The war of the plastic instruments is here once again, as the two major franchises that filled your living room with massive controllers and dreams of rock stardom return this year. Both dormant since 2010, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are back at it, and rather than competing with nearly identical experiences, the two games are branching off in different directions.
The former has rebooted itself with a new controller, a new focus, and an ever-changing library of music. The latter is hewing closer to the experience you knew half a decade ago, holding the great hope that it’s time again to find that experience fun.
EW has reviewed both games, which hit stores in October. Of Guitar Hero Live, we said: “The game’s ambitions may exceed the final product for now, but it’s those ambitions that will have me checking back into Live to see how that experience evolves.” And as for Rock Band 4, well: “It’s Rock Band. That’s a great thing for those wanting to take another spin on the plastic toms or colored guitar frets, but don’t expect an overhaul to your beat matching experience.“
Read both reviews to get a rundown of what to expect from the returns, but if you’re still not sure which experience is right for you, we’ve compiled a comparison of five major components for each franchise. Read on to find out how the games do and don’t work with old instruments, the setup of their music libraries, and whether these are experiences to share with your friends.
Rock Band 4: The return of Rock Band is, for better or worse, the return of Rock Band. Many of your old Rock Band instruments will work with the new game (Harmonix and Mad Catz have an official list of what is and isn’t compatible so you can know whether you need to upgrade). If you’ve played Rock Band before, you’ll have no problem jumping right back into tapping frets, hitting drumheads, or singing along to your favorite songs. The only major update you’ll notice to the actual play (aside from some helpful drum and singing improvements) is the guitar freestyle solo addition, which best captures the simulated feel of actually playing these songs since the series was first introduced.
Guitar Hero Live: Years of experience playing guitars with colored buttons won’t be quite as useful in Guitar Hero Live. Developer FreeStyleGames has eschewed the old guitar layout for a brand new six-button set-up. Guitars now have two rows of three buttons, meaning you’ll have to learn a brand new but intuitive method of play that feels tremendously satisfying, and in some ways even better than the original five-button layout. At higher levels, players form more realistic chord-like shapes, evoking the feeling of really playing guitar.
Rock Band 4: Rock Band 4’s setlist comes with more than 60 songs, adding newcomers like U2 and Elvis Presley to the setlist, along with hits from other mainstays like The Who, The White Stripes, and Paramore. The full setlist may very well include songs you like, but to us, it represents one of the weakest sets in the franchise. Luckily, there are more than 1,700 downloadable songs available to purchase with more on the way, and the promise that your old Rock Band exports will come to Rock Band 4.
Guitar Hero Live: Guitar Hero Live’s career mode includes more than 40 songs, many of them skewing toward more recent rock, emo, and pop hits. Sure, The Rolling Stones and Queen appear, but then there’s a Skrillex song outfitted to be played on guitar. Players also have the option of the GHTV mode, which includes a library of several hundred songs that can be played on-demand or served up via the mode’s streaming channels. The list will grow and sort, so check out the Spotify playlist to see if GHTV’s available tracks are for you.
Rock Band 4: Rock Band 4’s career mode operates much in the same vein as previous entries from the franchise. Either alone or with bandmates, players will tour around to different cities, accruing fans and money to open up new tour stops and band member customization options. There are some opportunities to gain more fans or money with some amusingly kitschy writing, but otherwise it functions to push you from one set to the next. A nice new addition is the encore/voting system, which allows band members to build setlists based on certain options or choose to play an encore if the virtual crowds enjoy their playing enough. For many, the easiest way to play is still to just jump into quickplay and choose songs at will.
Guitar Hero Live: Guitar Hero Live forgoes the animated, create-a-band experience for a live-action video backdrop. Players jump in as the guitarist in a number of fake bands created for the game, made up of real actors performing on a stage for a real crowd. The crowd and band respond to how well you play, which can be either innocuous cheering or surprisingly rude anger. For some, the experience might be humorously cheesy, and for others it might come off as annoying. Check out a snippet below for a better idea:
And then there’s GHTV, the Spotify-esque streaming music service that allows players to hop in and out of channels constantly playing songs and their music videos. Players can also spend tokens to play songs available in the library on-demand and participate in premium shows to unlock content before other players do.
Rock Band 4: Rock Band 4 is built on a foundation that allows you bring your old songs and instruments. In addition to backwards compatibility of old instruments, players will also be able to adapt the downloaded song library they amassed on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, respectively. Now, the process is a laborious one, as we noted in our review, and certain issues still linger. But, it means from day one players might own a song library with dozens more songs that idled on hard drives for years.
Guitar Hero Live: None. Guitar Hero Live is a purposeful fresh start. So no old instruments or downloaded songs will carry over to the game. Yes, it means sacrificing whatever history you have with the series, but it does offer a brand new gameplay beginning, with the promise of a future full of new songs to play.
Rock Band 4: Rock Band has scaled back some of its multiplayer offerings — no online multiplayer with other bandmates — but now becomes the only home for allowing full-band gameplay. There’s still nothing quite like the experience of four players rocking out together in a living room, and the capability remains a joy in Rock Band 4. Solo players can still chase scores on the leaderboards as well, but online multiplayer has been removed.
Guitar Hero Live: Two guitarists can play alongside each other, and a vocalist can join in even though the axe wielders take center stage. And GHTV incites competition by placing a constant reminder of players of nearby scores next to the note chart during any given song. You can see where among a certain set of competitors you fall throughout a track, and compete for overall high scores on charts against friends and players worldwide.
Rock Band 4: Rock Band 4 will continue to receive downloadable track updates, as the prior games did for years. Harmonix also wants to make Rock Band 4 the only Rock Band experience of this gaming generation, and is treating the game more like a platform and less like one in a string of iterations. The developer will be releasing feature updates and fixes in the months to come to reshape the experience, with the first big feature additions coming in December.
Guitar Hero Live: GHTV is truly the core of Guitar Hero Live, and as such, the new experience will determine the success of the game’s reboot. Developer FreeStyleGames will be adding and removing tracks to the streaming service and creating newly themed channels or premium events, crafting an experience that incites frequent returns to discover what’s new. It will certainly depend on whether the new music updates will grab you, but long after the career is done with, GHTV may keep you coming back for more.