The guitar-centric series returns with an exciting new controller and a disappointing career mode.
Credit: Activision

The war of plastic instruments is upon us yet again, and while Rock Band 4 stuck to the experience players know, Activision is reconfiguring Guitar Hero to be all about its titular instrument with a brand-new aesthetic.

Guitar Hero Live, developed by the team behind the underplayed DJ Hero, FreeStyle Games, strips away the full-band focus (though singers can still get their karaoke on) and places the emphasis squarely on the guitarist.

Live is separated into two modes, a standard career mode with a full-motion video twist, and a streaming music service. But before diving into the ups and downs of the game itself, let’s start with the hardware. The five-colored button layout has been the gold standard since Guitar Hero invaded our homes a decade ago.

Freestyle decided to scrap that, trading in a single row of five buttons with colors for two rows of three buttons, differentiated by a black and a white row of frets to tap. The game could live or die by whether this configuration is actually fun to play, but thankfully Freestyle has found a great alternative that, on the higher difficulties, evokes the feeling of playing guitar better than the standard to the point that I’ve begun to prefer it. You’re still not learning to play guitar, sure, but the button configuration forces you to make more chord-like shapes and adds a satisfying level of complexity that makes the prospect of learning a new control set-up an exciting one.

I’ve been playing Guitar Hero Live for over a week, and felt compelled to come back every day — and will likely continue to return— because of that engaging control set-up, but sadly not because of the game’s career mode. Gone are your digital avatars, replaced with a live band and crowd (digitally enhanced to look much larger than it is) that responds to how well you’re playing. And by responds, I mean two concerts were recorded, one in which everyone is excited by your playing, and another where they’re appalled by your feeble attempts to shred.

For someone who’s played enough hours of plastic guitar to regret not picking up a real one, the background of these games is often an afterthought to my experience. The player’s attention is normally affixed to the notes as they stream down the screen, and so at best the titular “live” aspect of the game is an unassuming backdrop. But then you notice the signs being held up by fans, with such generic phrases as “Excited” and “So hyped” that the backdrop becomes a laughably kitschy experience pulling me out of the game.

Credit: Activision

Could you make the case that all of this was done with a tongue-in-cheek attitude? Maybe, but the whole career mode is billed as wanting to make you feel like you’re actually playing in front of a live audience. The seams of the mode are so apparent, though, from the hazy effect used to alternate between the good and bad concert footage to the lame signage to the CGI-generated facets of the crowd, that I never felt compelled by the footage. The only time I reacted to it was when band members were shaking their heads in frustration because I missed some notes. It didn’t encourage me to improve, it angered me that the game was chastising me for attempting to learn a higher difficulty.

There are some great tracks to play in this career mode — I was pleasantly surprised by some of the pop tracks, while it’s just nice to see bands like The Gaslight Anthem featured. And then there’s Skrillex’s “Bangarang,” which, no matter how fun the note chart may be to play, feels so egregiously out of place.

There’s only slightly over 40 songs in the campaign, however, and so the brunt of the player’s focus will fall to GHTV, the other main mode. Set up as a streaming service, players won’t be downloading songs to add to their library. Instead, FreeStyle Games will provide a catalog of songs, along with two channels that are constantly streaming songs accompanied by their music videos.

Players can jump into either of the channels, sometimes picking up a song mid-play and can continue playing along until they decide to drop out. Players accrue points and currency to spend at the GHTV Store, including plays that allow players to choose songs from the current library in an on-demand fashion.

It’s a unique and engaging system that incites the player to return frequently to compete with other players for higher scores and try out new songs added into the rotation. The system has its drawbacks — if both channels are offering genres or themes you can’t stand, you’re forced to dip into your on-demand play count, and you may have grown tired of the songs currently available by then. And just technically, the network seems to need some bolstering. I frequently had music video backdrops disappearing, only to leave me with a generic GHTV screen, and I’ve been booted multiple times from the network mid-song.

But GHTV feels like the future of Guitar Hero if the series continues beyond this release. A constantly updated suite of songs with a fun new control scheme to play is an exciting opportunity, so long as you find enough tracks you enjoy at any given time (there’s a Spotify playlist you can check out to see what’s currently on tap for GHTV).

Guitar Hero Live is a great foundation from which to grow the GHTV platform. The game may not make you feel like a rock god as its campaign intends, but FreeStyle’s ambitions have also created a satisfying new way to tap those plastic frets, along with the promise of what GHTV could become. 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.

Guitar Hero Live is now available for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Wii U. Review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.

Guitar Hero Live is one of the games in EW’s Fall Games Preview. Stay tuned to more on the game. To see what else we can’t wait to play this fall, check out our full fall guide.

Guitar Hero Live
  • Video Games