Return of the Virtual Rockstar

While the year’s already heralded the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, something a lot of us never thought would ever happen, and the return of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it’s the latter that has really been the most intriguing out of the three. Major changes in the way the game plays out has made for a title that doesn’t have to really face a direct challenge with Rock Band anymore, and while it does take a while to get used to, I’m fairly impressed with what Guitar Hero Live has on offer.

Guitar Hero Live sports a completely remade guitar controller. Gone are the five fret buttons that Rock Band and the upcoming fourth iteration have continued to adopt, and in comes six buttons located on three frets of the guitar. It’s an intriguing choice, and one that certainly took me by surprise back when it was originally announced. Even as a veteran Rock Band and Guitar Hero player, this new change up really diversifies things in interesting and fun ways.

I started on regular difficulty, which is the mid-tier medium difficulty. As someone who’s spent hundreds of hours dedicating time to rocking out in my lounge room, I wanted to see how the new controller felt and then work up from there. What became evident right at the beginning of my song of choice, Paramore’s ‘Now’, was that this change is going to take a long time to get used to.


The striking thing with the new guitar controller is that it feels very different to the plastic instruments we’ve grown to know and love. The controller feels slightly harder, and the buttons are stretched out a bit more to compensate for the lost space. Using only three fingers instead of five made for a confusing introduction to Guitar Hero Live, and while I was constantly disappointing myself by screwing up note streaks and completely ruining ‘Now’, I started to warm up to the idea of engaging in a music game in a different way.

The guitar certainly still feels like a plastic instrument — it doesn’t have that real-world guitar feel and it doesn’t need to. The goal of the plastic instruments have always been for anyone and everyone to engage in bringing out their inner rockstar in their home, and that remains true in Guitar Hero Live. While the drums have been stripped away, there’s still the ability to sing and play the guitar as a band. I didn’t have the chance to make use of my awful singing voice, as I don’t believe anyone wants to really hear that in a booth, but I found that the general atmosphere surrounding Guitar Hero Live’s new presentation makes for an immersive if ultimately very divisive approach to showing off your inner rockstar.


Guitar Hero Live implements live video footage this time around, sweeping away the series’ well-known cartoony graphics from previous entries. A “modern media experience,” was how Activision PR referred to the change when the game was originally announced back in April, and that certainly makes sense in the grand scheme of things. In a landscape where graphics, resolution, and framerate can almost be a deciding factor for some gamers, adopting this approach almost makes Guitar Hero Live future proof. This can also make it into a fully viable platform and service rather than a multiple entry series like before, and the chance of saturating and destroying the rhythm game genre becomes slightly less likely.

The game’s more-or-less scrapped almost everything from the classic Guitar Hero formula, all that remains are score streaks, a total score, the note highway, and a solid amount of tracks on-disc at launch. You play out each song in Guitar Hero Live as if you’re a part of a real band, as you’re thrown into a POV (point-of-view) shot, walking around a large stage giving the nod to other band members in your vicinity, all the while drowning out the constant screams of the crowd in front of you. It’s almost daunting in a way, but when the song begins it feels so natural and really damn awesome. It’s almost like living out your dream from high school, until you quickly find out you’re still fairly amateur at Guitar Hero Live and both your band and the crowd turn on you in an instant.


Failing to ring in the points will shift how everything plays out in-game, as your band mates will start giving you snarky looks, you’ll start hearing that awful crunching noise that’s made when you miss notes, and the crowd will start booing you. So much for living out your dream! These changes happen via the way of transitions that change the video playing out, as each song’s video will have a positive or negative vibe attached to it depending on if you’re hitting the notes like a guitar god or failing miserably. The former makes for an experience completely unrivaled in other music games, and it makes you feel generally awesome — like you’re really on-stage playing to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. It instills you with the feeling that you’re supposed to be there and you’ve finally made it a musician, yet with the tables turned it can really get to you, causing you to miss more notes than you’d like.

That’s the thing, if anything Guitar Hero Live’s new presentation is a little bit too distracting from what you’re actually supposed to be doing. While the name of the game still remains the same — hit the notes, get the best score, hit the leaderboards — having a video in front of you that’s indicative of a real-life rock band pulls away from your goal and I found myself looking out into the crowd and at my band members a lot more often than I should have, and as such I missed a lot of the notes I should have hit.


Something else that particularly stuck out to me was how frustrating it was to hit a certain button combination during the heat of the moment. Implementing a new control scheme in a renowned series is a difficult task, I can understand that, but as I made my way through both Paramore’s ‘Now’ and Pierce the Veil’s ‘King for a Day’, there was always one button combination that I’d never hit, and it was the combination of both buttons on a single fret. My hand felt extremely awkward when I tried to hit this specific note, and it felt clunky and unnatural given the slightly altered fretboard. Perhaps this is due to just being completely new to the changed guitar and control scheme, but it’s something that I definitely picked up on quickly.

Even so, I’m quite impressed with what I’ve seen and played of Guitar Hero Live. I feel the change in formula definitely makes it more unique than the other music rhythm titles out there and that its POV-style approach will really pull players in and have them feel like they’re a part of a real, successful band. The guitar itself, minus the clunky single fret note, feels excellent and is weighted perfectly for players who prefer to play standing up like myself. It’ll be interesting to see how Guitar Hero Live’s launch plays out and what kind of support is seen throughout given the title should act as a platform this time around rather than just a standalone game. Nonetheless, I’m excited for the return of Guitar Hero and I’m glad there’s been such a significant change, it can only bode well for the future of the tried-and-true rhythm game.

This preview was conducted at the 2015 EB Games Expo. Guitar Hero Live is set to launch on the 20th of October on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Wii U. An iOS version is also in the works.