REVIEW: “Guitar Hero” reinvents itself by going “Live”

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Guitar Hero Live_GHLive_Rock the Block 1

  • reviewed on PS4 / Rated T / $99.99 (including guitar controller) / released October 2015
  • FINAL: You WANT this game. 4 out of 5 stars


“Guitar Hero,” the game the kicked off a plastic instrument craze a few years ago, has returned to store shelves as “Guitar Hero Live.” The basics are the same – tap buttons on a fake guitar to the rhythm of the scrolling notes on your screen – but “Live” takes some unexpected risks that raise the franchise out of the relic bin.

“Guitar Hero Live” has two modes, Live and TV. The game is named for the Live mode for good reason: it’s a crowd-pleasing and technologically impressive rock tour-de-force. The idea is that you are an ace guitarist for any of a dozen different bands, playing hit songs on multiple stages at two music festivals. Rather than the usual video game-y animated avatars, the entire thing is full-motion video with real actors on-stage and in the crowd. The default video shows the crowd cheering and your bandmates constantly winking and smiling, while the roadies say “great job!” between songs. However, if you’re playing poorly, the video switches to a hilariously brutal scene of everyone being either bored, angry or disappointed in you.

With an on-disk soundtrack of 42 songs, there’s only so many of these “live” reaction videos to see (and yes, the videos are identical every time you play the same song), so they’re really only fun to watch for a couple of plays. Although you’ll be drawn in by the Live mode’s sizzle, you’ll likely spend more time with TV mode, dubbed GHTV.

GHTV is a daring alternative to the usual business model of “buy a new song for an additional price.” The TV mode leads to two always-on online channels that play music videos in genre blocks. For example, they will offer a half hour of indie tunes followed by an hour of pop, to a current total of over 200 songs in rotation. As long as you only play along to whatever music the faux TV channels are currently playing, you do not have to pay any extra dimes.

Unfortunately, this is where things get a little tricky, assuming you want to play your favorite song from GHTV over and over again to really master it. The entire GHTV catalog is available to play on demand, but at the cost of a micro-currency called Plays. You can earn Plays by grinding through free GHTV songs, or by paying additional money to buy sets of Plays. If you’re out of Plays, you simply cannot play the songs you actually want to play. There is no way to “own” a song forever, aside from the built-in 42 songs available only in the Live mode. The ability to play lots of songs is pitted against your desire to play just your favorites.

The other complication to note is that “Guitar Hero Live” physically changed the guitar controller. Not only are any older plastic guitars incompatibile with “Live,” but you’ll have to re-learn how to hit the frets on the new controller. The new model uses two rows of three fret buttons instead of one row of five buttons. This will break your brain in an entirely new way, but the double row does a better job of mimicking guitar strings.

Perhaps the most startling change to “Guitar Hero Live” is that the game actually comes off as classy and slick, compared to previous versions that leaned heavily on art design by the study hall deadhead scribbling in his unused textbooks. “Live” has re-invented what it means to be a “Guitar Hero” game, and it is decidedly for the better.

This review is based upon product supplied by the publisher. “Guitar Hero Live” is available for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Wii U, and select iOS devices. Image courtesy Activision.

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