I get nervous when I get on a stage in real life, and the biggest crowd I’ve ever been in front of was probably a few hundred people. So when my character in the intro to Guitar Hero Live gets nervous, hands twitching, before going on stage to play a headlining gig at the Sounddial Festival, I can totally understand why. There’s a sea of people outside chanting my band’s name, and if I screw up, they will let me know.
Guitar Hero Live tries harder to make you feel like a rock star than any music game that’s come before it. Instead of looking at your computerized avatar from the audience, the game is in first-person, with throngs of fans surging in front of you. It’s in full motion video, shot on a soundstage in England, with real people playing those fans and your band mates. They all react to everything you do, both when you’re hitting every note and when you’re plinking and skronking like somebody who’s just picked up a guitar for the first time. And it’s only guitar this time, along with vocals if you want to plug in a USB mic—the bass and drums of the last few games are gone.
There’s a lot of power in the way this game looks. The vistas designed for the game’s two music festivals are gorgeous, with city skylines and massive bridges in the background, a castle and Ferris wheel towering over an idyllic British countryside filled with hundreds of thousands of fans. The first time I played every stage I was amazed by the detailed display before me.
There’s also a new and slightly more realistic approach to the guitar. Instead of four or five colored buttons in a row, the reconfigured guitar controller has two rows on top of each other with three buttons each. On the higher difficulty levels you’ll play two-note chords in-between runs and solos. Sometimes it feels like you’re playing in Drop D—you’ll constantly be using a single finger to hold down two buttons at once. The game tells you if a note is on the upper string by using a black icon, and the lower string is represented with a white icon. You’ll have to fluently switch between the two while keeping up with the pace of the song. It’s still, after a dozen hours or so of play, really hard for me to move quickly between chords made up of black and white notes, and if I’m feeling tired I’ll even have a hard time switching between the two on single notes. It’s an immediate challenge that’s unlike anything seen before in this type of game. And although it feels a little bit more like playing guitar than the old games in some ways, namely the fingering of chords, it’s still almost nothing like playing real guitar.
Despite the cool new guitar, maybe the most impressive thing about Guitar Hero Live is how the designers took a game that was basically a rock and roll cartoon, replaced the computer graphics and animated characters with real video of real people on a real stage, and somehow made it still feel like a big cartoon. That is commitment.
As I wrote after the Guitar Hero Live launch event back in April, the old Guitar Hero made me uncomfortable. It was fun to play, but the aesthetics were off—it was selling a goofy rock stereotype that has always made me embarrassed to like rock music.
The brand new Guitar Hero Live tries to get away from that by discarding the old Hero characters and creating ten fictional bands made up of real live musicians, but that spirit is unshakable. These are market tested, professionally styled bands, geared directly towards specific demographics. And that’s fine. In real life, those are the types of bands that play to massive festival crowds and make it on magazine covers. That is the rock and roll dream, really: most people don’t have fantasies about playing in front of 30 people at their local indie rock dive.
The weirdest thing about these bands is that they can’t stop looking at each other. They specifically stare directly into the guitarist’s eyes at almost all times. As you’re playing through these concerts, you’ll constantly make eye contact with the bassist or singer, who are apparently more interested in supporting (or insulting) you than actually connecting with the crowd. The crowd’s okay with it, because they’re all uniformly staring right at you, too. You’re basically the only person who matters on that stage, even if there are always four (or more) other musicians up there alongside you. Some eye contact is understandable, but it’s hilariously overdone here in hopes of making you feel like the star.
All those people on screen react to what you’re doing. If you’re playing the song well, they’re happy and sing along. If you’re missing notes left and right, they get visibly angry and might start throwing stuff at you. The video fades between the two as your performance dips or improves; it’s not smooth, with a slight blur effect signaling the switch, and it’s a little funny how quickly these people can go from literally the most excited people ever to wanting to murder you, but again, it’s basically a real-life cartoon.
Beyond that cartoonish vibe, nothing else feels the same about this Guitar Hero. It’s split into two vastly different halves, and although the Live portion gives the game its name and makes up the bulk of the advertising, it quickly becomes an afterthought to the game’s true strength. Guitar Hero Live brings back music television with Guitar Hero TV, and as somebody who wasted countless hours on MTV throughout middle and high school, I don’t know if any other videogame this year has excited me as much.
Guitar Hero TV offers two 24-hour streaming music video channels (soon to be three) that you can play along to. The channels are split into 30 and 60 minute blocks broken down by genre or era, and you just sit back and watch their programmed videos and play along when you’d like. You pretty much have to give yourselves over to the programmer’s plan, just like when you’d watch MTV back in 1990 and hope that the next video was something you’d actually like. That mystery of what’s coming next is reduced a bit by being able to pull up a list of all of the 200 videos currently in rotation, but you still never know what’s coming in any playlist until it starts. That makes it really hard for me to ever stop playing: as soon as I’d be ready to quit, a Courtney Barnett or War on Drugs video would start, and I’d sit back down and pick up the guitar again.
They’ve also gamified the hell out of these videos. You aren’t just playing for fun—there’s a leader board on the left side of the screen, comparing your score to other players (either live or ghost data). You win both experience points and credits with each song, and the better you do on that leader board the more you get. Leveling up lets you unlock perks that build your score multiplier higher, increase the base point of every note, and offer other benefits. You can also use those credits to customize how your on-screen guitar highway looks or to cash in for “plays.” Trying to level up as quickly as possible kept me glued to this game just as much as the constant stream of videos to play along to.
One complaint I expect to hear about this game is that, despite having 200 videos you can play along to at launch, you don’t have total control over when you play them. That’s where those “plays” I mentioned above come in. There is an on demand aspect, but every video costs a “play,” which you accumulate through playing the game or by buying with real money. When you use a play to unlock a video, you can only play it once. It’s a play-for-play system, and if you want to play the video again, you have to wait until it shows up in a playlist, or you have to spend another play.
That would be a huge bummer if plays weren’t pretty easy to come by. The game starts you off with a decent amount, and you earn more almost every time you level up. You can also cash in those in-game credits to buy more, and that’s currency you earn every time you play the game. I’ve banked 49 plays while getting to level 14, and I haven’t bought any plays with credits. The microtransactions aren’t as egregious when it’s still relatively easy to earn the same stuff just by playing the game.
If every video was available on demand, it would ruin that music television concept. I’ve already been introduced to a few new songs that I like by playing this game, both from bands I’ve never heard of and from ones I’ve dismissed in the past. I’ve seen cool videos I never would’ve seen otherwise. Sometimes I put the guitar down and just watch a channel for a while; the game visuals might block my view a bit, but it still feels like I’m killing a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1989 watching videos, or staying up too late to see the really good stuff on 120 Minutes. If I could just go to a menu and pull up any video I wanted every time, I don’t know if I’d actually take the time to watch the channels, which are the best thing about this game.
Guitar Hero TV isn’t perfect. Some videos show up way more than others—if Paramore’s “Still Into You” even vaguely fits a programming block, it will be on the list. I’ve seen the “Are You Gonna Go My Way” video as much in the last week as I ever did in 1993, and I saw it a hell of a lot back in 1993. I’ve put probably ten hours into Guitar Hero TV and still haven’t seen half the videos I want to see, and who knows how many others that I don’t necessarily want to see but would wind up liking. Videos will be cycling in and out of rotation over time, so hopefully I’ll get to play everything that I’d like before they start disappearing.
Because of Guitar Hero TV, this is the first Guitar Hero game that I genuinely like. Forget the “feel like a rock star” stuff—it’s cool for the three or so hours it’ll take you to finish every set, but I’ve barely gone back to it since, even if those are the only songs that are always playable whenever I’d like. It’s now as much of a music delivery service as it is a game, and that ensures its livelihood, at least in my household. As long as they’re running and updating Guitar Hero TV, I’ll carve out time for this game. It may not be the party machine that Rock Band 4 is, but it offers something that no other game, and really, no other TV station, currently does: a powerful combo of play, nostalgia and discovery. I mean, I’d never buy a Darwin Deez record, but I’m glad I’ve seen that video, you know?
Guitar Hero Live was developed by FreeStyle Games and published by Activision. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for the Xbox One, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and iOS devices.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Somewhere in his parents’ basement is a handful of VHS tapes with hours and hours of MTV’s 120 Minutes on them. You can follow him on Twitter, if you’re into that.