The rhythm game renaissance continues, but does Activision’s return to their once dormant franchise rock on, or simply fade away?
Gamers of my age are living in interesting times. There is a very definite feeling of retrospective gazing from gamers, developers and publishers alike; we’ve had releases of new ZX Spectrum hardware, the Oliver twins have freely released an old Dizzy game they found on a floppy disc, Microsoft are hard at work getting the XBox One to be back compatible with XBox 360 titles. While some of this desire to turn to former glories hasn’t always ended in success (*cough* Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 *cough*) there are two games released this month that have been hotly anticipated, albeit with bated breath. I’m talking, of course, of the latest entries in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series.
I’ve spoken at length about my love for Rock Band on this site but when Guitar Hero Live was announced I’d be lying if I didn’t say my interest was significantly piqued over Harmonix’s band simulator darling. Brit developers FreeStyle Games, previously responsible for the sublime Guitar Hero spin off, DJ Hero, showed off a revised guitar controller, a new, more complex way to play and talked of a 24/7 service giving access to hundreds of tracks. While Rock Band was content in revisiting former glories, Guitar Hero seemed to be trying to take the genre further and that seemed like a good thing. Following a hands on at this years EGX I changed my mind; it wasn’t a good thing – it was a GREAT thing. Guitar Hero Live is probably one of the freshest, most interesting rhythm games I’ve played. It’s a back to basics approach which ditches almost all of the band elements of the previous games (no drums or bass parts, but you can still plug a microphone in) but it brings some compelling new ideas to the table.
Let’s start off with the first big change – the guitar. While previous Guitar Hero and Rock Band games presented the player with five coloured buttons, Live uses six, arranged in two rows of three on the neck of the guitar. This simulates, effectively, a two string, three fret guitar. The top buttons are coloured black, the bottom ones white. The game plays very similarly to the traditional iterations, however there are now three note tracks coming down the screen. Buttons are coded, appropriately, as white or black plectrums; white ones pointing down, black ones up as another visual aid. What seems like a minor alteration to the formula quickly becomes a game changer as you have to relearn any skills you may have picked up in the previous games. As someone who could easily rattle through most of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band tracks on expert, being forced to ratchet the difficulty down to, initially, medium to learn the new system made the game far more interesting and challenging than simply going through the motions. In addition to the new button layout, gameplay and the controller is pretty much par for the course. Hit special notes to build up “Hero Power” (more on that later), activate it by tilting the controller or hitting the new Hero Power button on the bridge of the guitar, use the whammy bar to… actually, the whammy bar seems most redundant in this iteration of the franchise, relegated to simply making sustained notes warble a bit.
Obviously rhythm games live or die by their tracklist and, while Rock Band 4 ships with 65 songs on the disc and 1500 tracks in its library of DLC, Guitar Hero Live initially seems to fall somewhat short with only 42 on disc tracks and 200 in it’s online library, it’s what it does with those tracks that sets it apart from its direct competition. Instead of the usual virtual band presentation, Guitar Hero Live has fully embraced this feeling of retro and gone for a full motion video (FMV) presentation. While that may conjure up images of games like Mad Dog McCree and Night Trap, the FMV Live is an absolute revelation. In its campaign mode you take on the role of a guitarist in a band playing at one of two festivals. Each band has a three track set (apart from the headliners) geared around a specific song style; the indie folk band plays The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men and Mumford and Sons, while the metalcore band plays Bring Me The Horizon, Pierce The Veil and Of Mice and Men, for example. These gigs are all very slickly recorded using some incredible CG to give impression of huge crowds and expensive show productions, all viewed from the perspective of the player. It’s an impressive illusion that genuinely sucks you in and plays satirically with the kitsch surrounding each genre of music. The cleverest part of this presentation comes when you start to mess up a song – let the crowd down and the footage changes to show you a disappointed audience and frustrated bandmates. Start to pick things back up again and everyone’s happy. It feels fresh, smart and a great way to play these songs. The campaign, however, is an almost throwaway distraction compared with the much lauded GHTV mode.
GHTV is kind of this games Ronseal – it does exactly what it says on the tin. The mode is accessed by either selecting it from the main menu or by pressing the GHTV button on the guitar and presents the player with a choice of two constantly streaming, 24/7 music channels. These are basically MTV like affairs which play music videos in half hour to full hour themed slots, thinks like Pop Hits, Classic Rock, Pure Metal; GH1 seems more focussed on rock and metal, while GH2 tends to be broader, playing into indie and pop music (ewww, One Direction). The player then plays the songs over these music videos in the usual fashion. What is interesting is the way that the game pitches you against other players currently watching that channel. There are always ten of you and you get a constantly rolling leaderboard on the left of the screen showing where you are in the rankings for that song. The better you do, the more experience points you earn – experience points allow you to level up, unlocking both cosmetic features as well as different Hero Powers that you can activate throughout the song. It’s Activision’s Call of Duty multiplayer model applied to rhythm gaming and, you know what? It works really well. The rolling channels keep things fresh and bring in that “one more play” mechanic that games like this need – what’s up next? Ooh, Screaming Trees, I’ll give that a go!
Still, what if you want to jump straight into, say, Breaking The Law by Judas Priest? The good news is, you can. Any of the 200+ songs in the catalogue are available on-demand by using a “play” token. The game awards you with 15 of these for going through the GHTV tutorial and you can quickly amass a large reserve by simply playing through the channels, so it never really feels like you’re too far away from that special play of We Are The Champions that you so crave. It’s an interesting concept and makes the idea of DLC tracks seem a little antiquated. GHTV is also home to Premium channels, however I feel that this is a bit of a misnomer. At first glance, Premium looks like content you have to part with more money for (more on that in a moment) but it’s actually a series of rolling challenges, allowing you to play songs that have yet to hit the catalogue. Playing through these and scoring enough gives you bonus items such as extra XP, more plays and unique cosmetic touches. The fact that you can play these challenges by simply playing through existing songs in the library is a great approach and makes the game seem fair and balanced, which brings us on to…
Okay, trigger warning folks – we’re going to talk about microtransactions in this next bit. Yes, let’s get that out of the way, GHTV contains microtransactions designed to speed up your progress through things, allow you to buy more plays on individual tracks and unlock the Premium shows immediately, however I have yet to spend a single penny on anything in the game. The main reason being how Live manages to totally immerse you in the experience without pushing you to part with your cash. There is always an easy, accessible way to get into the Premium content, always a healthy supply of in game cash and free plays coming from completing different tiers and levelling up and the only thing you may be compelled to buy is the 24 hour pass that unlocks the entire catalogue for a paltry £3.99; excellent for those party moments.
So, yes, as you may have gathered, I love Guitar Hero Live, however that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few negative points. Firstly, the music from the Live section of the game doesn’t carry through to the TV section. This means that you have to switch to a separate menu should you want to play through some of the tracks which seems counter-intuitive. Also one of the big setbacks of having the TV channels be purely online is that, should the server or your internet go down, you’re blocked from accessing the largest chunk of the available music. This happened once to me and, thankfully, the game simply killed the video stream and let me finish my song before bailing me back to the main menu with a message that the servers were unavailable. While it’s understandable, given the ambitious nature of the online system, not being able to download any new songs to your console means that you’re then stuck playing the same 42 on disc tracks. More options for the user would be great and it would be nice to see the offline mode expanded in the future, possibly with annual downloadable festivals.
We also haven’t touched on offline multiplayer. Guitar Hero Live is very much positioned as a solo experience, but you can connect a second guitar if you wish. Disappointingly, though, this works in the same way as it did in the earlier games in the franchise, simply mirroring the song for the second player and providing a score attack scenario. It’s a shame that the co-op elements have been dropped but it is nice to see the vocal tracks retained. As with previous Guitar Hero/Rock Band games, these give you the lyrics and a pitch guide so another player can sing while you play (or you could go for vocals and guitar if you’re feeling particularly daring!)
The big kicker for me is that Live is different enough from Rock Band 4 to be able to stand the two games apart. Both franchises now have distinct feature sets which make them a compelling purchase for rhythm game fans, rather than simply deciding which game has the better tracklist – Live is more for the discerning solo player, while Rock Band 4 retains that band based multiplayer fun. Going from the two being bitter rivals, seeing them stand apart as equals is almost like watching Blur and Oasis play a headline gig as friends!
Guitar Hero Live is a great game. The festival mode is fun and cheesy with a healthy slice of modern rock and pop, the music currently available on the GHTV channels is varied and, with a third channel on the way and more music being added in the coming months, it looks like FreeStyle and Activision have big plans for the future. Obviously the game will live or die on this service so it will be very interesting to see how this develops but, as it stands, Guitar Hero Live is well worth your time.