Had you asked us two years ago if we'd be reviewing a Guitar Hero game in 2015, the chances are that we would have laughed you out of the building. So, we were as surprised as anyone when Activision announced that they'd be reviving the franchise this year and attempting to bring it into the current generation.
And "reviving" is the key word, here. Long before the publisher stopped releasing Guitar Hero titles, the franchise was all but dead. Lacklustre setlists, awkward moves into full band play and a distinct feeling that each year's title was the same old game with a bunch of new songs thrown at it, sullied the attitudes of fans, especially when Rock Band was doing so well complete with its thousands of pieces of DLC that allowed you to more or less create the game that you wanted. We're pleased to say that Freestyle Games have indeed revived the franchise with Guitar Hero Live by shifting to a more service-based platform and by changing the controller so that it features two rows of three buttons as opposed to the old-style five-in-a-line setup. The shapes you have to make with your left hand (or right, if you're left-handed, right?) and the changes you have to make to get between notes and chords are closer to the sorts of things you'd be doing on a real guitar.
(We'll take a beat right here to try to silence the real guitarists who just started laughing. We know that playing Guitar Hero isn't the same as playing a real guitar. You've been telling us for a decade now. We get it. We care not. Guitar Hero is fun. There are many reasons why Guitar Hero is sometimes more fun than learning the guitar for real. The main one being that you can jump in and make a relatively good fist of playing a full song out of the gate in the game, as opposed to plucking scales for ever and a day on your own or studying chord charts. Rant ends.)
Speaking of the new layout, the new guitar peripheral is decent enough to be going on with and we haven't had the slightest problem with it. The USB dongle was plugged into the Xbox One, the guitar powered up, and it synced up and calibrated right on the money first time. We have the feeling that we've been lucky, since some have reported calibration issues, faulty buttons, and strum bars that double hit, but we can honestly say that our device – which was purchased at retail - hasn't shown any of those imperfections. One or two of the buttons do have a tendency to occasionally stick a little, but a couple of presses before play begins loosens them up. The device takes 2xAA batteries, though we went straight out and picked up an official rechargeable set for £15, which either connects up for charging via USB without being removed from the guitar so that you can charge while you play, or has live contacts on the back for connecting to a third-party charging stand.
The new guitar means that there's a new challenge for players of all levels. No matter how good you were at any of the previous games in the series, you'll stumble on your first few plays of Guitar Hero Live as you get used to the new combinations. "Bar" chords where you press the top and bottom button of the same fret, "split" chords with one (or two) notes on the top set and one (again, or two) note on the bottom set will trip you up. On higher difficulty levels, some more advanced combinations – such as a bar chord on the first fret and a single note on the second – mean that creeping up through the difficulty levels isn't just about the note highway moving faster and more individual notes being thrown your way.
You'll have plenty of time to practice though, since there's a fair amount of content here. Guitar Hero Live is split into two distinct modes. First up is the eponymous section, which has you taking a first-person view of some superbly realised FMV as you join fictional bands to play through tracks, complete with a responsive crowd and bandmates. Play poorly, and the crowd will get bored and try to boo you offstage – although you can't actually fail - while your musical cohorts will become more and more hostile towards you. There are some nice touches here, such as the lead singer introducing the last track of the set with "Well, thankfully…this is our last song…" if you've not done well in the previous two. Of course, hitting strings of notes will lead to you getting some sweet pops from the crowd and universal praise from your bandmates. It all works incredibly well and given that the fictional band that's on screen with you actually plays and sings along to the very track that you're playing, you simply have to marvel at exactly how much work went into creating the experience. Obviously, you're just watching a few video tracks (merged with some great effects work to replicate the feel of playing to tens of thousands of people) that switch relatively seamlessly as you play, but there's a LOT of video to experience and the overall effect is good.
The amount of work that went into it kind of explains why the "Live" section of Guitar Hero Live feels quite short when compared to other titles. Gazing in wonder at video or not, the entire offline game is spread over two festivals with a handful of sets of tracks to be played at each. We haven't got the exact time noted down, but we'd say that it took no more than three hours to complete. Of course, you can play through again on higher difficulty levels or to attempt to beat your score or pick up achievements, but the track selection really isn't all that great (though your mileage may vary, of course) and leans more toward modern indie than the metal-infused lists of previous games. There's nothing that feels as defining as "Freebird", "Woman", or "Through the Fire and the Flames" here, that's for sure. But hey, while Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Metallica, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and a whole host of guitar-heavy bands are entirely overlooked, at least Katy Perry, Eminem, Skrillex and Rhianna are included for some reason.
(Skrillex's "Bangarang" is actually great fun to play, so we'll let that one through.)
Wade into the GHTV section of the game and you suddenly find yourself in an entire new world. Here, you're given access to two free live "channels" that play songs from the currently available list of over 200 tracks that are in rotation. Each themed show lasts for 30 minutes and comes complete with convincing little vignettes and logo bumpers like the ones you would see on the many, many music channels that are available on TV right now, and you can jump in and drop out whenever you like. The actual music video for the track plays away in the background as you play, with the live scores of what appears to be nine similarly-levelled players overlaid as you play against them for the top position. Even though this is fantastically addictive, all works well, solves the problem of "which track should I play next?" and will undoubtedly expose players to new music from time to time, there are some missed tricks. First up, no matter how many of your friends are playing the same channel as you at the exact same time, you'll won't see them in your list of nine opponents. There's also no overall show score, so there's no real impetus (other than collecting coins and levelling up) to completing an entire show. It would have been nice if the developer had thrown in a real gameshow feel to proceedings, with leaders at the end of each entire 30-minute block getting a decent reward based on their overall position. We also can't see why an overall score list for each play of a track is available. Sure, we know that we're top of the list of the nine random people we've been faced off against, but where were we in the overall list of players who were playing the track? You never get to find out, and that makes Guitar Hero Live's new service-based world seem less interconnected than it should. Being able to see your progression from the low thousands to the high hundreds and (hopefully) onto the top ten over your playing time would have been nice.
Now, we've made our first mention of "coins" in that last paragraph and we'll do our best to explain the whole microtransaction system that everyone was initially up in arms about, mainly because Guitar Hero Live doesn't actually do a great job of explaining things itself, even when you're playing.
Every time you play a song in GHTV, you earn Coins. GHTV features two free streaming channels that are 100% free to play but of course, you're limited to playing the tracks that are playing on the channel, rather than choosing individual songs yourself. If you want to choose a song to play from the list of available tracks, you need to spend a Play Token. These are awarded for levelling up or can be bought in packs either with your earned Coins, or with Hero Cash (which costs real money.) If you don't want to use Play Tokens, you can buy a Party Pass for around £4, which gives you unlimited access to the on demand library for 24 hours. It's relatively standard free-to-play behaviour in a pay-to-play game, although the restrictions are a lot looser, thankfully. At the time of writing, the only thing you would actually be required to pay money to access would be a three-track Avenged Sevenfold live set that's listed as a "Premium Channel." Two other premium channels exist and access can be bought with Hero Cash, but you can also get into them by scoring three stars on three specific tracks. Unless they come up in the GHTV rotation, we'll concede that you would have to spend Play Tokens to play those tracks, so you would still technically be paying for access…
Premium channels also offer bonuses if you do well, although the rewards are largely pointless. It's all well and good getting an extra five "Status" points (similar to EXP) for the next five tracks, but when you're picking up 130 Status points per track anyway, it's largely a redundant bonus. We hope that these rewards will change over the coming months. We'll also say that at the time of writing, we have about 40 Play Tokens sitting unused that have been earned through standard play, since the free GHTV rotation is so addictive that we haven't found a reason to actually use them yet.
New this time around are hero abilities. Before, you'd activate "Star Power" by tilting the guitar and your multiplier would get a boost. That's the same in the "Live" portion of the game, but in GHTV you can choose one from a selection of powers to use on a track, so on a difficult song with a particularly tricky section, you might use a "lower difficulty" power up to get through things without losing your multiplier. Again, it will take a decent amount of time to unlock all seven of these and some have limited uses that need to be refilled by spending Coins. Make no mistake, the limited-use mechanic is a bridge too far here. If you work hard to earn enough Status to level up and unlock a power up, you should be able to use it whenever you've filled the meter that allows you to do so. Another bugaboo is that every track in the game also has five goals to complete – get three stars, get a good start, hit a 50-note streak, etc. – but these give you absolutely nothing and so are utterly pointless. You don't even get an enhanced coin payout for completing them, so quite why they're even included is beyond us.
As well as paying for Play Tokens and the like, Coins can also be used to purchase new highway styles and guitar upgrades later, with the latter being the key to getting huge scores. Your guitar can be upgraded in four areas, from increasing the base score for each note, to increasing your maximum multiplier. Each area has four upgrade levels and each one costs a fair chunk of change to unlock. The first level of each area costs 6,000 coins, then 9,000 coins and so on, and when you're only earning an average of 150 coins per track, you can see that it's going to take a while to get your axe fully upgraded. And no, you can't just buy the upgrades with Hero Cash, so there's no "pay-to-win" going on here.
Despite our complaining about certain areas, that longevity is a good thing. There's definitely a great base to build on here and we hope that the GHTV gets more fleshed out as things go on, with new features being added (without the requirement to purchase another version of the game please, Activision) such as feature or bonus shows. Right now, every show is 30 minutes long and played out in an identical format with no benefit to sticking around once you've completed a song. We'd imagine that FreeStyle would be thinking of things such as promotable theme nights or shows where you earn more Coins for playing for the duration, but as it stands, there's no indication that this is the case.
Guitar Hero Live's microtransactions aren't necessarily as bad as certain sections of the gaming community would have you believe and the new controller presents a fresh new challenge that Guitar Hero veterans will be hungry to take on. The offline GH Live mode is very cool, albeit short-lived, even if the on-disc track selection is lacklustre, but the real meat in the pie is GHTV. It isn't as fully-featured as we'd have expected it to be off the bat, but being able to jump in and spin through a selection from the 200+ tracks (with lots more to come, we're told) for an hour while earning rewards and upgrades is pure addiction.