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'Guitar Hero Live:' Our first impressions

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Guitar Hero is back, but not in the way you remember it. It has shed the rebellious iconography of its youth, instead adopting mature, cool mannerisms—careful not to veer into Dad Rock, but evocative of The Man nonetheless. Funny thing, though: The shift just might work.

By the time you read this, Activision and Freestyle Games have taken the stage at the The Best Buy Theater in New York City to kick off Guitar Hero‘s comeback tour. But in a hotel room one week prior to that, EW was one of several outlets invited to get a close-up first look  at the franchise’s big revival.

Until not very long ago, the notion of a new Guitar Hero seemed a bit outrageous. The music game boom that caused the franchise to skyrocket in the mid-2000s declined just as sharply in the late aughts, when an aggressive release schedule and fierce competition from Rock Band quickly burned players out. The 2010s, now halfway over, have looked back at the plastic instruments crowding the dark corners of their basement and declared them relics of a gaming fad—one that, like Dance Dance Revolution before it, will live on only in the memories of its fans and the occasional Buzzfeed listicle.

Then Harmonix declared that 2015 would be the year Rock Band returned, even though it had technically been only two years since the day the music died. Naturally, this led to speculation that Guitar Hero would be next to follow in the footsteps of many ’90s bands in the 21st century by embarking upon a comeback tour. We don’t know much about the revived Rock Band—though what we’ve seen so far seems to suggest more of the same, a game that won’t render all those songs and plastic instruments you purchased useless.

Guitar Hero, however, seems to be going for something very different.

Sitting with me in the hotel room where Guitar Hero is about to be demoed is a small squadron of people representing the various parties responsible for bringing Guitar Hero back. (I’m trying very hard to be polite to them despite the giant screen displaying the game’s splash menu, a bunch of stylish black-and-white concert close-up shots that emphasize the virtual crowd.) There’s Freestyle Games, the new developer, Activision, Guitar Hero‘s longtime publisher, and a few other PR professionals. Mostly, though, I’m there to talk to Jamie Jackson, Creative Director of FreeStyle Games.

Jackson is a gifted salesman who speaks with a soft enthusiasm. He says a lot of nice things about Guitar Hero and his admiration for the series, particularly for how it got people who wouldn’t normally play games very excited about them. (Jackson’s pitch to his dad: “You’ve got to play this, it’s got The Who in it!”) He then lays out his platonic ideal for video games, which doubles as the reason why Guitar Hero matters five years after we stopped thinking about it: “Games take you out of your day job,” he says, “and make you feel like you’re somewhere else.”

Then he starts up the game, and it’s quite unlike anything I was expecting.

First off: It’s live-action. Those cartoonish, exaggerated, hard-rock avatars are all gone. In their place are a youthful bunch of real-life, fashionable bandmates, accompanied by wizened stage hands—one of whom hands you a guitar. This is all playing out in the first person.

“There’s a lot of people out there,” one of your bandmates says to you in nervous excitement. Then you walk out from backstage, watch your drummer as she counts off. The familiar fretboard starts to scroll towards the screen towards you—and you face the crowd.

This is Guitar Hero Live, the new Guitar Hero’s absolutely bananas marquee game mode. It evokes old FMV games like Night Trap, but is a lot smoother—and kind of flabbergasting. The crowd is real; you can see the faces of the two hundred or so closest to you, while others are composited to fill the venue to the rafters. They respond to you, too. If you’re nailing a song, they’ll love you and wave signs singing your praises. If you suck, they’ll make their thoughts very clear.

It’s all very seamless. Your bandmates are also reacting to your performance, so your view will pan to the drummer, the bassist, and the singer, all of whom will appropriately respond to how well you’re tearing things up, so to speak. If you start to do terribly, the camera will pan to another bandmate or the crowd, and they will approve or disapprove. There aren’t any discernible “cuts,” so to speak. Visually, it’s pretty damn impressive.

Now it’s my turn to play.

This is where Guitar Hero‘s biggest change becomes apparent. It’s not in the slick, sans-serif graphic design, or the ballsy, live-action, first-person rock show experience. It’s in the decision to change the guitar’s fret button layout from the classic five-color configuration to two rows of three buttons each, without any colors differentiating the two.

Jackson gives a few reasons for this. For a lot of classic Guitar Hero players, the pinky was a sticking point, a barrier to high level play—much like learning to use your pinky on a real guitar. What’s more, two-tiered fret buttons allow for finger positions that more closely mimic actual chord positions.

It might seem overwhelming, a needless layer of complication in a pretty perfectly simple system. But it’s really not. In lieu of colored jewels running down a fretboard, you have black or white guitar picks pointing up or down, respectively. Since there are only three buttons in each row, you’re only using three fingers, and the picks just tell you whether you need to move each finger up or down. It’s a more accessible system that doesn’t seem to sacrifice challenge. This is probably a strength—it has, after all, been five years since most of us played Guitar Hero with any regularity.

That’s the how of playing guitar in this new incarnation of Guitar Hero. Now to get down to the what—you know, the music.

The team is pretty tight-lipped as far as any full or partial track lists are concerned, but they do articulate a desire to expand the notion of what makes for a good Guitar Hero track. While Jamie Jackson acknowledged that some fans think ideal Guitar Hero jams are full of “finger bleeding solos” and aggressive rhythms, the Freestyle team settled on a few core ideas allowed for a more diverse track list. Namely, it has to have a lot of variety, and include some sort of solo.

In the roughly 45 minutes I spent with Guitar Hero, that meant playing Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark,” The Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling,” Gary Clark Jr.’s “Numb,” and Of Monsters and Men’s “Little Talks.”

So yes, it seems like the music is going to be much more varied than classic Guitar Hero was.

“I banned the use of flames and barbed wire,” said Jackson, in a half-joking, half serious response to how the game’s UI also seemed designed to reject the previous series’ hard-rocking garage band aesthetic—much like the tracks that I had heard.  “Flames and barbed wire represent one kind of music—we wanted to come at Guitar Hero fresh.”

A reminder: This entire preview was shown in a hotel room off equipment that wasn’t visible to me. Much like the this morning’s lavish reveal, it’s only a sliver of the game displayed in a controlled environment. Everything worked pretty much as advertised, but in order to see how repetitive or dynamic the crowd’s responses truly are would require multiple playthroughs of the same song, something time didn’t allow for.

There’s another, huge aspect of the game that I only got to see in a hype reel: Guitar Hero TV. This is the game’s live hub. It’s where multiplayer will happen, where new songs will become available (played against their corresponding music videos, since shooting new live concert video for each song is a bit impractical), and function as the game’s social hub. But since it’s essentially the game’s arcade mode, it’s not an online-only affair.

Not shown, but talked up a whole lot by Activision: the mobile and tablet version of the game, which, like last fall’s Skylanders: Trap Team, will offer the complete experience of the console game with no compromises. The Activision spokesperson present said that players can even connect their phone or tablet to a television to play at home without a console.

As a rule, video game PR (and, by extension, video game press) tends to abuse the word “innovation.” In the strictest sense of the word, it’s a term for complete game-changers, paradigm shifts that open endless possibilities for deep interaction. But in most cases, “innovation” is merely trotted out whenever there’s a new checkbox to tick off on a list of talking points—the number of ways a new version differs from the game before it rather than the ways it will change how we play any and all games after it.

When I asked the Activision rep what makes Fall 2015 the time for Guitar Hero to return, he noted the innovation in modern, current consoles, and the impressive camera technology that allowed the FreeStyle team to bring their vision for Guitar Hero Live to fruition. In a way, he’s right—five years is an eternity in tech, and as strange as it sounds on paper, Guitar Hero Live can give a players a thrill given the proper environment. (A working title for the game was Project Stage Fright, for the feeling they wanted to give players when they first played Guitar Hero Live.)

But in another way, he’s wrong: However smart and daring it is in its presentation, this game is still Guitar Hero. It’s still you and your friends with plastic guitars, hitting notes together in front of a television screen. In the most fundamental ways, Guitar Hero hasn’t changed a bit. Is this an encore the crowd has been clamoring for, or a once-famous act’s farewell tour? We’ll find out soon enough.

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