Review: Guitar Hero Live (PS4)

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Title: Guitar Hero Live
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: October 20, 2015
Publisher: Activision
Developer: FreeStyleGames
Original MSRP: $99.99 (Guitar Bundle) / $149.99 (Two Guitar Bundle)
ESRB Rating: T
Guitar Hero Live is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Wii U.
The PlayStation 4 Two Guitar Bundle version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 445 of the podcast.

Gameplay:
When it was first announced, I did nothing but dump on this game. I assumed that, much like Rock Band, this would be more of the same. Who needs to sit around playing just the guitar when you’ve got the full band experience available elsewhere?

Then we got a hands-on at E3 and my eyes were opened. We left with plenty of questions but I had done a complete 180 and was heavily anticipating Guitar Hero Live while being somewhat lukewarm towards Rock Band. Let me explain why.

First and foremost, the controller. This is unlike any previous guitar controller you’ve used and it can, at times, feel more like a real guitar than any of the previous Guitar Hero or Rock Band games. Instead ot the standard five colored buttons you have three and three stacked on top of each other.

… like I was playing actual chords on a real guitar …
So six buttons now, taking up less space, and only requiring three fingers to play them. Guitar pick shaped notes come down the three lane highway along with a rounded square shape every now and then. White picks pointing down correspond with the bottom row of three buttons while black picks pointing up are for the top row of three buttons. The rounded square shapes are a black and white split color meaning you need to hold down both the top and bottom buttons for that note.

It takes a little getting used to but your brain typically starts to grasp it by the third song. What amazed me about the setup is how much it started to feel like I was playing actual chords on a real guitar in some songs and this was just the middle skill level out of five.

Guitar Hero Live_GHLive_002

When you suddenly have notes which require top left, bottom right, then top left and right, then top and bottom left together, it can start to feel like you’re playing chords in a way. My skill level is nowhere near ready to tackle the top two levels but I’m sure the feeling is even more pronounced there. It’s such a simple change to the guitar layout but it has a profound effect on the immersion.

Guitar Hero Live (GH Live) is broken down into two sections, Live and GHTV. Live is where you’re playing in a fictional band at a series of festivals while TV streams music 24/7 so you can jump right in. Let’s start with Live since that’s the one most people will be interested in right off the bat.

… an experience unlike any other …
In Live, you’ll be given the chance to play two major (fictional) music festivals with a variety of bands. This is the one we’ve been talking about on the podcast a lot. A total of forty-two songs are available in this mode.

This is the fulfillment of the “Full Motion Video” promise made more than two decades ago. For this part of the game real people were cast as fictional bands, roadies, and crowds to create an experience unlike any other in in the rhythm/music games genre.

Everything was filmed with a cameraman standing in for you where they blocked out the scene and walked through the motions for the song to make it a realistic experience. The data was then fed into a computer and an automated rig recreated the movements exactly through two passes. This was done to get the full song with both positive and negative reactions.

Guitar Hero Live_GHLive_018

When you start the song, everyone is enthusiastic and excited. Play poorly and you’ll know it immediately. The scene quickly changes and the crowd turns on you, your band tries to motivate you, roadies look unhappy – it’s an amazing experience.

Like all rhythm games there will be a series of highlighted notes that you need to hit get access to a special ability. For GH Live this is called the Hero Power and you’ll use it to quickly win back the crowd. Of course, just playing well can win them back without needing a special ability.

… feeling like a real rock star …
Each set you play at the festival consists of three or four songs and it’s really best taken in small doses. I say that because as you move from set to set, you’ll be playing different music with entirely different bands. Doing several in a row kind of breaks the illusion as now you start to feel less and less a part of the band since it’s a different group for every set.

Don’t get me wrong, the overall experience of it is amazing, especially right out of the gate. When you start up the game for the first time, you’ll be given a tutorial as a roadie “checks your levels and tuning”. That whole first set has you feeling like a real rock star.

Smartly, the tutorial then moves you over to the GHTV section of the game to explain things there. In doing so, it keeps you from immediately jumping into the next festival set with an entirely different band.

Guitar Hero Live_GHLive_015

So how does GHTV work? Are you old enough to remember a time when MTV actually showed music videos all day and night? That’s exactly what this is, a playable MTV, and it’s awesome.

Two channels are available at launch with a third coming online shortly after and it’s expected to grow from there. This is the meat of the game and it’s where all the growth will happen. The Live section is set with its two festivals and forty-two songs and there are no plans to add to it. I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed when I heard that. Then I played GHTV for a while and understood why this was the future of the franchise.

There are currently just over two hundred songs available in GHTV with more being added weekly. Everything is broken down into blocks of music that run thirty minutes to an hour and multiple channels (hopefully) ensure there’s always something you’ll want to play.

… It’s seamless and it’s beautiful …
So for instance, Channel One may have a Heavy Metal Hour while Channel Two is playing Indie Knockouts. All the playlists are being created by FreeStyleGames as a way to discover new music and it works. You simply pick a channel and drop right into the song that’s currently playing. It’s seamless and it’s beautiful.

When I first turned it on, my choices were Metal or (I think) Pop Hour. Not really thrilled with either choice, I went with Pop Hour. I didn’t recognize the artist at all but it was decent so I stuck with it. Then Carrie Underwood came up and I rolled my eyes, groaned, and decided to stick it out. I’m glad I did because even though I didn’t really care for the song, it gave me some more experience and the next one up was Broken Bells.

Guitar Hero Live_GHTV_Broken Bells_004

I ended up spending so much time in GHTV that I quickly forgot about the Live side of the game and honestly didn’t miss it all that much. Having a wide variety of music, constantly rotating, with the actual music video playing as a backdrop is just a fantastic experience.

So let’s say I didn’t want to play the Carrie Underwood song I could just stop playing, pick up my phone and check email and Twitter while it continued on in the background. A message comes up over the note highway to press any key to play but you’re not penalized for dropping out of a song, there is no failure here, making it excellent for parties.

… enjoy everything it has to offer without ever spending a dime …
What if you want to play a specific song? You’re able to play songs on demand by using a “Play” which can be acquired in two ways. You can earn plays as you level up. This is done by just playing the game. Each song you complete in any mode gets you XP and coins. Leveling up unlocks new note highways, player cards, and earns you free Plays. You’ll get ten Plays just for completing the tutorial and ten more at Level Three.

You can play the entire game, unlock Plays, and enjoy everything it has to offer without ever spending a dime, but if you want, Plays can also be purchased. I saw that, quit rolling your eyes, because it’s nowhere near as bad as it sounds. All those coins you earn just from playing the game? They can be used to buy plays at 1,800 coins for three songs. If you have enough coins you can buy bigger packs of Plays or you can spend real money.

Guitar Hero Live_GHTV_Broken Bells_005

If you’re going the real-world cash route, it equates to about fifteen cents per Play. I know, right now some of you may be saying, “But why can’t I just permanently buy the songs I want so I can always play them?” Well, that’s not an option. Guitar Hero Live is built to give you two distinct experiences: Rockstar on stage at a live concert, and playable MTV. Owning songs doesn’t really fit into that model and honestly, if you play GHTV enough, and you will, you’ll be earning enough to Play any song on demand anyway.

So the next big question: What happens when my friends come over and want to play specific songs? Do I have to use up all my Plays so they can do that? No you don’t, but there is a real world money solution to that which is worthwhile.

… songs from a band’s live recent live shows …
Think about when you’ve had groups of friends over in the past. Everyone has their own musical tastes and oftentimes you end up buying all kinds of songs that night that you’re never going to play again. In GH Live you can buy a Party Pass for $5.99 which unlocks every available song for on demand play for 24 hours. I’ve spent three to four times that on songs I’ll never play again just so everyone at the party could be happy.

You can unlock and purchase new highways and player cards with the in game currency you earn while playing which simply adds a level of customization as well. This stuff is entirely optional and can be done without spending any real money. New Hero Powers also unlock as you level up. When activated, these allow you to do things like clear out all notes on screen, dial down the difficulty, double the score multiplier, and more.

Guitar Hero Live_GHTV_Dream_Theater_019

Reaching Level Eight unlocks Premium Shows. This usually consists of new music that hasn’t been added to GHTV yet or songs from a band’s live recent live shows. The first one that unlocks is Avenged Sevenfold and you can play through three of their songs from a recent tour.

One of the others available was song from the older Guitar Hero games. To access that I had two options. Use Hero Cash or complete some in-game challenges. For the in-game challenges, I had to get at least a three star rating on three specific songs. Interestingly, if you’ve already completed any of the challenges through the normal course of playing the game, they count and you can either complete the other(s) or spend a lesser amount of Hero Cash to unlock the content.

… you won’t be penalized in any way for not participating …
The Premium Shows look like they’ll be updated regularly so if you find content in there that you want to access, it’ll give you a push to try out some other music to unlock it.

Singing is also an option in GH Live and to do it all you need is a USB mic plugged in. It’ll also recognize the PlayStation camera as a mic if you want to use that, but be careful, depending on the placement of the camera and any surround speakers you may get crazy bad feedback. I’ve run into this with Rock Band and SingStar as well with my setup so I had to turn off the camera mic.

Guitar Hero Live_GHTV_Trivium_039

If you have a USB mic, the singing works just as well as any game that includes it as an option. The mic is instantly recognized and the lyrics will appear on the top of the screen with a pitch meter familiar to Rock Band or SingStar veterans. The singer even gets a score at the end of the song.

Just like the guitars, if you come to a song you don’t want to sing, just don’t sing. The lyrics will still scroll across the screen but you won’t be penalized in any way for not participating.

… a really wide selection of music …
Visuals:
As alluded to earlier, this isn’t an experience you’ve had before in this type of game. If you’ve never been in a band, this may be the closest you’ll ever get to being on stage.

Of course, the Live section looks amazing since it’s all beautiful HD video of real people playing the music and real crowds alternately cheering or jeering your performance. The transition between positive and negative crowd reactions is simply another visual cue to help you on stage, and in that respect, it works.

Guitar Hero Live_GHLive_006

The music videos in the GHTV section of the game look great as well but I have a great internet connection. Just from digging around in the sparse menu I am aware that there’s a lot of caching involved. I do wonder how good the performance is on this side of things with a spotty or even mediocre connection.

Audio:
Well of course the audio is good but in the Live section of the game FreeStyleGames has done something really interesting to add to the immersion. The audio is enhanced depending on what you’re facing at the time. For example, when you’re standing in front of the drummer, looking at them, the drums will come up a little more in the mix and the crowd will be a little quieter. Turn back towards the crowd and they come up a little more in volume. It’s subtle but it really helps add to the feel of it.

… a bold new vision for what a rhythm game can be …
There’s a really wide selection of music even at this early stage which is great to see. I was pleasantly surprised to see bands like Alt-J, Broken Bells, Catfish & the Bottlemen, and Kasabian included. Living Colour even has two songs, Cult of Personality of course but also Love Rears Its Ugly Head – a song I never thought I’d see in a game like this.

There are plenty of mainstream, pop, hard rock, and metal artists represented as well and with weekly updates there should always be something available for just about everyone.

Guitar Hero Live_GHTV_Dream_Theater_025

Online/Multiplayer:
If you buy the two guitar pack, you can play multiplayer in every mode in GHTV. Live, obviously being what it is, is for one player only. Adding the microphone will allow anyone to sing and be scored as well.

One of the downsides we figured out when my cousin Alexa came over is that even with both of us logged in to the PS4 with our accounts and the guitars assigned to our individual accounts, only player one is properly ranked within the scoreboards and gets trophies, while player two plays as a guest. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it is kind of a bummer and an odd omission.

When the song starts a prompt appears on screen letting you know the second guitar has been detected and to press a button to join. Player two can then select their difficulty level and the song starts. Unfortunately, this has to be done again at the start of every song. Not a big deal if you’re going one song at a time, but when we built a ten song playlist, the max you can do, she had to join in again at the start of every single song. Otherwise, multiplayer works great.

Guitar Hero Live_PR_GHTV_Trivium_040

Conclusion:
Guitar Hero Live is unlike any of the previous iterations in the series or even the Rock Band series as well. It’s a bold new vision for what a rhythm game can be. Buy the initial package with one or two guitars and never spend a dime again while still getting new content weekly. It’s unheard of really, and the fact that it’s published by Activision speaks volumes about how big a change this really is.

The drop in/drop out nature makes it the perfect party game for any type of crowd. You can have GHTV playing as background music and if anyone wants to pick up a guitar and start playing they can – at any time. Having no real penalties and no way to “fail” a song makes it that much more inviting.

I do hope that Activision views this in much the same way Harmonix views Rock Band 4, possibly the only physical release for this generation and a platform to build on. Everything is in place to make that happen and the game is different enough that the two can easily co-exist without a full new version until the next generation.

Even if you have a huge library of songs for Rock Band and you’re picking that up, you owe it to yourself to give Guitar Hero Live a whirl. The new guitar is a revelation and the impact of the free content updates can’t be overstated. This one’s a game changer.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were provided by the publisher.

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Written by Josh Langford

Josh Langford

Josh has been gaming since 1977 starting with the Atari 2600.
He currently owns 25 different consoles and 6 different handhelds (all hooked up and in working condition) including all consoles from the current generation – minus the Switch.

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