Guitar Hero Live: The Kotaku Review

Guitar Hero Live: The Kotaku Review
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Guitar Hero Live is two separate games united by a single plastic guitar. One is the first game in the series to truly live up to its name. The other is decidedly different.

The core idea behind the Guitar Hero series is right there in the name — make the player feel like a rock (or pop or metal or whichever) god. The first couple of games in the series nearly delivered on that premise but got the perspective all wrong. Instead of being guitar heroes we were watching guitar heroes. As the series transformed from guitar game to band game that original idea was buried even deeper.

With Guitar Hero Live‘s Live game mode, FreeStyle Games (of B-Boy and DJ Hero fame) drags the player on stage, gives them a guitar, a band to play with and crowd that’s theirs to win or lose. They can be a guitar hero. Or they can be an inept arse. Their choice!

The developers filmed a series of live concert events with real bands performing covers of popular music (lip-syncing, don’t worry) from the first-person perspective of the guitarist. They filmed a version with the crowd loving every moment and the band loving the guitarist’s work. Then they filmed a version with the crowd wanting the guitarist dead and the band wondering why the hell they let you on stage. Play well and the good video plays. Play poorly and the screen blurs briefly, transitioning to the negative video.

The illusion created is exquisite. When I stepped onto the stage for my first set I felt nervous. Roadies handed me my guitar and guided me to the stage and I wanted to turn around and leave. I was not ready to be in front of a crowd. I was certainly not prepared to perform an entire three track set — songs can be played individually once unlocked but during the games’ core mode they are grouped to simulate a real music festival.

But perform I did, and soon I found my groove, thanks in part to the natural feel of the new guitar controller and its two rows of six buttons.

While I’m a big fan of the “traditional” plastic guitar controller and its five coloured buttons, as an incredibly amateur guitarist I am far more used to my fingers moving sideways across the stings rather than up and down. The 3×3 button layout feels natural and lends itself to a surprising amount of variety once you wander into the game’s higher difficulty levels.

The feel of the guitar, the roar of the crowd and the adoration of the bands (and the opposite reactions) make for an incredibly compelling Guitar Hero Live experience. The developers did an excellent job matching real bands with the musical styles represented across the 42 tracks in Live mode, so I never ran into a situation where a male singer was belting out Katy Perry or vice versa.

Only one track pulled me out of the experience, and that was Skrillex’s magnum opus “Bangarang”, as made famous by Farming Simulator. This is not a guitar song, and when I tried just jumping around and twisting dials while the song played the crowd got really angry.

I especially like the bit where the girls who rush the stage and start dancing in the good version of the video actively try to kill me.

Guitar Hero Live‘s Live Mode is an amazing solo experience, but it is a solo experience. It’s built from the ground up with the solitary guitarist in mind. Another guitarist and a vocalist can join in while playing the Live tracks in Free Play mode, but the core game only has room for one guitar hero.

Which brings us to the second Guitar Hero game being launched today, Guitar Hero TV.

How to explain this? Guitar Hero TV is basically a cable box that runs two (initially) playable music video channels around the clock and an on demand music service.

At any given moment the player can go to TV mode, hop into a channel (Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus are not required) and immediately start playing whichever of the game’s 200 or so initial launch titles is playing at the moment. They will be matched up against other players, with points and coins awarded according to their rank once the song ends. Then there’s a brief pause, and the next song begins. Want to add another guitarist and a singer? Knock yourself out.

It’s like MTV all over again, only now it’s an interactive competition. At first it was very strange, coming into the middle of a song and playing against folks who’d been there for the whole show. The moment it clicked for me was when I tuned in and heard “Stacy’s Mum” in progress and excitedly tuned in and began strumming. It’s the joy of finding your favourite song on the radio, coupled with a compelling reason to experience new music.

Like many competitive online multiplayer games (is this the Call of Duty of rhythm games?) the player levels up as they perform, gaining access to special events, new track skins, special Hero Powers and racking up Plays. Plays are the currency used to play any song in the ever-expanding Guitar Hero Live TV catalogue on demand.

Yes, this game has paid microtransactions. Players can purchase Hero Cash with real money to purchase Plays if they wish, and Party Passes that give players free access to the entire online catalogue for a limited time are available for $US5.99.

I’ve been playing for less than a week and I already have 82 Plays amassed just through regular online play. You get Plays every level. Coins earned through playing can be used to purchase them as well. I’m not worried about additional spending any time soon.

If everyone in the world had plastic guitars, Guitar Hero TV might have been released as a free-to-play social game. But they don’t, so it’s included in a bundle with one hell of a single-player experience and a nifty instrument.

There will be people put off by the microtransactions — I say they are pretty harmless, and in exchange for them being there players never have to worry about purchasing additional music as downloadable content. Every new song released from here on out — and there are 70 or so planned between now and Christmas — will be inserted into the live channels for everyone to play, as well as made available on demand.

The only negative feelings I have for Guitar Hero Live‘s TV Mode stems from the fact that it will be the developers’ post-launch focus, and I won’t be getting any more of that exquisite first-person concert experience.

Perhaps it’s for the best. Too many artists continue playing long past their prime. It’s better to burn out than fade away, and Guitar Hero Live‘s single-player mode burns very bright. Then it’s off the stage to spend the rest of our days jamming out with friends. I can live with that.


  • While I’m a big fan of the “traditional” plastic guitar controller and its five coloured buttons, as an incredibly amateur guitarist I am far more used to my fingers moving sideways across the stings rather than up and down.

    It’s weird that people just don’t seem to get this from the promotional material. Guitar Hero/Rock Band five fret guitars had this janky wrist movement that was nothing like the exaggerated sliding people picture guitarists using non-stop. This has a very simplified but ultimately similar motion to switching strings.
    I’ve always considered Guitar Hero/Rock Band instrument playing to be a unique but totally valid skill that mirrors the appearance of playing guitar, so for me it’s not really about being closer, but the new guitar seems both closer and more practical. I could (can?) play on Expert in the previous games but I felt like the fifth fret was a really bad way to amp up the difficulty. It’s like mapping the trigger on the A button in a FPS game, you can get used to aiming with the right stick then quickly flipping over to the face buttons to fire but it’s not really a difficulty increase as much as just annoying the player.

    • While I agree, I still think they should have a fourth button pair. When I play guitar, I tend to use all fingers more or less equally, pinky included, so I think it’d be even weirder to just have my pinky floating off on its own the way this layout implies… unless they incorporate it by charting power chords differently to octaves (eg. Top-1/Top-3/Bottom-3 vs just Top-1/Bottom-3). A fourth pair could have added an extra element of challenge, perhaps too much for the casual market they’re aiming at, but that’s why difficulty settings exist, no?

      • Four would probably be a good Expert level. I think it would be more difficult but unlike the fifth fret it wouldn’t be an awkward jolt it’d just be a natural progression (might be a little tricky getting used to the pinky wrapping around but nothing major). The move from three to four in the previous games was tricky for some people but even with the added difficulty of dark/light I don’t think it’d be too bad. I mean they aim at the casual market but I don’t think that stops them from having modes with hardcore skill requirements as long ramp up the difficulty smoothly. You could play the older games casually or hardcore, but there was a wall where you had to make the choice between casual and hardcore. With this system I think a eight button/four row layout would cover the spectrum really well.
        Then again maybe we’re under estimating the difficulty of the six button/three row layout because it sounds simple.

      • My suspicion is that this was a decision for the kiddies. I also use four fingers to play my real guitar, but for a young kid (which is clearly a target market for GHL, given the set list) with small hands and a weak pinkie, the fourth fret could be really challenging (in a “I’m physically incapable of doing this” way, not a fun “git gud” way).

        • I don’t think it’s a decision made strictly for the kids. I’ve been playing it and it’s not as casual as it sounds. 3 upper and 3 lower sounds simple, but you’ve got to remember that not only can the notes be both upper and lower at the same time, but a strum can be made up of both upper and lower notes combined together (or completely open). It’s a lot more intense than the old five colour system. You can’t just mash at frets since you don’t want to accidentally hold the lower when you’re aiming at the upper.
          It’s strange, everything about the game screams casual but actually playing is harder. It’s very precise and requires more attention. If you take the stupid wrist movement out of the equation it’s much harder to follow B–, -B-, –B, W–, -B-, –W than it is G—-, -R—, –Y–, -R—-, —O-. The first time you hit BW- or WB- is a bit of a shock. I would have expected them to set the default difficulty to just upper notes or just lower notes, but they throw all this at you right away.
          As a guitarist you’ll probably have less trouble with the hand movement than others, but I think you’ll still find the Dance Dance Revolution side of it a little tricky.

  • Sooooooooo, as one of zero people who frequents here who enjoys pop music, that Katy Perry song video has just about convinced me to get this….
    *awaiting downvotes*

      • I used to like pop… then they changed what pop was. Now what was pop isn’t pop, and what is pop seems weird and scary to me.

      • I’m sorry, but if an ‘artist’ is incapable of partaking in the writing of their own songs then can’t even record or perform music without mechanical assistance, it’s not music.
        That is noise with a voice.

        Of course, if you’re talking about more classic pop music from 10+ years ago, that is often a different story.

        • Bit of a generalisation that pop musicians don’t write their own stuff. There’s plenty out there that do, and do a good job of it.

          As for the ones that don’t? *shrug* To each their own.

        • I don’t know much about pop but wasn’t Katy Perry a song writer before she took off as a singer? I’d be surprised if she doesn’t contribute to at least some of her songs.

          • She certainly does co-write ‘her’ songs.
            Katy Perry has her hands all over hits such as:
            “I Kissed A Girl”
            “Ur So Gay”
            “California Girls”
            “Teenage Dream”

            Like Lady Gaga, the woman has immense talent but she is pissing it right away on the above titles.

  • …two rows of six buttons
    The 3×3 button layout feels natural
    …I’m going to assume the picture is correct, and there’s two rows of 3 buttons for a total of six.

  • Played this last night. First Issue – the guitar is terrible, mine wont upstrum and I have gotten used to the Logitech Guitars which have alot less travel in the strumbar and a good amount of weight to them. Second Issue – I dont like the playing in front of a crowd, I find it doesnt add anything to the game. I do however quite like the new 6 button approach to the controller as it adds a new level of skill to the playing, and I quite like the “GHTV” part of the game with unlocking things as you play.

    I still have to spend more time playing, So we will see how it stacks up to RB4 which im still have DLC and Import issues with 🙂

  • Got it yesterday and its actually pretty good. Like the move from 5 buttons to 6. Makes it easier and harder to play at the same time. The live section of the game is complete rubbish. Who the f wants to play katy perry, eminem skrillex and another bunch of shit pop songs on a guitar? The up side is the ghtv, and great selection of songs with the film clip playing in the back round, love it. Played it for 2 hours then the servers overloaded. Was forced to play with the crowd section of the game. Hope its back up and running today.

  • I really enjoyed the Live mode. I think it helps with immersion when you up the volume and stand in front of a big TV. GHTV seems like a great time killer too. Also, I think the Guitar layout is a big improvement, even if I still kind of suck.

  • Am I the only one who really liked the cartoony graphics? am I the only one who thinks this whole live audience deal looks awful and will date about as well as Night Trap?

  • Played this for a while yesterday. First up: I LOVE the new guitar. At the higher difficulties, it gives the game ways to increase the challenge that feel natural and fun; to make an Expert track really hard with the old guitar, they often had to just resort to silly jumping up and down the fretboard and it just felt cheesy.

    That said, the GHTV setup really annoys me. It’s fun for what it does, and like Mike says, there’s always plenty of plays if every now and again and play I Gotsta Get Paid once or twice. But if you want to chase 100% on Expert – which I loved doing in the old games – that could take dozens of attempts at a single song, and there’s just no good option for that.

  • Oh, and the other thing: None of the GHTV songs are taken from master tracks. If you’re mucking up your guitar, the whole song just gets muted (like in GH1, before they started getting master tracks). And it also sounded like some of them were playing fairly low-quality audio files, even though GHTV chewed up a huge amount of data (seriously, I wouldn’t count on this being your primary way of playing GHL if you have any kind of data limit!)

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