It’s hard to think of a video game series with as such a sharp rise and quick decline as Guitar Hero. Originally created by Harmonix (who later went on to start the Rock Band series) and later developed by Neversoft, the series peaked in popularity with its third entry and popularized the concept of plastic instrument-based rhythm games. Unfortunately, publisher Activision put out so many various entries in the series that audiences gradually lost more and more interest in it, with the final main title, 2010’s Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, receiving lukewarm reviews and sales results bad enough to put Guitar Hero on hiatus for quite a while.
This year is something of a rebirth for American music games, as not only has Rock Band 4 been released, but now we also have Guitar Hero Live. This time, development has been handled by FreeStyleGames, who previously made the excellent DJ Hero spinoff titles, and rather than stick to tried and true gameplay and aesthetics, they’ve made Live a complete reboot in more ways than one. Whether or not the changes made here are for the better will likely differ between fans, but personally, after sinking some time into it, the final result is something of a mixed bag quality-wise.
One of the most noticeable changes is presentation. While all previous Guitar Hero games displayed polygonal bands playing behind the highway showing what notes to push, a totally different approach has been utilized for both of the game’s main modes. The appropriately titled Live campaign mode uses live-action footage to showcase bands and audience from the first-person view of a guitarist, while the streaming GHTV service plays each song’s original music video.
The way the campaign looks is certainly novel, but not much more than that. There’s obviously no longer any way to select from preset or custom characters, but I could forgive that if we stuck with each band a little longer. Instead, each of the 13 sets of songs contains a different group, and switching between them so constantly ruins any chance of getting attached to them. Either way, you’ll probably be too focused on the notes to be interested in the footage, though the game switching to a more negative band and audience if you play too badly can be kind of funny.
The overall aesthetic of the game’s HUD also looks far too bland and drab compared to its more colorful predecessors. I’m sure FreeStyleGames would argue they were going for something more streamlined, but I definitely prefer the more colorful and stylized approach Harmonix and Neversoft took.
It’s also worth noting that the guitar controller has been heavily revamped for Live, especially since the emphasis has been switched to guitar-only gameplay with optional vocals in multiplayer (no drums or bass here). Instead of the traditional row of five colored buttons to represent frets, we now have two vertically stacked rows with three buttons each. Apparently, this was done to better imitate the multiple strings on a real guitar, but it ends up feeling more restrictive than intended, and a lot more clunky when you’re required to press on both rows with a single finger at certain points.
Also, now that there are only two colors for onscreen notes (black for buttons on the upper row and white for the lower), it may also take some time for series veterans to get used to both the controls and display. Still, the core fun of emulating iconic guitar licks remains, and it’s still a rush to activate your score-doubling Star Power and hear the crowd roar in approval. However, this aspect only shines the light further on what is a mixed bag of a soundtrack. There are still certainly some quality tracks to be found, but it still pales to earlier Guitar Hero games’ track lists, with less of an emphasis on rock music overall leading to bizarre inclusions like Eminem and Skrillex.
With the Live mode being as flawed as it is, one might think the game as a whole should be written off. However, the second mode, GHTV, is actually a clever take on DLC tracks, if not a completely successful one. At its core, the mode has been described in promotional material as an interactive music video network. Within two selectable channels (with more on the way via patches), you can go through a consistently playing pre-selected list of songs as long as you want and for free. In addition, a leaderboard is shown on the left that automatically ranks you and 9 other players as the song progresses, and a higher ranking means more XP for a leveling-up mechanic and additional coins that can be spent to purchase cosmetic goodies like alternate note highways and online player cards.
GHTV’s concept is arguably more interesting than the actual campaign mode, especially since the levelling up mechanic encourages extended play by unlocking various power-ups and extra options over time. The only big downside to the streaming service is that you’re inevitably going to have to play through songs you’d never touch otherwise to get to what you consider the good stuff.
Another neat addition to GHTV are the weekly premium events. These consist of preset lists of songs, and often ones that aren’t available via the main channels just yet. You can also unlock exclusive goodies by doing well in them, such as a player card graphic I received that doesn’t seem to be available via the in-game store.
What many will view as the service’s biggest downside is that, unlike previous Guitar Hero games, there’s no true way to pay for a song once and have free access to it forever. A catalog of every song on the service is available to browse through, but playing one of them still requires an in-game currency that can only be earned through grinding on the channels or micro-transactions. I don’t view this as a tremendous loss since I typically played most DLC songs once per instrument in the older games, but for those who wish to revisit specific tracks, this will probably come off as an unfortunate change.
To sum it all up, Guitar Hero Live definitely isn’t a bad attempt at bringing back a once-huge series, but there are more nitpicks I had with the final product than I hoped for. It will be interesting to see how GHTV grows with more songs and features apparently planned to be patched in over time, but the Live campaign has a fair amount of issues in how it plays out, and I think that many players will dislike the new approach to DLC access. I still had a good amount of fun with the game and recommend former fans to give it a try, but at the moment, this isn’t a perfectly executed return to form.
This review is based on the Xbox One version, which was provided to us.
All of Guitar Hero Live's numerous changes result in a mixed bag of a revival, but one that rhythm game fans should still try out.