When we first heard there was going to be a new Guitar Hero it’s safe to say there was a collective groan, not only from inside our heads, but also from out of our mouths. It wasn’t just a bad joke groan, we’re talking a full-on ‘BUT WHY?’ style groan.
If that groan had been a hat (ludicrous we know), then we would be gagging our way through it right about now, because our cynicism was entirely misplaced. Not only are we about to recommend a Guitar Hero game, despite the last one being five years ago, but we’re going to recommend it as one of THE games to play this year. Who’d have thunk it.
Now a lot of this is going to be down to personal taste, but in our opinion the old Guitar Hero games were fun, but haven’t aged particularly well.
‘Warriors of Rock’, although fun, is a million miles from the Guitar Hero Live you see today.
It’s not just the music tastes that have changed, but the visual elements of the game. The old games featured over the top cartoon guitar gods that were relevant because Tenacious D were tearing up festivals at the time, chasing down rock deamons and generally, classic rock was being firmly being ripped from the album collections of everyone’s dad and rammed down our ear holes.
At the time, it was epic.
Give an old Guitar Hero game to anyone under the age of 25 now though and the likelihood is they’re either going to find the tracklist annoying or the animations too childish for words.
Guitar Hero didn’t go in that direction, in fact the only thing you’ll recognise from Guitar Hero Live is the controller, and the simple fact that you need to hit buttons in time with something on a screen. Everything else is pretty much unrecognisable.
For starters there’s the look. It’s bang on point with current tastes and features a Spotify/Tidal inspired layout. This fresh new look continues through to the playing screen itself where Guitar Hero Live hands you its biggest change.
Gone are the cartoon characters of old, replaced with a living breathing live action band of people you’d probably never want to speak to in person because they’re either too trendy, or too annoying.
That’s because they’re a real, living, breathing band and in front of you is a real audience of human people all screaming and jumping to hear you play. The result is an experience that’s both utterly exhilarating and truly humiliating.
What’s even more impressive is this live action world changes around you depending on how you play. The better you are the happier the audience and your band are. Start screwing up though and your bandmates will become a pantomime opposite of the best buds you were beforehand, scowling, cursing and generally throwing a full on tantrum.
This guy’s not happy with you, and there’s a reason, you’re not doing very well.
Yes it’s over the top, but it’s done in a way that GH Live is self-aware, so any poking fun is done by them, not the other way around. Then there’s the sheer technical achievement of what has been accomplished here.
Guitar Hero Live had to be shot twice in essence. Once with a positive reaction, and then again with a negative one, and each take had to be absolutely identical so that when the transition happened, you never noticed the difference.
It took some Hollywood-level special effects along with a robot cameraman that had to be custom-built for the job. This level of attention to detail is something that is prevalent in all video games, but never has it been so visually clear before.
Filming was done using a robot camera that had to follow the exact same path for both takes.
Then there’s the act of playing the guitar. At first glance it’s an experience you’ll be familiar with, but look closer and you’ll see that the regular five buttons have been evolved into two rows of three. One black, one white.
Sounds simple enough, but as you’ll soon discover, this change means learning Guitar Hero all over again, which is great. At higher levels it actually becomes arguably more difficult than the original game.
The button shift is infuriating at first, but soon begins to feel rewarding.
Finally, there’s the game modes. There are two, GH Live and GHTV. Guitar Hero Live is the single-player campaign where you essentially play your way through a festival unlocking the songs that make up Guitar Hero’s 42 track playlist.
Each festival stage has been painstakingly thought out and recreated using live action and CGI. The results are visually stunning.
Then there’s GHTV, this is where the game really breaks away from the norm. It is essentially a selection of music tv channels that contain around 200 music videos. Every song is playable and Freestyle say they’ll be updating and adding to it as time goes on.
You can’t skip songs but you can access the entire music library and play individual songs using an in-game currency known as ‘Plays’. The game dishes out ‘Plays’ at intervals during your time playing GHTV.
GHTV’s interface is essentially that of a playable music video.
For those hardcore fans that have run out, you can use real money to buy more ‘Plays’ or buy a weekend pass which unlocks the entire music library for when your mates come over.
We’ve always found the insinuation that you have to buy music at full cost price just to use inside a video game silly, but then again a game developer has song royalties to pay and you can’t just expect them to ship a £50 game with a massive library of current and popular songs and expect them to stay in business for very long.
One solution is you buy the songs to keep, but in our opinion that seems foolish because they’re songs that can only be used in a game that you’ll eventually stop playing.
Freestyle’s alternative seems like a genuinely fresh approach and while it does involve using the dreaded word ‘microtransactions’, the key thing is, you don’t have to spend any money. The game dishes out ‘Plays’ in abundance and since we’ve been playing we’ve not once even thought about needing to spend actual money. That’s when microtransactions become OK.
Guitar Hero Live is pretty much the textbook example of how you nail a reboot. It takes a solid premise, and then turns it on its head.
When you start nailing those riffs and you look out at a real festival of people in front of you the feeling of exhilaration is genuine and truly addictive.
If we had one complaint it is that we genuinely would have loved to see a longer tracklist. 42 is still a lot and we’re hoping that as long as Freestyle remains committed to GHTV and its extra 200 tracks that won’t be a number that we’ll worry about.
It’s also one of those rare games where you can physically see and feel the care and attention that went into it. Assassin’s Creed although flawed, always feel like a game that has been lovingly poured over by developers that truly love what they do. Freestyle might have a tiny fraction of the people on hand, but that same passion has meant they’ve crafted something that feels truly AAA.
As we said at the start, we never expected to be writing this, but if there’s one video game that should be on your Christmas List, it’s this.