Guitar Hero Live Hands-On: New Ways To Rock


Yes, I’m well aware that Sammy Hagar once declared there’s only one way to rock, but FreeStyleGames and Activision would beg to differ. At least they will when Guitar Hero Live is released later this year, resurrecting a genre that got very hot for a while and faded away almost as quickly.

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What makes the people behind the game think people are ready to play fake guitars again? Part of it is certainly the idea that Guitar Hero has been gone long enough to cycle back around to being something different and interesting, with new people (this writer’s kids, for instance, who were too young to dive into music games during their previous reign) embracing it.

More than that, though, is that the developers are working hard to make Guitar Hero Live an entirely new and much broader experience, one that simultaneously takes the central concept of the original series to its logical extreme while also expanding it out in new directions. As Activision showed off during a recent media showcase in New York City, it’s an ambitious agenda, one that’s built on three new and/or improved pillars.

GH Live

The RPG aspects of the primary single-player mode of Guitar Hero Live have been somewhat overblown, at least as they pertain to that famous video game abbreviation. Slash doesn’t show up to give you quests, nor do you hunt for magic guitars.

What you are doing is playing a role (as a guitarist, naturally) and perhaps learning a little bit more about what it’s like to play guitar in front of a crowd of people. GH Live puts you in first-person perspective in front of a crowd of real people — 10 different crowds, actually, as you attempt to master your craft by playing multiple songs with bands from different genres from metal to folk.

As you play, the members of your band will interact with you by either praising you if you’re hitting most of your notes or trying to get you to play better if you’re messing up. The fans will react appropriately, too, dancing and even singing along with the chorus when you’ve got a mean consecutive note streak going, and booing or even throwing stuff at the stage to show their displeasure.

The Activision rep at the showcase had me tank a song on purpose to prove that the latter really does happen. The crowds for different genres react differently, so the folk fans are probably a bit less likely to be winging things at you, and the difficulty level matters too. Experts will find the concert-goers quicker to turn on them and more difficult to win back to their side.

…It’s the next logical step in selling the idea that you’re really playing in a band, though I could see the novelty wearing off eventually.

How did FreeStyleGames achieve this particular trick? By hiring extras, dressing them appropriately and filming two pass-throughs for each song, one with positive reactions and one with negative reactions. Since the point of view of the camera constantly shifts between the audience and the other band members as you play, there are quite a few natural points where things can go from good to bad or vice versa. Digital magic makes the 100 real live people look like 10,000-plus for the larger stadium venues too.

Like I mentioned before, it’s the next logical step in selling the idea that you’re really playing in a band, though I could see the novelty wearing off eventually. Fortunately, Guitar Hero Live is banking even more on its other game mode.


Welcome to competitive multiplayer, music game style. GHTV takes the ideas of round-the-clock music channels (like a gamified version of MTV if it still played music), and concepts typically found in free-to-play games like limited time only events and in-game currency and mashes them all together to create what could be a very impressive musical stew.

You’ll be able to see a schedule of what’s coming up, and there should be a wide diversity of musical styles, albeit one shaped by player feedback

The big idea behind GHTV is that there are curated channels showing music videos where you can hop in and play, live, against other players all around the world. While you play, you’re seeing the music video in the background for the song currently playing, as well as a constantly updating leaderboard on the left side of the screen so you can see how you stack up. You’ll never lack for competition, but you also won’t be able to do things like take a bathroom break or answer the door for that pizza you’re having delivered without stepping away — though if you do, the music video will keep on playing in the background.

Expect the “shows” to be either 30 or 60 minutes long. You’ll be able to see a schedule of what’s coming up, and there should be a wide diversity of musical styles, albeit one shaped by player feedback. As the Activision rep told me, if people demand more Carrie Underwood, the developers are going to give them more Carrie Underwood.

It’s in this mode where the F2P elements are incorporated as well, though Guitar Hero Live is not, obviously, free. The more you play, the more in-game currency you’ll accumulate, allowing you to unlock various things and enter events, which will be themed around real life music festivals and the like and offer exclusive prizes you won’t be able to win any other time. You’ll also earn tokens so that you can play individual songs from the game’s huge and ever-expanding library. Want to just play one particular song one time? Spend a token. You’ll also be able to buy it permanently for real money, though the devs are still tinkering with the details on how all of this will work.

GHTV is being designed for the long haul as well. The idea is that there isn’t going to be a Guitar Hero Live 16, and there aren’t any current plans to expand to other instruments. If this mode is a hit, it will be the one that sustains the game for several years.

The New Guitar

No impressions of Guitar Hero Live would be complete without mentioning the new guitar controller. It looks more like a real guitar than the classic Guitar Hero controller thanks to the removal of the colored buttons on the neck, which have been replaced by two rows of three buttons each that are flush with the controller itself. A large, dedicated button where you would rest your other palm activates Hero Powers.

It takes some getting used to, enough so that you’ll probably end up playing at a lower difficulty level than you might expect at the start.

The reason there are only three buttons is that the pinkie has been removed from the equation, supposedly because of gamers griping that they didn’t enjoy using that finger. Instead, you’ll have to master a slightly different kind of finger dexterity, because notes can pop up that require either the top or bottom button assigned to each finger or both at the same time, as well as different combinations of all those possibilities. It takes some getting used to, enough so that you’ll probably end up playing at a lower difficulty level than you might expect at the start.

(Side note: there was one guy at the showcase who was shredding right away at the second-highest difficulty level and seemed like he might have been able to tackle Expert. A ringer of some sort? Maybe.)

The guitar is completely wireless, operating via a dongle that is sadly platform specific. For the mobile version of Guitar Hero Live, the guitar controller will link to your device via Bluetooth.

So that’s Guitar Hero Live as it stands right now. For those of us who remember and participated in the first wave of the music wave craze, it feels unlikely that it will ever reach the same heights again, but at least FreeStylegames and Activision are staking out some new turf this time around.

Before I left the showcase, I told the Activision rep that the best part of the original series was making some songs fun enough that you got into playing them even if you didn’t initially care for the song itself. If Guitar Hero Live can at least accomplish that while also hooking people with its more modern trappings, I like its chances.

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