Rock around the clock.
Are you ready to rock? Well you’d better be, because Guitar Hero Live practically insists that you remain glued to the fretboard 24/7 with its addictive, always-on GHTV mode. This daring new streaming service works in tandem with a substantially redesigned guitar controller to compensate for a disappointing career mode and underdeveloped local multiplayer. The sum total is a largely enjoyable return to the stage for the series that once started a music game revolution.
It all starts with that new controller. Developer FreeStyle Games has refreshed the Guitar Hero experience considerably by adding a sixth button and splitting the frets into two rows: three black buttons, and three white. As someone who’s been playing GH games since banging out those first few power chords of I Love Rock and Roll in the original, I initially struggled to get to grips with the new button layout. At speed, it was tough for me to distinguish one black button from another, and hopping back and forth between the two rows almost always ended in me fumbling the transition and killing my multiplier.
Yet at some point during my first late night it suddenly clicked, and now I feel like it would be a real step backwards to ever return to the old five-button design. Not only does this reconfigured button grouping keep your fretting hand rooted to the one spot, meaning your eyes never need to leave the screen, it just feels like a better approximation of actually playing the guitar – especially on the upper difficulty levels where the chord shapes and ascending and descending hammer-ons and pull-offs feel particularly analogous to the real thing.
My enthusiasm for this exciting new era of Guitar Heroism took a temporary dip, however, once I hopped into the career mode, GH Live. This is the mode that drops you into the shoes of the guitarist in about a dozen different fictional bands across two music festivals, experiencing each three-song mini-set as a first-person shredder.
The problem with GH Live is not the overly cheesy vamping of the live-action bandmates around you, nor is it the way they dynamically chastise you when you flub a solo. No, the problem is that I simply didn’t care about them. So little context is given between sets – just some brief radio DJ banter and a few fake fan tweets – that when you’re just shunted from band to band every three songs there’s never any sense of camaraderie on stage. I didn’t feel like part of the band; I felt like a total stranger.
In fact, I felt more of a relationship with the crowd. Rock Band’s trick of getting audiences to sing along has been appropriated by GH Live, only in this instance you can actually look out on a sea of real faces singing back at you, which does feel pretty fantastic. But GH Live ultimately only served up an evening’s worth of shallow entertainment that I burned through as fast as I could mainly just to unlock its 42 songs (the only ones actually on the disc) for the quickplay mode.
I Want My GHTV
The online-only GHTV mode is where the real depth of Guitar Hero Live lies. It’s also the part that could prove the most divisive for series fans, given it completely does away with the traditional approach to song DLC.
Structured into two ‘channels’ (with a third to be added sometime after launch), GHTV livestreams blocks of scheduled, always-running music in programmed playlists with names like ‘90s Blockbusters’, ‘Metal Mayhem’, and ‘Pop Workout’. It’s broadcasting every hour of the day, and once you start it’s surprisingly hard to stop. Music videos play in the background as you jam along, delivering a healthy dose of nostalgia for those of us who grew up with music television that still actually showed music videos. As you play, you level up and earn credits to spend on useful things like multiplier boosts, and less useful things like customisable player cards for your profile.
More importantly, these credits can be spent on Plays, tokens that can be exchanged for a single on-demand play of any track from its substantial online catalog of songs – should you get impatient waiting for Rush’s Limelight to pop up in rotation, for example. It roughly breaks down to a ratio of earning one on-demand song per every five to 10 songs you play.
This may sound like a grind, yet more than 20 hours into GHTV I’ve only ever used Plays on a handful of occasions. I simply haven’t needed to: in complete contrast to every other modern method I use to consume content, I’ve found GHTV’s scheduled song delivery surprisingly liberating. I don’t need to agonise over which song to buy or which song to play next, I can just sit back and let FreeStyle curate things for me. With rare exceptions I’ve consistently played songs I either love, didn’t know I loved, or at the very least were fun to play regardless. And thanks to the constant bombardment of music, I’ve often found it hard to put my guitar controller down – many times I’ve gone to turn it off, only for the opening notes of Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law to kick in, leaving me powerless to refuse.
But while I found this new streaming service a fun way to wield a plastic ax, for others it could be more of a double-edged sword. For example, if you’re the kind of player who wants to nail a wrist-crunchingly intense track like Lamb of God’s Ghost Walking at 100% on Expert, you’re probably going to burn through your Plays quickly trying to master it. It’s then that you’ll be forced to choose between grinding your way through other songs to earn more, or buying Plays instantly by using real money. The latter could easily become a costly habit.
GHTV is also somewhat inflexible for the time poor. You’re basically going in blind every time you hop online – meaning that an evening of Guitar Hero you were looking forward to could quickly be quashed (or suddenly made more expensive) if you’re not into the genre that’s airing at the exact time you logon (an electronic programming guide app or something similar would be appreciated).
I also found Guitar Hero Live a touch lacking in its support for local multiplayer. Yes, you can connect a second guitar and use your phone as a makeshift mic for vocals, but there is no option for a multiplayer career, and elsewhere the second guitar track is always identical to the first. Without the option of playing a mix of lead and bass or rhythm, Guitar Hero Live lacks the more collaborative feel of its predecessors. On the plus side, it also means you never have to get stuck actually playing bass (sorry, bass players).
Wii U, Xbox 360 and PS3 Versions – October 25
Since reviewing the game on PS4 and Xbox One, I’ve been able to sample it on the Wii U, Xbox 360 and PS3 as well. All versions run more or less identically, with the exception of the Wii U which occasionally suffered from a stuttering note highway about once per song. After digging around on Guitar Hero Live’s official support forums I discovered that the issue could be remedied by clearing the 2GB cache the game creates on your SD card. It’s by no means a game breaking issue, but worth keeping in mind that extra hassle if you’re deciding between formats.