular players of GHTV. To unlock a premium show, you must complete a set of challenges, such as finishing a set of specific songs at three stars or higher. Rewards can be things like access to music that isn’t in the GHTV rotation yet, live shows, and special note highways.
GHTV also has a player leveling system. You get experience points for each song you finish. Gaining levels gives you access to things like new player customization, the store, and a chance at premium shows. At level nine, players gain access to purchase permanent boosts, like having the multiplier bar go higher or fill faster. Player customization options are things like player cards and different note highway graphics. A lot of these extras cost coins after you unlock them.
Everything in GHTV can be had for free with enough time and skill, even playing a song on demand by using a play token. Every time you complete a song, you get coins as well as XP. On advanced, I am getting roughly 160 coins per song. To give you an idea on the economics, I bought a player card for 1200 coins, the boosts are 6000 coins, and a play token costs 600. So you get a free play of any song on demand about every fourth song you finish in GHTV. Of course, those who can’t wait for coins can purchase coins for real money, a freemium model. You can also pay real money to enter a premium show instead of completing the in-game challenges.
The chosen economics are a bit of a catch-22. You cannot outright purchase a song from the GHTV song list to play as often as you wish. Yes, you get a chance to play all the songs in the entire library for free. You even get to earn play tokens to play songs on demand a limited number of times. But what if you are playing to compete or want to stream yourself mastering every song in the game with all the crazy expert solos? Either prepare to play for a long time earning enough play tokens to run through a song multiple times or shell out a whole lot of money to fund your on demand plays (assuming you aren’t a prodigy that can sight read all the songs on expert).
Although Guitar Hero Live is not a true band game, every song has a vocal track and can be played by two guitarists. It’s a small consolation. Singing is exactly the same as in past games, hook up mic and follow the pitch. There are scores for singers but no leaderboards that I saw. There are no rhythm or bass tracks, so playing a song with two guitarists is just the same note track for each person. There is no true multiplayer online mode, but as I said, you are constantly competing against everyone else in GHTV.
The grade I’ve given this review will also shift to personal taste. I would raise it half a letter grade if the Live mode bug gets fixed. I might lower it if you weren’t going to put a considerable amount of time into GHTV, or if you are a hardcore player, you might consider dropping the grade due to the inability to purchase any single song outright in order to practice. The Guitar Hero franchise has resurrected itself. It is yet to be seen if it will stick like fighting games have after Street Fighter IV brought them back into fashion, but what we have here is definitely worth playing.