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Guitar Hero Live

Score: 80%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Activision
Developer: FreeStyle Games
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Local); 2 - 10 (Online)
Genre: Rhythm/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Oversaturation can a dangerous thing for a genre. Look no further than music games. Theyíve been around in one form or another for a long time, and they enjoyed something of a renaissance in the mid to late 2000's. Harmonix blew up the scene with Guitar Hero, and later, Rock Band. The craze was real, and they became prized cash cows. But when Rock Band turned to the online marketplace to offer its future wares, Guitar Hero doubled down on the number of core releases. And, for lack of a better analogy, the ship sank under all that weight. Well, after a few years of complete silence, Guitar Hero returns. And with it comes a new developer, a new peripheral, and a new structure. The result is Guitar Hero Live, a fascinating experiment in music gaming that is destined to polarize.

Guitar Hero Live left just about the worst first impression that a game could possibly leave. And it did it for the best possible reason: for the sake of immersion. I harbor no aspirations of becoming a rock star. Iíve performed on stage several times, and I know what a rush it is. Guitar Hero Liveís "Live" Mode (the standard Career experience) tries to replicate this experience by setting the background visuals as an actual gig, as witnessed from the perspective of the lead guitarist. If youíre a kindred spirit to the idealistic young journalist from Almost Famous, you might find yourself seduced by the atmosphere. However, if youíre a cynical old fart like me, it wonít work. As much as I appreciate the concerted effort to make everything feel legit, I spent most of my time laughing at it. Zealous roadies are all business all the time, bandmates try their hardest to project professionalism and that certain vapid something that comes with celebrity, and the audience looks like theyíre competing to see who can out-fan the rest. Granted, if you perform poorly, fans jeer and bandmates look at you as if you just farted. And thereís no middle ground between euphoria and disgust. I could complain about this design choice forever, but the fact of the matter is, youíre probably going to be looking at the fretboard too much to find any of that intrusive.

Taste in music is, always has been, and always will be subjective. Perhaps thatís why Guitar Hero Liveís is a rather radical departure from that of previous Guitar Hero games, which, as a rule of thumb, featured rock variants and little else. But because it tries to offer something for people of all tastes, Guitar Hero Liveís soundtrack threatens to undermine the concept of the game. Pantera, Megadeth, Alice in Chains? Hell yes. Guitar Hero is at its best when youíre attempting to emulate the likes of Dimebag Darrell, Dave Mustaine, and Jerry Cantrell. And to be fair, modern, garage-inspired acts like The Strokes, Jack White, and The Black Keys are great for when you want a smooth change of pace. I could rail on and on about why acts like Katy Perry and Hilary Duff donít belong in Guitar Hero (or, really, anywhere), but again, music taste is subjective. Instead, I cite the soundtrack as a potential problem not because of anyoneís particular musical prejudices, but because the gameís structure makes its diversity a liability. More on that later.


Gameplay:

At its core Guitar Hero Live doesnít change the core of the franchise. You still make use of a peripheral to play music by playing certain fingering configurations with a scrolling fretboard visual aid. The act of playing Guitar Hero has been largely unchanged. What has been changed is the gameís structure, and itís here that the game loses some of its luster.

Live is the aforementioned standard Career-style mode with the aforementioned live-action nonsense. Itís more similar to the progression found in Rock Band than in any Guitar Hero game Iíve played. In Live, you tackle a series of gigs with a series of different bands in a series of different locales. You play a series of songs in one continuous string, in order to maintain the illusion of the rock show. In-between, you put up with the gameís agonizing, unskippable interludes, which involve the world around you (and regrettably, social media) collectively puckering up to kiss your fake rockstar ass. Again, there are those for whom Live Mode will work. Iím just really, really not one of them. At all. The option to skip that stuff would have been nice.

Most of the songs in Guitar Hero Live are saved for the online-only Guitar Hero TV, which feels kind of like the endgame for the whole experience, despite being accessible right out of the gate. Itís a persistent, content-rich suite thatís currently split into two channels, each with their own genre. You jump in and play as music videos stream in the background; think of it as an interactive MTV Ė minus the pregnant slags with their unwarranted self-importance issues. This is probably where you'll spent the bulk of your time with Guitar Hero Live, and that's for the best. But I do have a few concerns with this mode, which I'll address shortly.


Difficulty:

Itís been a while since a music game has had a learning curve, and I must say, itís really quite welcome. With the introduction of the new six-button guitar, you will have to relearn Guitar Hero. And itís absolutely worth it; the new controller is perhaps Guitar Hero Liveís greatest triumph.

New controller aside, Guitar Hero Live sticks to the original scheme of multiple difficulty levels. This is something both Harmonix and Neversoft knocked out of the park, and this isn't FreeStyle's first rodeo. They know what they're doing, and the difficulty settings are designed to help you get used to the new button configuration. At first, you will probably struggle; particularly if you have a lot of history with this series. But eventually things start clicking together, and the old playstyle merges with the new to create something really special.


Game Mechanics:

Guitar Hero Live may play identically to its predecessors, but it plays completely differently at the same time. It makes sense, I promise; just let me explain. While the scrolling note highway, fingerings, strums, and star power most certainly make their return for this reboot, the comparisons stop there. And it all has to do with the new guitar peripheral. Instead of featuring five multi-colored buttons running down the top half of the fretboard, it features six buttons -- three across, two deep. And there are only two colors: black and white. If you're a Guitar Hero veteran or have never picked up a guitar in your life, this might intimidate you at first. However, as someone who has had an on-off relationship with the instrument for the last fifteen years, I can say with no question that this is the finest guitar design I've encountered in a music game. While the act of going up and down the fretboard is absolutely common to guitar playing, there's one thing that nearly every guitar-themed music game does not replicate: the act of adjusting fingerings along different strings. Rocksmith, with its hardcore approach, is the biggest exception. And I suppose Rock Band 3 is, as well -- provided you're playing with the pro controller. Ultimately, it comes as close as possible to replicating the feel of belting out power chords, and when you mix that with open strums and more technical fingerings, they've brought it much closer to the real thing.

Remember the part where I expressed some reservations with the structure of Guitar Hero Live? It's time to bring some of that to light. It's inevitable in every music game for the player to pick favorites. That's just how music works. For example, early Guitar Hero games had me gravitating towards time-tested classics such as shredtastic "Cowboys from Hell" and prog rock staple "YYZ." And they had me running for the hills with pretentious garbage like "Yes We Can" and atonal sludge like "Red Lottery." In those games, the solution to such a dilemma is simply not to play those songs. However, in Guitar Hero Live, you'll often have to find a stick to bite down on and simply grind through it. You see, you no longer have the ability to select a song and go for it. GHTV is in almost complete control almost all the time, and if you don't like the song that's up next, well, maybe the next one will be better. But there's another option. You see, by participating in GHTV, you earn credits, which can be spent on a multitude of items -- some worthwhile, others not so much. Among those items are Plays, which are essentially coins to pop into the jukebox when you want to practice a specific song. If you're low on Hero Cash and are jonesing for some Rush, you can either power through a handful of songs or use real cash. While under no circumstances are you ever required to deal with microtransactions, GHTV is set up in a way that will inevitably push some in that direction. But I imagine such is the cost of a massive soundtrack, and personally don't mind it at all.

I credit FreeStyle Games as the unsung heroes of the music genre; their DJ Hero games injected some life into a genre that was, at the time, amazingly devoid of it. And to be fair, they've worked some real magic with this new controller. As for Guitar Hero Live, it's kind of a mixed bag. It giveth, and it taketh away. But to be completely truthful, it leaves me extremely optimistic for the future of the franchise.

Activision provided us with a copy of Guitar Hero Live for review.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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