Guitar Hero Live - Hands-On Preview

A New Guitar Peripheral and Vantage Point, Plus Many, Many Songs

Guitar Hero Live
Sure, they love you know, but hit a few wrong notes and see what happens. Activision

After a few years off, rock-star sims are back, with new Rock Band and Guitar Hero games coming in 2015. But while Rock Band 4 is only coming to the PS4 and XB1, Activision is casting a wider net with Guitar Hero Live that includes older consoles, cell phones, and the oft-ignored Wii U. So when I was offered a chance to demo the game in New York, I headed to midtown to take a look. The gameplay isn’t a whole lot different from what you may remember, but developers FreeStyleGames (of DJ Hero fame) have changed the presentation in interesting and significant ways.

The Guitar: A (Slightly) New Approach

The new Guitar Hero guitar peripheral is different (and incompatible) with previous game hardware. While the original guitar had five colored buttons for the first five frets, the new peripheral has two rows of buttons in the first three frets. The goal appears to be both to offer some new concepts like bar chords and to save players from having to use their pinky and move up and down the fret board. You’ll never have to look down to see if your fingers are lined up correctly.

Since multiple strings is more realistic, and not moving your hand or using your pinky is less realistic, it’s hard to say whether this will feel more or less like really playing guitar than in previous games. It will certainly feel less like doing so than in the far more elaborate system from Rock Band 3.

I played one song on the guitar; it was a confusing experience. In part this was simply because it was a new system, but it also had a lot to do with the absence of color.

In the old games there was a color-coded five-line indicator, but here you simply have to remember which part of GHL’s three-line indicator represents the top, middle, and bottom buttons. This is probably something one gets used to quickly, but it definitely creates a slightly higher learning curve.

While the most recent previous games in the series were full band games in which you could also sing and drum, GHL will be strictly for guitar.

The Presentation: First Person Performance and a Music Video Channel

The new guitar is an interesting tweak, but the biggest changes involve how the game is presented to the player.

First off, in the main single-player mode, you’ll no longer see a rock band playing behind the indicator. Instead, you have a first person view of a concert hall, which is not animated but involves actual actors. Play well and you will look out at a cheering crowd and see your bandmates smiling happily at you. Play poorly and the audience will jeer while the other musicians give you WTF looks. It’s pretty cute, although it appears somewhat binary – the audience either loves you or hates you; they never just sit there politely. However, there are apparently different crowds for different genres, so folk audiences will respond differently than metal audiences, although I didn’t see that for myself.

The game also offers its own video broadcast channel, GHTV (Guitar Hero TV). Music will simply be broadcast to everyone at the same time. This allows you to compete for the high score against others who are playing the song at the same time you are.

  Besides the main channel, there are special channels you can unlock by completing challenges. Unlike in the main mode, you won’t get a view of the audience; you’ll just watch a video while playing.

The Song List: Large and Growing

The notable thing about this old-school MTV-style broadcast is that new songs can be added continually, and that is exactly what the developers intend to do. This is not DLC or a subscription service; buy the game and you will keep getting new songs to play, although I have no idea how often they’ll be added.

The PR flack says the game will begin with more than a hundred games (so far songs have been announced from The Rolling Stones, Green Day, Carrie Underwood, Iggy Pop, Cypress Hill, and tons of undoubtedly-famous bands I’ve never heard), the most of any Guitar Hero game, and the list will just keep growing.

Unlocking: Customization and Optional Cash Payments

There are systems in place to unlock special broadcasts, custom indicators, and new songs, but unsurprisingly you can also pay cash for these things. There’s nothing you have to buy – everything can be unlocked in game – but I don’t know if the developers are making tough challenges that will force the less skilled to open their wallets or whether this is just a short cut for the lazy.

Overall, Guitar Hero Live looks promising. The guitar offers something a little new, the live audience is a cute touch, and the promise of an endless stream of songs could give the game far more longevity than previous entries. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to play that damn guitar when the game comes out this October 20.