At its peak in the mid-2000s, the words Guitar Hero were synonymous with “stagnation.” From the original 2005 hit all the way through its rivalry with Rock Band, very little changed in the formula–a plastic guitar, five colored buttons, and a digital crowd rocking as you strum along to hits new and old. Over a dozen games were released with little more than minor updates, ultimately saturating the market. With Guitar Hero Live, Activision has produced something completely new–but not necessarily improved.
The highlight of the Guitar Hero Live experience is opening up the box and assembling the guitar. The peripheral is familiar, yet there are some massive upgrades. Detailed plastic molding on the six (yes, six) fret buttons helps the player differentiate between each one. It’s also usable on any console.
The change in the fretboard is Live‘s biggest feature. Notes are now represented in three rows opposed to five, but you can ask for either a high note, low note, or combination of the two. Dedicated Guitar Hero players will realize few of their old skills have carried over. This is a whole new instrument to learn.
For all the merits of the instrument, Guitar Hero Live itself is a scattered mess. It’s split into two modes: GH Live and GH TV. Liveis the game’s single-player campaign, where you play songs against live-action video shot from the perspective of a guitarist on stage for various cover bands. Bad actors lip sync to the weakest track list in series history. At only 42 songs, it’s an afternoon’s worth of content at best.
Most likely, you’ll be spending most of your time in GH TV. This is an online streaming service for new song, and it adds an additional 200 tracks for you to play, all of them backed by music videos. This soundtrack is genuinely great, blending legendary acts with modern indie favorites. It’s also online, turning every performance into an active scoreboard chase against nine other players.
The catch is that you can’t play songs at will for free. You can either play the content currently being streamed or pick from the “On Demand” catalog. This costs a “Play,” which costs “coins,” which are earned by playing the game–or can be purchased for “Hero Cash,” which is bought with actual money. It’s an intentionally complicated system hiding a dirty fact–you have to pay real cash to play a song on your own terms. GH TV feels like the world’s most exploitative jukebox, one that I shouldn’t be paying $100 to access.
Ultimately, Guitar Hero Live is a sour deal. The touted Live content amounts to little more than four hours of shows. GH TV is well built but seems intentionally constructed to siphon more cash out of your bank account. The new fundamentals are great, but I can only hope Freestyle Games applies them to a better game next year.