Preview: Guitar Hero Live

In its heyday, Guitar Hero was a heavy hitter for Activision. Originally developed by Harmonix, the series brought music rhythm games to mainstream success that eluded others, so popular that Guitar Hero and its sequel made regular appearances during the holiday season, and it was not uncommon to see stores like Best Buy and Target host mountains of boxed band sets. Guitar Hero was staggeringly popular in its prime but after releasing 20 games in the span of five years, series fatigue set in, with sales and interest in the genre waning. When Activision announced that it would put the series on hiatus, it marked the end of an era that turned Guitar Hero from video game to cultural phenomenon. This October, Activision is getting the band back together for a comeback tour in Guitar Hero Live. Developed by FreeStyleGames (DJ Hero), the game moves away from the cartoony vibe of its predecessors and feels firmly rooted in the real world by setting the single player campaign within a concert tour featuring actual video of human performers and concertgoers. Activision held a preview event at YouTube Space in Los Angeles where I received hands-on experience with the latest iteration of the once famous rhythm game powerhouse.

Before diving into the game itself, I wanted to talk about the newly designed guitar peripheral, which is quite different from the classic guitar and its variants to come out over the years. Since the beginning, Guitar Hero guitars were designed around five colored buttons that had to be pressed in the right sequence and rhythm to hear the song’s lead guitar part and earn the best possible score. The colorful design of the instrument mimicked the cartoony visuals of the series, as you played alongside exaggerated caricatures of rock performers and took the stage in colorful venues.

The new peripheral is based on guitars musicians use--kind of like the direction Rock Band went with their own instruments. The candy-like pads are gone, replaced by two rows of three nondescript keys set just below the headstock. These keys are represented on the “freeway,” the scrolling playfield, as white and black guitar picks. To help differentiate them and teach the player which row to use, the picks point up or down to identify which row (white picks point to the bottom row, black picks to the top row) you need to use for each note. Chords are represented by a half white/half black rectangles. The design of the picks is intelligent but I found myself to be all thumbs with the guitar all night. It has been awhile since I played a Guitar Hero game, but I thought I’d have no problem adjusting to the new design. It’s simple and not overly complicated, and it feels fine to hold, buy I just couldn’t get my mind around the new controls.  

My mind had a difficult time getting around the new button configuration and my first reaction was to dislike it immensely, smashing it against the floor like some crazed rocker. Trying to orientate my fingers so they’d hit the necessary keys was difficult. Harder tracks (noted by their Intensity level) have you switch to and from both rows, a task I clearly wasn’t ready for. What I really wanted was a quiet place away from the main play space to practice and get comfortable with the new setup.  Instead, I was mostly intimidated by the other attendees who seemed to pick up the new device much faster than I. It also didn’t help that the available song list was made up with of newer bands I barely knew. Whereas Guitar Hero was mostly comprised of classic rock, Guitar Hero Live’s offering feels much more modern. There were a few familiar standbys--Pantera, Bob Dylan, System of a Down, and Rage Against the Machine, to name a few--but for the rest, I was scratching my head like a middle-aged dad trying to understand kid’s music these days. Oh god, am I getting old?

As for the game itself, Guitar Hero Live, in its current preview form, is very much the game that made Activision a lot of money. Structurally, it’s awfully familiar. There’s a single player mode (“Guitar Hero Live”) that features you and your band moving from one venue to another. The game’s co-op mode (“GHTV”) has you playing and singing to the song’s music video. It also doubles as the game’s DLC platform, with music available from a central list or curated theme lists. Regardless of which mode is being played, the goal is to hit a series of notes that appear on the freeway to earn points. Missing notes reduces multipliers and can even fail you out of the track for a game over. Stylistically, Guitar Hero Live isn’t as cartoony and over the top as before. This is seen primarily in the Guitar Hero Live mode, as the background presentation is your point of view from the band’s stage. The background material was filmed with actual people and musicians, lending the entire experience a more realistic feel. This was the cause for some unintended hilarity.  

Guitar Hero has always had a dynamic audience. Perform a song bad enough and the audience reacts by booing and stand in place, looking bored and slightly angry. It never bothered me to hear people express their displeasure with my inability to rock because, well, who cares? They’re digital people and don’t really matter. Guitar Hero Live makes the experience of failing all the more disheartening. As you play through a track, your skill determines the reactions of both the audience and fellow bandmates. Do well enough and the screen initiates a mystical and slightly hallucinogenic transition to a crowd losing their minds as your fellow musicians acknowledge your shredding skills. In my case, I kept screwing up a lot of the tracks. This caused the scene to shift to one featuring a completely ambivalent crowd shaking their heads and giving me a thumbs down. What makes this all the more terrible is when the camera shifts to the band members who scoff, shout inaudibly, and scour in my direction. I laughed out loud but internally, I felt like crying.

Bruised ego aside, I came away from the event with mixed emotions. I liked the new guitar, but serious practice time is needed to orientate myself to the new design. The game itself captures the spirit of the franchise and the use of perspective video is a cool trick (if hilariously cruel), but the experience as a whole felt too safe. GHTV sounds like a great platform for content but outside of curated content, the idea isn’t very new. Granted, Guitar Hero Live still has some time to cook before its October release date and studio employees mentioned that the build was a limited preview, so there’s time to tweak and make improvements to enrich the game further. The big question is whether or not Guitar Hero Live can bring the brand back to its peak. It’s been five years since the last major Guitar Hero release (Warriors of Rock) and in that time, the landscape of the industry has changed. Attitudes, tastes, expectations have been reshaped. Can Guitar Hero be a relevant force again? I was struck by this thought as I waited to leave the venue. But then I remembered the fond memories with friends and family huddled around the TV as we strummed, sang, and beat our way through a rich catalog of classic rock music.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.