The VICE Gaming Verdict on ‘Guitar Hero Live’

It's beautiful to look at, and the new controller is a joy to manhandle. But it's when you go online that 'Guitar Hero Live' really begins to sing.

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Oct 21 2015, 6:42pm

I've been walking around the house for a few days now, humming shit-awful tunes that I wouldn't have touched with someone else's sweaty dick this time last week. Fucking Guitar Hero Live, getting into my head, disturbing my quiet time with songs by Skrillex and Mumford & Sons, Calvin Harris and One Direction. Little black and white notes tumbling down my mind's eye whenever I shut my peepers proper; the fingers on my left hand twitching in time with these abhorrent melodies, this saccharine crud, such soulless slop. But it's always more for me. My appetite is insatiable. I can't stop. This is like that Daim-flecked Dairy Milk you find for a quid at the train station WHSmith counter: once you've had a taste, you're constantly finding excuses to buy another magazine you don't need, just to pick up a bar and slip sweet chunks down your gullet all the way home.

Guitar Hero Live: you're making me ill.

Well, tired, at least. The comeback of Guitar Hero, arriving five years after the series' previous entry, Warriors of Rock, is keeping me up, constricting my sleep. And that's not because of what comes on the disc, as impressive as the Live aspect of this release is. See, developers FreeStyleGames have actually delivered two Guitar Heroes for the price of one, here.

First, there's the visually amazing in-concert performances that run to 42 tracks split across two fantasy music festivals (plus a closing party in a realistic-enough sweatbox), featuring different stages and unique (and entirely fabricated) bands to riff alongside*. These songs represent a solo challenge: you take them on three or four at a time, representing a slice of a fuller set, the objective to keep the crowd – real people, who will throw real shit at you when you fudge a chord or four – singing and swaying along and your bandmates on your side. The full motion video aesthetic that I detailed in a preview, here, is phenomenally realised, and while you know there's a load of green screen at play, the effect is convincing for anyone watching on as you shred through a decent spread of metal, pop, (new-fangled, indie-leaning) folk and classic rock tracks.

(*A second for a sour note. The crowd at one of these stages features several revellers wearing fashion versions of Native Indian headdresses. This is a Very Bad Thing, and I'm surprised that FreeStyleGames have let them slip into their game. Given the nature of the footage, it's unlikely they can be magically patched out.)

It looks amazing, basically, and the overhauled visuals are supported by a new controller, Live's guitar moving away from the tried-and-tested(-and-sorta-tired) five notes in a row on the fret model, to something that I find rather more elegant: two rows of three, atop each other. So there's six buttons in play, allowing for more combinations and plenty of cramped-up hands. Notes are shown in black (top ones) and white (bottom), and while runways can quickly become cluttered, leaving the player's brain in a funk, the compactness of the controller setup means that your fret-holding hand need never slide left nor right, ensuring your fingers remain in roughly the right place. Course, it's easy to miss your marks when tackling a magnificently over-the-top metal cut, but what is it they say? Practise makes for a perfectly boring conversation down the pub.

But if you want to "full combo" Biffy Clyro's "Victory Over the Sun", which you'd best believe isn't easy on any difficulty above casual, you can: you can play what's on the disc as many times as you like, whenever you like, without paying a penny more than what you have for the game and the guitar and the bag they came in. Which leads me to the second part of Guitar Hero Live, the mode that I think has just reinvented the rhythm-action genre and made all other contenders look depressingly archaic and dangerously limited in longevity.

Guitar Hero TV is an always-streaming online service that provides, at launch, two channels of rotating music videos for you to play along with/over. There's over 200 songs on the service already – this morning I played Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law", Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and Charli XCX's "Famous", to give you an impression of the diversity of material available. Within these channels are shows, collecting together songs based on genre or some tenuous theme. Between sessions of speedy digits striking not quite all the right notes, there's a chance to catch your breath: scoring rolls out in front of you, with star ratings and an update on your position on worldwide leaderboards, and neat little idents pop up from time to time, along with brief clips of newly added songs that are yours to conquer as and when they come around.

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What's on these channels isn't selectable by the player – think of them like MTV and MTV2, back when they operated a steady output of New Music Videos rather than the reality muck that fills the schedules these days, only you get to play them. (I don't know how anyone can think this isn't completely awesome.) Should you want to just play your favourites though, you can – Guitar Hero TV lets you drop out of the live channels and into a song-selection menu listing everything that's currently available, where you can pick anything you want for the price of an in-game token.

Now, you may have read that there are microtransactions in this game. There are. You can spend real money to unlock all of the songs for a limited period, the makers suggesting that this is a great setup for a party. However, play tokens are also purchasable with coins you earn simply by playing the TV channels, and I'm already drowning in this useless-anywhere-else money. As you play, you level up, too, giving you more perks – runway-clearing bombs, the option to make sections easier – and more of these play-whatever-you-like tokens. I don't foresee myself ever reaching for my wallet, because I'm having so much fun playing everything that the TV channels can throw at me – seriously, so much fun, even when it's tedious New Yorkers fun. themselves that I'm playing along with – and then treating myself to a favourite now and then. Deftones' "Diamond Eyes" was the first I didn't miss a note on. Soon after, weirdly, came Paramore's "Still Into You". Cannot bear that song, but here, gamified, it's an absolute joy to tap along to.

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Which takes me back to where we started, and how Guitar Hero Live is completely under my skin, speared through it, like a piercing I never knew I wanted but now I can't stop fiddling with because it feels so good. I play song after song after song, and then I'm crawling into bed at the kind of time that actual clubbers turn in at. I can stomach the shittiness of Warrant and Ratt when I'm in game mode – and I'll gladly come back for seconds. Put that nonsense on my home stereo, though, and I'll chin the twinkle out of your eyes.

The Live element of 2015's Guitar Hero is pretty, and makes a fantastic first impression. But it's "beatable" in an afternoon, and only worth revisiting for score-chasing perfectionists and the duelling mode when two guitars are connected. Guitar Hero TV, though, has the potential to be a fixture on my TV for years to come, so long as the powers that be continue to pump new songs down my broadband connection. Should the supply dry up I'll have to rethink my enthusiasm, but right now, unexpectedly, this game is threatening to rival Rocket League for waking hours spent plugged into the web. It's brilliant, even when the soundtrack's fucking garbage in any other context. Bloody thing's got me singing Thirty Seconds to Mars in the shower, uh.


Guitar Hero Live is released in the UK, for PlayStation and Xbox consoles and Nintendo's Wii U, on October 23. The game was tested on PlayStation 4, using a retail copy provided by the publishers, Activision.

This review made possible by NVIDIA SHIELD - check out the NVIDIA SHIELD library here.

@MikeDiver

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