In 2005 Guitar Hero sparked a gaming revolution, filling our heads with wicked riffs and our closets with plastic instruments. The series grew from a single act into a full fledged ensemble in a matter of years, invoking various imitators and spin-offs. Eventually players' excitement for rockin' around the clock wore thin and Guitar Hero was quietly phased out. Until now...
It's been half a decade since we've seen a new Guitar Hero entry, but Activision has decided to resurrect the once popular series with the revamped Guitar Hero Live. Unsurprisingly this comes directly on the heels of main competitor Rock Band's newest iteration. But Wii U owners don't have much of a choice in the matter, as Harmonix's Rock Band 4 made the decision to skip the Nintendo faithful this time round. For Wii U owners it's Guitar Hero Live or nothing.
Live feels like a return to form for the once boisterous series that eventually included bass, drums and vocals. Players have only one instrument to choose from this time around - guitar. It's actually rather refreshing to see such dedication to put the one aspect - which originally brought players into the rock and roll gaming world - back into the spotlight.
Guitar Hero Live also introduces a new type of guitar controller into the mix - one with six buttons instead of the usual five. The buttons are set in rows of three, with distinct top and bottom rows sitting directly parallel to each other. Players who are accustomed to the original guitar will have some trouble adjusting, but even mildly talented virtual guitarists won't take long to get in the groove of the new set up. The feel of moving up and down as well as left and right to different cords adds a decent new layer of realism that is hard to ignore, and a joy to master.
Gone is the the over-the-top rock and roll attitude from previous titles; player will find no flying eyeballs or overly animated avatars. They've been replaced by a very minimalistic visual style that's more about simplicity than anything else. It feels clean. The transitions, loading animations and menus are all very well done, featuring bold text and lots of contrasting design elements. It's a very modern approach that works out well in the grand scheme of things.
But who cares about menus? Let's talk about gameplay. Guitar Hero Live is split into two main modes - GH Live and GH TV. The former is supposedly the game's star attraction. It features a first person view with players taking on the role of a guitarist who is touring with various bands across multiple music festivals and venues. All of the people on screen, whether in the band or in the crowd, are real. They are video recordings that Freestyle Games has synced to every song in the main Live campaign. Crowds sing along and cheer if you rock their socks off, and consequently boo and jeer if you're doing less than stellar. It's weird, but it kind of works.
One of the strangest things about GH Live is that there is no middle ground to how the game perceives your skills. In the game's eyes players are either doing well and being worshipped or failing miserably and losing the crowd. It's not exactly a bad thing, it's just a bit distracting. Live mode's presentation isn't anything to sneeze at, but it's not particularly memorable due to the fact that most players will be focusing on the music at hand and not the background effects. In the end GH Live is a passable campaign that gives players a new, but forgettable, view on the rock star experience.
GH TV, on the other hand, is where the real action can be found. GH TV is basically a collection of music videos set to "channels". There are two channels to pick from, with each playing a different category of music depending on the time of day. Players are thrown into whatever song is currently being played once they select a channel and move on to another song as soon as the current one ends. It's like a radio, only with videos and a plastic guitar.
Players may think that not being able to pick what song comes next would be annoying, as it could lead to many unwanted tracks, but it feels like one of the best aspects of the entire game. GH TV effectively forces players into trying songs they may have skipped if they had a choice. The game introduces you to new music with this system, something we never thought would be so enjoyable. Players may think they're done for the night, when a new tune pops on screen with a tantalizing hook; at that point it becomes a drawn out game of "just one more".
It should also be noted that GH TV is far more entertaining for anyone who is watching the main player strum through songs as it features actual music videos in their entirety. There's finally a reason to keep your eyes glued to the screen if you're not the one fumbling over that Lenny Kravitz solo, and it's not the gameplay.
Players actually can pick their own tracks form a huge set list, but it's going to cost them. If you're thinking, "oh boy, here we go with the microtransactions", you're both right and wrong. GH TV has a bizarre system of not letting you buy songs, but giving you the ability to buy "plays". Meaning players can choose any song to play from the entire list, but they'll never own any unless it's one of the 42 tracks on the disc. Buying "plays", as well as new note highways and add-ons, requires in-game currency. In-game currency one can earn for playing songs, or can actually buy with real world cash. Confusing, right?
What you really need to take away from this whole strangely set-up song renting system is that you're not actually going to need to spend any of your real-life moolah if you're smart about it. Players can earn buckets of in-game currency by completing challenges, hitting certain scores in GH Live, and simply completing songs on GH TV. The game is quick to reward players for just about everything and "plays" come easy.
A rhythm game is only as good as its music, and Guitar Hero Live has a wide array of hits to choose from. This can be both a plus and negative depending on your taste in music. If you're looking for all the classic guitar shredding of the series' first few entries you may be disappointed, though there are a good number still to be found. There's a very diverse amount of tracks to choose from, and it's worth noting that more music is always on the way through GH TV's ever changing schedule. From rock to pop to punk to some song about being eaten by a mantaray, there's something for everyone. And that's good, if you're willing to give lots of genres a chance. It's always a good idea to eyeball the set list before jumping into any music title, so be sure to give it a look.
While multiple instruments may be out of the question, Guitar Hero Live still offers multiplayer in the form of two player guitar battles and some tacked on vocals. You can sing with a friend, but due to the guitar-centric mindset the game puts forth both players rocking an axe must strum to the same notes, making the challenge more competitive than collaborative. Multiplayer sadly isn't anything worth mentioning, as it really don't add much to the experience, but it's nice to have around all the same.
If you own a Wii U and like to rock, Guitar Hero Live is your best bet. Not because it's the only game in town, but because it's actually a wonderfully addictive rhythm title with plenty to offer. With GH TV and a snazzy new controller players will find themselves happily diving head first into the best solo guitar experience since the series' inception. Break out the leather vest and fingerless gloves, Guitar Hero is back.