Guitar Hero Live Review: Still Rocking On

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Developer: FreeStyleGames

Publisher: Activision

Platform: Nintendo Wii U (version reviewed), PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS

Release Date: October 20, 2015 (NA/AUS), October 23, 2015 (EU)

It’s been a while since we’ve last seen a Guitar Hero game. For several years, these titles were the hit of parties and dorm rooms, bringing friends together to rock out to their favorite music in a unique way: by putting them on the stage. Guitar Hero is a title full of fond memories for many, but an over-saturation of similar titles caused the demand for the game to drop away. With Guitar Hero Live’s revival of the franchise comes a new controller configuration, some seriously amped up backdrops, and new aspects to online multiplayer never seen before. But does it effectively carry its fame into a new console generation and “win the crowd”?

The Rock Show

You’re a rockstar from the moment you pick up the guitar controller and load up the game. A brief but enjoyable tutorial teaches you the fundaments of the frets–now three each on the bottom and top row. The tutorial is as easy as it needs to be and immediately gives you the feel for the game whether you are a complete beginner or a veteran wondering where the colored buttons went. Controller configuration is solid, too, and the guitar is easier than ever to sync with the music at any time during gameplay. Rock through the Fallout Boy song to gain access to the game’s two primary modes: Live and TV.

Live is the primary game mode and comes with a Career mode and a Free Play mode. Free Play mode is standard, with some songs already unlocked and others unlockable by completing them in Career mode. You can play the unlocked songs as much as you want on any difficulty for a higher score, or just for some practice. Career mode lets you unlock songs by completing sets of three to five on any difficulty. The sets take place at one of two uniquely themed “musical festivals” and a set must be completed to unlock the next one at each festival.

Between the crowd’s reactions, the brief intros with excited bandmates, the voiceovers of announcers, and the “Tweets” from excited fans, Guitar Hero Live nails the immersion factor.

The backdrop for each song in either mode is a raucous live stage, complete with your bandmates and a screaming crowd waving their arms, jumping up and down, and holding generic (and at times amusing) painted signs. If you play well, the audience will cheer, your bandmates will smile, and the signs will show encouraging messages– play poorly, however, and your bandmates mouth frustrated protests as the crowd boos you off the stage. The transitions between happy crowd and angry crowd are almost seamless, with a visual effect akin to that of a person blinking. It’s just as easy to save a poorly-played run of notes as it is to flub up a perfect concert. Keep the crowd happy, and your final score will shine.

Between the crowd’s reactions, the brief intros with excited bandmates, the voiceovers of announcers, and the “Tweets” from excited fans, Guitar Hero Live nails the immersion factor. Particularly during Career mode, I was able to taste the excitement of being on stage and performing for such an audience. Though the longer intros got a bit obnoxious when I went back to perform in Free Play, the slight annoyance was easily overlooked when I nailed a particularly difficult guitar solo and heard the crowd roar with excitement.

Light It Up

As good as the crowd’s energy may feel, you may find stardom is more difficult that it seems. The new button layout on the guitar controller is not easily navigated at first, and Guitar Hero Live’s difficulty curves can be…interesting. In previous games, easier difficulties started you on the middle three buttons and gradually added in the outside two. In Guitar Hero Live, the transition from Regular to Hard is a bit more complex. On Regular and below, you stick to the three bottom buttons, colored black and represented by teardrops/guitar pick shapes. Even on the more complex guitar solos, throwing in the whammy bar and chords, these three buttons don’t make for much complexity.

Raise the difficulty up one notch, though, and the three top frets are thrown in the mix, represented by inverted, white-colored versions of their bottom row counterparts. Their integration is not done gently. You’ll quickly find yourself swapping between the top and bottom bars consistently, and playing chords between notes on each bar. The gameplay itself is fun once you grasp it, allowing for more interesting and logical chords, but it takes a lot of getting used to.

The best way to learn is to play through Career mode on your chosen difficulty, as the songs are generally arranged in order of complexity no matter which difficulty you choose. There are five settings total, with Expert providing the delightful insanity we’ve come to expect from Guitar Hero’s toughest challenges. You’re not alone, either. You can bring along a friend on a second guitar for Free Play (not Career, sadly), and a third on vocals with a microphone. Whether alone or in groups, your scores can be shared online to rank with others to see how well you fared against players from all over. There’s 42 songs total available for keeps in a variety of genres. Though it’s available from the outset, you’re going to want to master as many as you can at whatever level you’re playing comfortably before you dive into the game’s other mode: GHTV.

Next: Guitar Hero TV, and our final verdict