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Guitar Hero Live (Xbox One) Review

The original ‘music game’ returns with a version that improves on the classic formula and introduces a brand new mode that will swallow your life and have you spraining your digits with GHTV.

It actually took me a long time to get into rhythm games when they first launched with the original Guitar Hero ten years ago, in 2005. I didn’t play that one, still haven’t, and only started to get into the whole plastic instrument riff when GHII and later the first Rock Band arrived.

Once that happened though, I was all in. I bought every version and offshoot (except, oddly, that original game and the Aerosmith one), and loved every second of it. Mainly I played guitar, or bass if someone else was over. Singing was okay once that was introduced, kind of fun, but I never got into the drums – or the keytar for that matter. Too much like work for my tastes.

And then, the whole thing just kind of… faded out. The show was over, overstaying its welcome many claimed, and went without a GH or Rock Band release for years. Till now that is. This year we get new versions of both titles, and you know what? It’s great.

Aside from the nostalgia-factor, which sounds strange to even say since it’s only been five years since the last game in the series, developer FreeStyleGames has made a ton of improvements, all of which make the game seem fresh and exciting again. Not the least of those is the GHTV function, but we’ll get to that.

Maybe the biggest change that you’ll see the moment you dive into the new game though, is the replacement of the series’ graphics with full motion video. Now don’t get crazy, I know FMV stirs all kinds of negative emotions in people, but this isn’t what you’re thinking.

Although the cartoony graphics were fun and became synonymous with the genre that the game founded, when you look back on them they are kind of dated, especially since the characters that you pick from weren’t the most interesting-looking people in the world. Still, the graphic style worked for what it was, and the game was really about the note highway anyway, not what was happening around it. That was more for the people watching, waiting their turn to jam.

Well, that’s kind of completely different this time around and here’s why: the live action crowd and stage is distracting, and I mean that in a good way. Especially for someone who’s never been on a stage before, seeing a live crowd’s cheers turn to boos can really get into your head. Likewise, seeing your bandmates (who are actually a band in the real world) make ‘that face’ at you when you screw something up can make you feel like garbage on the guitar, which I guess I kind of was. Sorry guys.

And while that all might sound like something that gets in the way of the gameplay, which is largely unchanged by the way, it actually doesn’t. What it does, as I intimated above, is add in another layer to that gameplay; a psychological one. I noted in my preview of Guitar Hero Live that it induced a little stage fright to get up in front of a ‘real’ crowd and that hasn’t changed any for the final release.

That’s all mainly aesthetic though, even if it can play a role in the quality of your strumming. As I mentioned, the actual gameplay is pretty much what you remember from the classic series, though it’s got some new tricks that add in a fair bit.

For starters, the guitar is really different and vastly improved. Instead of five differently-shaded notes that you need to hit, you only get white and black ones. The trick is that they’re either up or down, and rolling down the highway in rows of three- so there’s actually six notes to hit this time around.

What’s amazing is that GHL manages to make hitting them easier than ever thanks to the fact that the new instrument has same layout. So you won’t have to stretch your fingers up or down the neck of the guitar, you simply have to manage hitting two rows of three buttons, divided into a trio of columns.

This makes playing songs on harder difficulties way easier than ever before and comes as a direct feedback from gamers who pretty much across the boards never used their pinkies to hit anything. So what the team at FreeStyleGames did was cut out the need to use that finger all together.

To put it simply, it’s an awesome effect. And it’s one that gets gamers (like me) who were too good at the game to have a challenge at a lower difficulty, but not good enough to jump to the next level, to actually make it to that next plateau. It works, is plenty of fun, and presents a challenge, but not one that feels impossible.

New Hero Powers make a debut here as well and, although there’s no bundle for it at retail, you can also play with a USB mic and belt out some tunes as a nice little bonus. If you played this mode in older GH titles, then it’s largely the same here, with lyrics that scroll across the screen. I imagine that any USB mic would do here too, so if you have one from a previous game, then jack in and you’re probably good to go.

Now, let’s talk about Guitar Hero TV shall we?

An alternate mode that basically makes GHL into a two-game package, GHTV is a constantly updated music television channel that’s loaded up with music videos from top stars. No, the fictional band from the campaign mode isn’t here, these videos are the real deal, and you can sing and play right along to them with your mic or guitar(s) just like in the base game.

Quite frankly, it’s awesome and probably better than MTV and VH1 put together at this point. Heck, GHTV even has shows. Yep, it’s not just a bunch of videos on rotation, Activsion has effectively created their own music TV channel in the game, and curates shows based on rock, pop, top songs, and other categories.

You can dig into whatever’s on at the moment, and flip between two different rows of programming (so I guess they’ve really made two channels then) to play. You can also play songs on demand if you like, though you’ll need play tokens to do that. Fortunately they’re not all that hard to come by, and you can buy some in the in-game store (with in-game credits, not cash), so if you like direct control over what you’re presented with, you have some opportunity for that too.

There are also Premium Shows on the channel selections, and those you have to earn your way into, or pay up to play. Yes it’s a little annoying, not terrible by any means, but annoying. And most of the shows are set to offer in-game goodies for players should they complete the shows on time.

Personally though, I was thoroughly pulled into GHTV’s selections and played through a ton of them as they were presented. It was far and away the most time-absorbing portion of the game for me and I spent a load of time playing songs that I probably would never have even listened to otherwise if given the choice, and tweaking my player card and on-screen guitar options as I increased in rank and got more ‘cash’.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, as you play on GHTV you’ll notice that you’re actually competing against other gamers live and in real time. Yes – it’s a multiplayer mode. And I can’t possibly get across how good it feels to best someone’s score on the little list that displays the current tallies to the left of the highway. Then again, it also feels pretty crappy to suddenly start dropping. Fair warning, the guys and gals on here are pretty awesome.

Final Thoughts

There’s not a lot of negatives to Guitar Hero Live. It’s just a great rhythm game and a phenomenal return to the genre for Activsion and the GH brand on the whole. FreeStyleGames nailed the feel that so many gamers fell in love with in Guitar Hero, while adding in a fresh new style with the full-motion video backdrop and the all-new guitar control scheme.

And that’s not even mentioning the excellent GHTV, which might be the sleeper of the whole thing, and will have you playing for hours set against some of the biggest music videos of the past and present. Hopefully there’s a lot more on the way to the game’s selection, as I wouldn’t say that what’s there currently is a ton of stuff, but it’s serviceable.

Then I was also annoyed that you can’t just select specific songs that you want off of GHTV anytime that you want, though I definitely see what FreeStyle did and why they made the choice to enact that ‘purchase’ system. You can’t have a music channel (or two) after all, if people don’t watch (and play) the actual programming most of the time.

Minor issues aside, this is a music game to rule all music games. There’s lots of fun to be had here and it’s a game that will get you playing for a good long time in a party setting, or just by yourself or with a friend.

Guitar Hero Live is a showstopper.

About Jason Micciche

Jason's been knee deep in videogames since he was but a lad. Cutting his teeth on the pixely glory that was the Atari 2600, he's been hack'n'slashing and shoot'em'uping ever since. Mainly an FPS and action guy, Jason enjoys the occasional well crafted title from every genre.

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