‘Guitar Hero Live’ Is the Rock God Simulator I Never Knew I Needed

Guitar Hero might have seemed dead and buried, but by going Live, its makers have created a whole new performance experience.

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Sep 29 2015, 4:13pm

I covered music, professionally, full time, for rent-paying money, for years. And I cannot play a note on any instrument. This disconnect always bothered me, especially when I stuck the knife into a newly released album. Yes, but Mike, can you do any better? The question burned. No. Always, no. I cannot. Give me a guitar, plugged into some sort of amplification, and I will make a sound with it that's worse than all the hounds of Hell raking their claws down a blackboard the size of the west face of K2.

I mostly avoided the old Guitar Hero video games, primarily because I was afraid that any inability to connect with their simplified interpretation of guitar playing, as showcased before an audience of peers, would only highlight my ineptitude with musical instruments—even pretend ones plugged into games consoles. So I never got into the last main game of the Guitar Hero series, Warriors of Rock, which came out in 2010 to a mixed reception. Checking out some reviews, it seems the spirit that made those first few games great was lost; the feel-good factor of ripping through a favorite song with a plastic toy guitar sluing across your front had gone, replaced by a story mode that jarred with party gameplay and too many synth-led tracks. Sales were not ideal. The franchise looked dead and buried.

But here we are, five years later, and the tap-along peripherals are back. Guitar Hero Live is publisher Activision's unexpectedly ace (for me, anyway, coming to the series with a relatively open mind) revival of its rhythm-action fortunes. There's a change in development, with Warwickshire, UK-based FreeStyleGames stepping in to inject essential freshness into the format. How they've done that, visually, is remarkable. Rather than the previous on-screen action of computer-generated fantasy figures going through the motions, Actual Humans take the stage, running around from your point of view and sometimes-in-shot fret-fondling fingers, their behavior changing the better (or worse) you play. It's an adaptive, dynamic full-motion-video game, in a way, the actions of those around you dependent on either not sucking, or deliberately doing so to incite the ire of your bassist.

There's a Hollywood level of special effects wizardry at play here—crowds can stretch for what feels like a mile before you, a festival field flooded with thousands upon thousands of revelers, fireworks exploding overhead, everything created using green screen. But unless you're really looking closely—which you're unlikely to, with the notes forever rolling towards you on the runway—you're never going to notice the digital seams.

The term its makers frequently bring up is "stage fright"—they want the player immersed in what feels like the real act of performing before a huge audience, nerves jangling, and adrenalin running hot. Explaining how they've created this effect would require reams of technical words, so allow me to simplify things: at least one huge and very expensive robotic camera, plenty of trial and error, and just a couple of crew injuries along the way. (Or, watch the video below.)

'Guitar Hero Live,' behind the scenes trailer

And let me tell you, when I'm messing up, and the drummer's giving me that face, and all the notes coming from me are screwed, and the punters have dropped their smiles and begun chucking (mercifully empty) drinks cups at my band: I'm feeling like I've royally fucked up. This is true fear, manifesting itself in my fingers, every one of which is failing to find its mark on the new Guitar Hero controller (six buttons, in two rows of three, corresponding to "up" and "down" icons on the game's runway). Then, from behind the always-encroaching notes in the center of the screen, one of my bandmates gives me encouragement. I begin to hit the right chords. The song shifts gear. The crowd turns. A few bars later, I'm on fire—50-note streak!—and the feeling that sizzles through my stomach, down and down, right to the tips of my toes, is little short of incredible. Shit, if this is what it's like to buzz on a stage for real, I messed up by never learning to play anything.

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The live-stage stuff is what's on the disc when you buy the game. There will be hundreds of songs, performed by a variety of flesh-and-bone bands designed – well, assembled, I suppose, of real living and breathing musicians – to represent a handful of genres from Mumford & Sons-like folk (ptui) to popular emo acts, all parent-bothering fringes and wild gesticulating. There's a growing list of what you'll be able to play, right out of the box, on the Guitar Hero website. But it's when you go online that the options really expand. Guitar Hero TV is a 24/7 "streaming" service that will constantly deliver new tracks to play along to, as their music videos are shown in the background, ensuring that there's always fresh content to riff your way into. In short: it's an interactive version of how MTV used to be. Sort by genre, or search by artist; simply play what's new or seek out an old favourite: Guitar Hero TV opens a world of possibility that this series never truly had before, reflecting in a video game how the music industry has largely moved from an record ownership model to one where streaming dominates listening habits.

And there's a potential problem with this. As you play tracks, you'll earn points and unlock play tokens, which can be exchanged online for your very favorite songs that may have fallen out of rotation. You can also buy these tokens with real money, but you'll never be able to "own" a Guitar Hero TV track, as you can the songs on the game disc. A Party Pass will open up everything for a short while, ideal for friends-over local co-op sessions; but again, your console won't ever let you keep the songs you love the most. You'll constantly have to work to unlock access, or pay your way to playing them three times per day. The game's creative director, Jamie Jackson, told Kotaku that this system suits the play style of most Guitar Hero fans. I suppose time will tell if he's right—but Guitar Hero TV will at least monitor what type of tracks you're playing the most, and highlight newly streaming songs that you may like based on previous selections.

I stuck with what I knew when testing Guitar Hero TV: Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Deftones, System of a Down (I'm old, leave me alone)—but the on-disc "live" component pushed me out of my comfort zone to play along with a song by Paramore. And I enjoyed that just as much, as even though the track itself was nothing I'd listen to outside of the game, the stage set-up, having band members dance around me, was absolutely riveting. Again: the tingle, that electric rush that runs over your skin, is substantial, and lasting.

As an experience, Guitar Hero Live is a clear statement of new-generation intent: There's no way a contemporary game that looked like its predecessors would really resonate so many years after the series' fortunes appeared to fade. While it might appear, on paper, to be a backwards step in bringing FMV to the forefront of the Guitar Hero model, stirring memories of appalling Mega-CD games, in practice it's pitch perfect, snapping you out of your play space and into the screen, onto the stage. I'm genuinely surprised at how much fantastic fun I got out of my hands-on with Guitar Hero Live, and right now, while typing this, all I'm really thinking about is how awesome it's going to be to play it again.

Guitar Hero Live is released for Xbox and PlayStation home consoles, and Nintendo Wii U, on October 23rd.

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