I’m a big fan of the Guitar Hero franchise, like, really big. The first time I placed my hands on one of those cheap plastic controllers was back in the days of the PS2. My friend Sam brought his copy and his guitar over while we had some beverages, then we spent the better part of the evening shredding the ever-loving crap out of just about every track on the disc. At first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of buttons (frets) on the guitar and I was forced to play on the lowest setting.
Sam left, stumbling due to the booze, but I partied on through the night. Mr Jack Daniel and his buddy, Mr Jim Bean, were all the inspiration I needed. I stumbled, I fell, and I swore like hell, but come sunrise I was a guitar god. Well, at least with a plastic instrument; in real life I’m much more of a pianist than a critically acclaimed rock star. That one fateful night is what started my love affair with the Guitar Hero franchise. I never really gave Rock Band a look as I was content enough with what Guitar Hero offered; the familiarity between games and the exemplary track listings (even though there were never enough songs from The Killers).
Jump forward a couple of years and I’m still pretty active with Guitar Hero, or at least somewhat active. Then the announcement of Guitar Hero Live came. The game was announced and everyone got sort of excited, but then it turned out that everything that we knew was being erased and replaced by a new method of playing. Guitar Hero Live still utilises the plastic controller, but instead of a row of five fret buttons, we’re now jamming with six buttons split between two rows. I’ll be honest and say that when this came to light I was less than impressed. The idea of re-learning everything that I knew seemed bizarre, archaic, and unnecessary; the series didn’t fade away due to the gameplay being crap, but because there were simply too many games releasing in quick succession.
Thankfully, I was an idiot. I still am in some respects, but that’s an article for another day. Guitar Hero Live is one of the biggest surprises of the year, and had I been able to get my hands on it a little earlier, I’d have fought to the death for it to be included in The Games Cabin’s Game of the Year article. Yes, it’s deserving, despite the free-to-play multiplayer aspect that replaces the traditional DLC model.
The gameplay is similar, but different. As mentioned before, instead of the normal five frets, you’ve got six buttons to play with: three on the top that are marked black, and three on the bottom that are marked white. The gameplay is essentially the same with the different notes falling down the screen, requiring you to press the corresponding fret on the guitar and then strum in time. It’s simple on the lower difficulties, but once you ramp it up to ‘advanced’ it really begins to challenge even the most seasoned Guitar Hero veteran, and that’s what makes it a bloody riot of game.
I’m not very humble when it comes to my Guitar Hero skills, but I consider myself to be well above the average player (fun fact: around 80% of GH players never played above ‘medium’ on the older titles). So there I was, Christmas Day, guitar in hand, whiskey sitting dutifully on my right hand side, The Killers’ The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball starting up and – shit. I failed. Miserably. I was only playing on ‘regular’, too. Back to the drawing board.
I decided to step away from the Guitar Hero TV section for a moment and indulged in what the single-player offering had in store. Instead of an animated rock band taking to the stage to wow a crowd of digital moshers, you’re instead presented with a full-motion-video sequence. Yes, it’s campy as hell, but my god I loved it. A short intro where one of the crew goes through the motions of the teaching you the setup and you’re out onto the stage. You don’t actually ever see yourself, which is peculiar, but that’s due to the game taking place from your point of view. Think of it as Call of Duty, but instead of killing people with guns, you’re melting hearts with sweet guitar solos and crazy riffs. It’s splendid, honestly.
You’re not alone either, as there’s a full band to back you up: there’s the drummer in the corner; the bass player strutting her stuff; the frontman singing his little heart out, and a crowd of eager fans just lapping up your every stroke. Ooo err.
It’s a little off-putting at first, well, at least for me it was. One of the bands I played with had a very lovely bassist who was constantly giving me the “I wanna let you strum my guitar” eyes every time she passed across me on the stage. What? You can’t really call me weird for thinking “dayuuum, she fine” when there’s a bunch of weirdos beating it to anime characters… At least mine’s a real human and, with enough time, effort, and money, I’ll actually have a shot at taking this lovely lady on a hot date to KFC.
All that aside, the live shows are hilariously campy, but it’s all in good spirits and I suspect it was part of the game’s design. The crowd is lively, though if you start playing bad they’ll soon let you know. It’s not the greatest feeling in the world to have a few thousand of your loyal fans suddenly start booing because you had an itch in your ear… Not all is lost though, as even when the fans are calling you a loser and demanding you give up on music forever, you can still win them back. Simply play better and string up a decent combo to activate star power, then you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of a spectacular crowd that sings your praises. This is what it feels like to be Brandon Flowers and co.
FreeStyle Games has done a great job with the main campaign, though not everything is up to scratch. For one, the single-player tracks are severely lacking, with only 42 songs being made available from the go it’s a little on the short end of things. Of course, you still have to unlock sets of songs by completing the shows that they’re associated with, but it’s still not enough to keep you occupied for long. Again, I suspect this was another design choice by the developers. Why? Well, Guitar Hero TV suddenly seems a lot more appealing when you’ve not got many songs to play offline.
Guitar Hero TV is a music-channel-esque service that constantly rotates the songs that you can play. There are two different channels that offer up different flavours of music, so it’s simply a case of picking the channel, then playing along with the rest of the world. Unfortunately you can’t pick and choose what songs you want to play, at least not without a fee – sort of.
This is where Guitar Hero TV gets a bit confusing. To play a song of your choice you’re required to spend a ‘play’. You buy plays via in-game currency which is earned every time you complete a song within Guitar Hero TV. If you don’t want to play other songs to earn in-game cash, you’re able to buy ‘Hero Points’ for real-life money. However, once I got my head around the concept and realised it was basically the free-to-play model that we’ve all been despising for the last however many years, I soon got over it. It’s easy enough to earn in-game cash, and after playing a couple of songs on the channels you’ll have more than enough coins to buy some plays and start building a playlist of songs that you want to play.
Personally, I’ve not had to spend a single penny, aside from the £0.79 it cost me to unlock one of the ‘Premium Shows’ on Christmas Day so that I could play The Killers; there’s nowhere near enough of this great band in my opinion… Playing along to the channels for half an hour or so will get you a good amount of coins to spend on plays, but they can also be used on cosmetic stuff like different boards for the notes to travel along, or different emblems for your player card. It’s all rather simple, really.
When I first heard of GHTV I was skeptical as to how it would work, but after spending the last five days in my front room living out my fantasy of being a rock star, I’m coming around to the idea. Instead of paying money for individual tracks, you get free ones added on a regular basis. However, new tracks are first inducted into the premium shows. To play the premium shows you’ll need to complete certain challenges, or you can just wait a few days for them to get released to the rest of the bunch. It’s an odd way of introducing monetisation to a game that has traditionally relied on the tried and test DLC formular, but it seems to be working quite nicely. The main thing is that you don’t have to spend a single penny to get the most out of Guitar Hero Live, and for that reason, I’m embracing it wholeheartedly.
Disclaimer: This review was conducted using the PS4 version of Guitar Hero Live which was bought at the expense of the reviewer. Well, actually, Santa footed the cost for this one. Cheers, Santa lad!