E3 2015: Hands-On With Guitar Hero Live

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Do you see that? That big black feathery thing sitting right there in front of me? That, my friends, is some crow. Sit back and watch me eat it.

Since the announcement of Guitar Hero Live my very public reaction has been a resounding “Meh”. Well we sat down with the developers, FreeStyleGames, on Sunday morning and found a very new experience built around the core Guitar Hero concept.

To start, what we saw at the initial reveal a while back was one half of the the game, the “Live” side. This is the first person experience which is organized around two music festivals with multiple stages and sets within each festival.

A cast of real actors and musicians was put together along with hundreds of extras for the crowd. To make it all work they had they musicians block out their movements and positions on stage along with a cameraman emulating your part as the guitarist.

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This was all recorded in a motion capture studio to get the exact positioning of “you” within the scene. The data was then loaded into a motion control rig (essentially a big robotic camera) and it moved through each scene twice following the exact same path. The first time through they’d do a positive take with all the reactions being excited and upbeat and then repeat it precisely for a negative take, with the crowd disinterested and booing.

This allows the game to move between takes at any point in the song depending on how you’re playing and it’s remarkable how seamlessly everything blends together. If your view is towards the crowd as things go wrong, the edges of the scene blur and the reactions change to negative and that works fine.

Things really become magical under slightly different circumstances. Say you’re looking at the crowd and playing well, then your character turns back towards the band and starts to falter. The band members start to show signs of concern and when you turn back to the crowd they’re clearly upset with you and your garbage. The promise of live action video in a game has finally come of age in a way that was only dreamed of in the past.

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Humor has also been injected in wherever it fits. For example, at one point you’re playing well and you look over to the roadie on the side of the stage who looks up and gives you a thumbs up. People will rush up on stage and get chased by security, all kinds of things to make the experience much more like a real rock show. The sun will even set during your time on stage if you’re playing during that part of the festival.

A positional audio system has also been introduced so when you’re looking down at the crowd in the pit you’ll be hearing their boos or cheers more clearly. When you turn back to the drummer, the crowd sounds will drop off slightly and you’ll be able to hear the drums more and the drummer yelling to you over the music. It’s subtle but effective in making the experience come to life.

The crowds and bands themselves are essentially grouped into genres so everything will feel more realistic. Everyone will be dressed appropriately for the type of music you’re playing. So they essentially shot all the required video for every song with the positive and negative reactions and depending on the type of song, they had the folk-rock band and crowd or the metal band and crowd and so on. The amount of work that went into it is staggering, and that’s only half the game.

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Before we get there though, let’s talk about the guitar. The controller has been redesigned so you won’t be able to use any of your previous stuff but this is actually a good thing.

You now have a total of six buttons split into a top and bottom row of three each. Guitar picks pointing up or down in each of the three lanes indicate which buttons to push while a square icon indicates holding both the top and bottom together. It takes a few songs to wrap your head around to new mechanic but once you do, it starts to feel more natural and more like playing a real guitar than Guitar Hero or Rock Band ever have.

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Now, the other major component to the new Guitar Hero is called GHTV. This is a 24-hour music video network (like MTV used to be). It’s set up like a TV network with programming blocks such as a metal hour, or alt-rock hour. The songs are streaming and everyone around the world will be seeing the same thing.

Currently with two channels (subject to change), you’ll be able to switch between them to try to find the music you like. There will also be a programming guide so you can schedule and receive alerts when your favorite type of music is live on the channel.

 

Hero powers are more diverse here and you’ll have things like Clear Highway, Invincibility, or Double Multiplier. You can level up as you play this side of the game based on your performance. With the currency you accumulate you’ll be able to purchase skins for your guitar highway which were surprisingly cool with animations and designs.

The idea in this mode is really to help expose players to new types of music so you’ll also get recommendations based on what songs you’ve been playing.

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One of the best new features here is that if you take your hands of the guitar at any point, the note highway will fade away and the music video will continue to play, making this perfect for party situations. Since the music is constantly streaming 24/7 you can literally drop in and out whenever you want or just watch the videos.

When you are playing, the left hand side of the screen shows your score relative to everyone else playing at the same time. You jump in match-made against players with a similar skill level. Finishing the song at the top awards much more experience.

If you want to play a specific song in GHTV you pull up a menu to play anything on demand. The game keeps track of all your stats for the game and your worldwide and friends rank. You’ll use the in game currency to purchase plays of a song. So the more you play, the more you earn. If you already spent all your in game currency on customizations, you’ll be able to purchase plays with real money.

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To unlock a song for unlimited plays you’d use real money to add it to your permanent library. So the idea is to cater to different players. You can earn plays and never have to pay any money or you can purchase something if you always want it available.

When you’re playing a song on demand, the score chase will still be available through the use of other player’s scores (think ghosts in driving games).

Premium Shows are available to add new songs into the game and highlight them. To play these you’ll be asked to complete challenges in related songs, encouraging players to experience new music or you can bypass this by purchasing a “play now” with your in game currency at a higher price.

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You can normally change difficulty at any point in the game but when playing one of the new songs in a Premium Show you’ll be locked in to the difficulty you choose. This is done because you’ll be awarded bigger prizes and bonuses with the new songs. Local and online co-op play is also available with battles and such.

Interestingly, the full game will also be available as a SKU for mobile similar to recent Skylanders games. You’ll still need the guitar controller no matter which version you’re playing so they’ll all be packaged with one.

Overall I came away incredibly impressed with the concept this time around. The folks at FreeStyleGames have done a fantastic job moving the idea of the music game forward and convinced me that this is one I really want.

Guitar Hero Live will be available on October 20, 2015 for the PlayStation®4, PlayStation®3, Xbox One™, Xbox 360™, Nintendo Wii U™, and select mobile devices with a suggested retail price of $99.99.

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