Guitar Hero Live Hands-On Impressions: Chords, Star Power, And A Lot Of Useless FMV

By Alex Riviello , Updated Apr 14, 2015 08:38 PM EDT
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In 2008 my band (“CHUD”) opened for The Who. We got up on stage at the Orpheum Theater, gazed into a crowd of thousands of adoring fans, and started clicking away frantically at our plastic instruments.

We played a pretty mean cover of Tangled Up in Blue on Rock Band 2 at that E3 party, if I say so myself. One thing was obvious- playing in front of a crowd is exhilarating. Bars around the country proved that fact with weekly Rock Band nights, but nothing is comparable to stepping in front of thousands of people and rocking out, even if it’s just in a game.

So it’s easy to see what Activision and new series developer FreeStyleGames (DJ Hero) is going for with Guitar Hero Live. These games are rock star simulators, and what better way to make you feel like a rock star than to put you in front of an audience?

So that’s what they did. No longer do you see your cartoony character as you play- Guitar Hero Live 's background visuals feature a first-person perspective, putting you in the role of a guitarist playing in front of thousands of real people, FMV (full-motion video) brought to the HD generation.

They didn’t go small with it either. Each and every song in the game was recorded individually, meaning that the band and crowd is choreographed to the song, and also to your performance. Do well and the crowd of adoring fans will show it, screaming and chanting along, holding up signs that say things like “You rock!”, the way they often do during real shows. Play poorly, as I did while experimenting with Expert mode, and the crowd will boo and look at you with disgust, your band members yelling things like “What’s wrong with you?” as your guitar clanks away.

It’s certainly an impressive undertaking and it really is hilarious to watch someone fail, as the band reactions alone are worth it, but it’s also almost completely useless. Any Guitar Hero or Rock Band fan can tell you that they almost never look to the background visuals, because it’s impossible to pay attention to both the note track and the background. The background visuals were more for the spectators watching, which completely negates the purpose of the first-person perspective here.

In fact, as I strapped on the controller and played through each of the three songs offered in the demo, I barely paid attention to what was going on in the background. The only time I did was while playing at the hardest difficulty, when I was so overwhelmed by the notes flying my way that I just gave up, and looked to the background to see the drummer with an incredulous look on his face, my lead singer covering the mic and yelling at me to get it together. Perhaps once you start to memorise the songs you can start to look away and appreciate the video, but it's going to be hard to juggle back and forth between both.

As a live experience it’s really well implemented, and as when your character moves around on the stage the sound will change accordingly, with noise sources getting louder as you get closer to them (the audience, the drums, etc), so there’s that. But it’s hard not to wonder what the use of it all is.

One thing that works really well is the controller. No longer does it have five color-coded buttons running down the neck of the guitar, replaced instead with six small white and black buttons that are laid out in two rows of three, just fitting with your index through ring fingers. (Sorry, pinky! You'll have nothing to do here.)

Pick it up and two things are immediately obvious: even with just an extra row of buttons it feels more realistic, and the game is going to be much more focused on chords. A vet will pick it up with minimal problems and find that playing is second nature. There are only three tracks to keep an eye on now, which makes it that much easier to play the note without thinking, although now they are colored white and black to indicate the bottom or top rows. Hammer-ons are highlighted as such and there are power-ups that can be activated by throwing the guitar vertically, although this wasn't yet available at the demo units at the event.

On Easy difficulty you’ll just use the white notes. Medium and above starts using the black ones, and the harder you get the more chords you will find that use both rows of buttons at once- but never more than two at a time. Lines come down the fret that represent open notes, and I was pleasantly surprised to see white and black notes, which were barre chords.

Activision promises that all future Guitar Hero Live games will be compatible with the new controller, although of course Rock Band is returning this year as well, and will support all the past peripherals and DLC.

Playing the game means you’ll instantly be transported back to a decade ago when the series first emerged, remembering just how fun it is to play along with the music. While the track list hasn’t been set just yet it seems to rely mostly on newer pop acts, all the better to play chords to. Don’t expect to shred along with insane solos because none of the music announced thus far- from Fall Out Boy to Carrie Underwood to Green Day to Skrillex- really feature any.

But Guitar Hero Live seems destined to be a blast regardless, no matter how cheesy the FMV is- and it truly is cheesy. GHTV- a seperate mode that offers a never-ending stream of playable music videos- certainly makes it seems like you’ll have near-limitless music options in the future, and the fact that it’s appearing on tablets and mobile platforms- while strange- only means that it will be that much more accessible.

With five years since the last installment it’s clearly time for new music games to emerge, and a whole new generation to experience them. We’ll just see if Guitar Hero Live is the one that makes rockstars of us all.

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Guitar Hero Live will be available Fall 2015 on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, and "select mobile devices", likely iOS and Android. It will retail for $99.99 with one controller and is available for pre-order now.

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