Guitar Hero Live - Wii U Game Review

A New Controller and a Streaming Video Mode Slightly Refresh an Old Formula

Guitar Hero Live
An actor pretends he's really excited by your ability to pretend to play a plastic guitar. Activision

Pros: Constant song stream, cute first-person view.
Cons: A lack of guitar classics, no practice mode.

In Guitar Hero Live, everyone loves or hates me. When I’m hitting the notes, the audience screams and cheers, my bandmates nod and grin like idiots, and the roadies throw me the thumbs up. When I start missing notes, the audience boos and holds up signs saying “STOP,” my bandmates shake their fists, and lead singer apologizes to the crowd for my terrible playing.

One expects the audience to go home and tweet about my career-ending performance.

Developed by: FreeStyleGames
Published by: Activision
Genre: Rhythm
For ages: 13 and up
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: October 20, 2015


The Basics: A Guitar Game with a Couple of New Twists

For years, any review of a Guitar Hero game could begin with, “if you’ve played any game in the series, you know what to expect.” In many ways, this is still true. You have a plastic guitar controller and play along with a rock song, placing your fingers according to an onscreen indicator.

But the game puts its own stamp on the genre in a few ways.

The most obvious is a new guitar controller. Instead of the familiar five-colored buttons running up the fret board, the GHL guitar has two parallel rows of three buttons each. This allows for specific finger placement and bar chords that is arguably slightly more realistic than the old style.

It also creates a slightly higher learning curve, in part because you no longer have colors to let you know which fret you want. Instead, rows are indicated by white or black guitar picks, and you need to memorize the frets (not that hard, since there are only 3. None of this means the game is more difficult in the long run, but it is a bit more difficult at first.

In one way it’s easier but less realistic; your hand never has to slide up the fret board.

GHL has two main modes, a career mode called Live and the elaborate TV mode.

Live Mode: Play That Funky Music, White Boy (or Girl)

GHL uniquely gives you a live action, first person view of a rock show. You start back stage, walk past stage hands and handlers onto a stage where you are greeted by a screaming crowd. Your fellow musicians start playing as the indicator appears. Play well and the audience cheers, play poorly and they boo.

Traditionally band games will throw you out of song if you miss too many notes, but GHL always gives you the whole song – or a full mini-concert of three or four songs  - even if you miss every note.

Oddly you are not the same guitarist in every song. I know this because some bands are clearly all male, and one or two are all female. It’s as though you are the disembodied spirt of guitar possessing various lead guitarists.

While you may be male or female, you seem to always be white. Diversity was clearly not a high priority here.

Live Mode is cute but fairly short. This isn’t surprising since every single song had to be filmed in both a good version where you’re getting smiles and a bad version in which you’re getting grimaces.

TV Mode: Play Along with the Endless Video Stream

There are only forty-something songs in Live Mode, but there are a lot more songs in TV Mode, with a promise from the game’s developers (who previously developed the DJ Hero games) that that number will keep growing (they promise 70 new songs in the game’s first two months). These songs can be accessed in a variety of ways, but the simplest and most interesting is via channels.

At any time, you can choose from two streaming video playlists with some theme like heavy metal or pop from the 20-aughts. The songs play one after another, with time in between to rank you against other online players, and dispense experience points and coins (we’ll get to those soon).

There are also sometimes brief but annoying ads for other songs.

I like this system, because you don’t waste any time trying to decide what to play. You just play, and play, and play.

If you want to play a specific song, you can go through the song library and pick one. There are a lot of songs and a rather sparse filter system to find what you want. You can’t even set songs as favorites so you can find them again.

Songs are skewed heavily to recent years. An era filter doesn’t even mention the 50s, and the 60s filter gives you zero songs, while the 70s filters gives about four. The vast majority of the music is from this century. I wasn’t familiar with many of the songs, but the vast majority had solid guitar parts that were fun to play along with.

Once you’ve chosen a song you spend a play token to play it (one token lets you play the song a single time). Tokens are dispensed when scoring well on songs or by using the aforementioned coins to buy them. You can also pay hard cash to buy coins, which could be necessary if you want to work on a single song and don’t want to grind for coins.

There are also “Premium Shows” that offer a few songs not available in the library. These require some special actions to access, and since these songs are eventually be moved to the general library, you can ignore them if you’re not in a rush.

The transaction system  seems rather gimmicky. It’s easy to ignore the gimmicky transaction system, which can also be used to customize the game, if you’re content to just play along to the video feed, which I am as long as they keep adding new songs.

The Verdict: Solid, Though Not Mind Blowing

GHL brings some interesting new ideas to the musician-game genre, but it sacrifices some old ideas. Multiplayer only allows you and your friends to play identical guitar parts (though at different difficulty levels) rather than bass versus lead or rhythm. There are no drums or keyboards, although there is karaoke singing. The game feels shrunken compared to other games I’ve played like Beatles Rock Band or Rock Band 3.

Still, the endless play of curated playlists is a nice touch, career mode is fun in a silly way, and the new controller, while far from revolutionary, offers an interesting variation that freshens the formula. Also, I had none of the lag issues I encountered in the Wii Guitar Hero games.

Most importantly, the formula itself is fun. As with any game in the series, when you’re in the groove of a great song you feel like the world’s greatest musician. And when you’re surfing the joyous crowd - and yes, at one point in the game you do crowdsurf - you truly believe all those people are going to go home and tweet about how awesome you are.