Guitar Hero Live Review
Guitar Hero Live Box Art
System: PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360
Dev: FreeStyle Games
Pub: Activision
Release: October 20, 2015
Players: Variable depending on instruments and mode
Screen Resolution: 480p-1080i Lyrics
Video Killed the Radio Star
by Becky Cunningham

The plastic instrument genre is dead, long live the plastic instrument genre.

But wait! After a few years' rest, Activision and Harmonix have decided to plug the amps back in and get rockin' again. While Rock Band is doing so with an incremental improvement to its traditional formula, Activision's franchise is trying something a little different with Guitar Hero Live. It's an experiment worth doing, and I found at least half of it to be more than worthwhile.

The first thing anybody who buys Guitar Hero Live will discover is that the new guitar has two rows of three buttons each. This was done so that novice players can focus only on their three strongest fingers, while veteran players have access to an increased difficulty level that feels a bit more like playing a real guitar. As somebody whose fake instrument experience so far has been almost exclusively on vocals and drums, I really appreciated the three-button “casual” option while getting my feet wet on guitar.

That process of starting up with the new Guitar Hero was a bit rocky, however. After being quickly railroaded through a tutorial, I was stuffed instantly into a song on regular difficulty, with notes flying by far too fast for a rank amateur like myself. It took me a lot of effort to stumble through the game's menus and figure out how to play the game the way I wanted to play it. The complete lack of any manual (either physical or digital) didn't help. I'm still not entirely sure how to consistently get local co-op working – we just end up pressing a lot of on and off buttons until the second guitar finally registers properly. The interface itself can be difficult to get used to, as well, requiring the strum bar to flip through menus and keys on the top row of the guitar to accept or cancel items. A d-pad on the guitar would have been much appreciated.

Once you've got things figured out and working, it's time to stop by Guitar Hero Live, the game's offline campaign mode. Instead of designing your own band and watching it play onstage, this game plays from a first-person perspective as you and a variety of pre-set bands entertain audiences as music festivals. You're usually facing the crowd, which is meant to simulate the experience of being onstage – though as a former college band lead singer, I can tell you that the real experience of being on stage is seeing BRIGHT LIGHTS and a vague impression of the faces in the first three rows. Anyway, both the crowd and your bandmates react to your performance, either excitedly rocking out or booing and attempting to get you back with the program while you're failing.

It's kind of neat at first, but starts to wear thin after a while. There aren't a ton of songs included, and none are planned for addition after launch. Without the ability to customize your bands, there's less of a sense of progression and ownership over the campaign. In addition, though they're dressed differently and hold different signs depending on the music genre, the crowds are pretty same-y after a while. It's always a bunch of well-scrubbed youth who are paying complete and total attention to the performance. Like the perfect view from on stage, it's good for the idea that you're the center of the show, but it hardly reflects the music festival experience. No sex, no drugs, no moshing, no random nudity - not even any ugly people? I don't know what music festivals these are supposed to be, but they sure don't look like any of the ones I've ever been to. This is rock 'n' roll, people, not the Mickey Mouse Club.

Guitar Hero Live Screenshot

The real champion of Guitar Hero Live is the Guitar Hero TV mode, which is basically a game in itself. It's a 24-hour live music video station that you can play and sing along to. You're matched up with other players who are around the same rank as you, and compete for a high score on the current song. It's a simple idea, but a really great one. I know that many of you in your twenties don't even remember watching music videos on TV, so it's cool to see that concept returning to a new generation while including a whole new interactive element.

Guitar Hero Live Screenshot

There are currently two channels on Guitar Hero TV, so you can switch back and forth if you find a song you don't like. More channels are planned post-release, increasing the different genre mixes for you to pick between (I'm hoping for a channel with a classic rock focus, myself). The music selection is curated rather than random, too, so you don't have to worry about the RNG deciding it's time for Green Day on endless repeat. The current song selection comes from over 200 tracks, and 70 more are slated for addition soon after launch. In fact, this format is infinitely expandable and cross-generational, since the songs are stored on the servers instead of on your console.

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