The van pulled up in front of the Zephyr Lounge in Leamington Spa, an hour outside of London, and disgorged our group, jetlagged and blinking at the sudden mid-afternoon appearance of the British sun. Inside, the place turned out to be a typical shoebox rock club, with black-and-white checkered linoleum floors and walls caked in layer upon layer of black paint and posters. A spread of cold sandwiches and instant coffee was laid out for us.
It felt like a not-particularly-promising stop in a bleary, fucked-out phase of a rock tour, but we were actually there for a press junket for the new Guitar Hero game, so instead of setting up amps and soundchecking we were each put in front of our own TV/PlayStation setup and given a plastic guitar-shaped controller to strap on.
It’s appropriate that the excursion should feel so much like band life, since Guitar Hero Live—the first entry in the series since 2010—was designed by Leamington’s own FreeStyle Games to simulate as closely as possible the feeling of performing on stage with a band. Gone are the cartoonish avatars of the earlier installments, along with their third-person perspective. In Live you play in a band along with actual human bandmates (cast from real London bands) for an audience of actual human fans (at least for the first few rows), from a first-person POV.
The central conceit of the game is that you’re the guitarist for a fictional band named Vivid Screams playing a short set at an outdoor music festival, one British-style set in an expansive field and one plunked downtown in a skyscraper-strewn city, a la Lollapalooza. Each of the bands has its own identity (emo, pop-folk, hipster-bro, all-girl punk), its own setlist (made up of songs from IRL bands in the appropriate stylistic niche), audience, stage setup, and even its own crew hanging out backstage to high-five you before you play. The level of detail in the environments is almost ridiculous. As the Lumineers-ish Portland Cloud Orchestra you play on an intimate side stage to a bunch of mellow hippies under strings of fairy lights. Switch over to Blackout Conspiracy and you step into a headliner spot on a main stage with pyro and screaming hordes of emo kids surrounding you.
The game’s newly amplified realism isn’t strictly confined to the graphics. FreeStyle has given the controller a thorough redesign that’s gotten rid of a lot of its more obviously toy-like qualities and made it look and feel more like an actual guitar. The new controller has a more refined black-and-gold paint job and a subtle hint of woodgrain molded into the fretboard, but the most significant change is in the neck controls. Instead of one row of buttons coded in primary colors, there are two side-by-side sets of three buttons that allow the game to approximate chords, as well as the feeling of moving from string to string. Together with what feels like a substantially more accurate translation of the music from actual notes to controller “notes,” using it feels way more like you’re really playing guitar than any of the game’s earlier iterations.
The game’s most devious innovation is the fact that missing notes now has consequences. FreeStyle developed an elaborate motion-controlled camera setup that allows the game to switch almost seamlessly between two video channels. When you’re playing well the crowd showers you with loving screams and your bandmates give you smiling looks of “we’re really killing it aren’t we,” but if you flub too many notes in a row the affection turns to boos and hurled garbage, and the smiles turn into looks of “Why are you ruining my career like this you asshole?”
The whole thing is uncannily immersive, especially if you’re standing a foot away from the TV and your circadian rhythms have been altered to a mind-bending extent. From the limited selection of songs we had available to review I chose a song by Pierce the Veil, an emo band that I’d never actually listened to before and found myself onstage with the Blackout Conspiracy in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of scene-haired fans. Years of playing shows combined with generalized anxiety disorder mean that I regularly have dreams where I’m on stage with a band I don’t know that needs me to play a song that I have no idea how to play, and thanks to FreeStyle’s innovative filmmaking and attention to detail I found myself suddenly stepping into an exact high-definition reproduction of that recurring nightmare.
Things started out promising, and I guess for the first time in my life I knew exactly what it was like to be in a super-successful emo band. When my avatar looked out into the crowd I saw glowing faces, and a dude in the front row ripped open his shirt to show off the Blackout Conspiracy logo he had tattooed across his torso, and my ersatz bandmates around me gave me looks of flat-out admiration. Soon enough, though, the combination of the unfamiliar song, the unfamiliar controller, and the fact that I am naturally even worse at Guitar Hero than I am at actual guitar kicked in and I started flubbing note after note. Everything turned against me. The singer glared over his shoulder at me with unveiled contempt. The guy at the front with his shirt open looked suddenly stricken with regret over his decision to get a massive tattoo of my band’s logo on his body. For the first time in my life I knew exactly what it was like to be in a super-successful emo band absolutely bombing in front of a huge crowd. I imagined the headlines about our disastrous show that the in-game reality’s version of Billboard would publish. It was just like in my dreams.
Things improved after that. I played through Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” at least a dozen times at the American festival site and got pretty good at it, so it felt sort of like being in Fall Out Boy playing for a huge, loving crowd. (Spoiler alert: That is a pretty good feeling.) I tried out the Guitar Hero TV option, which lets you stream a much wider range of material than the couple dozen tracks on Live (and let me play along to ZZ Top’s berserk crack-blues anthem “I Gotsta Get Paid”).
Eventually I got pretty good at it, and realized that as ambitious as FreeStyle’s pre-demo pitch had been about how the realism of the Live experience, the game actually came through. I finally got Paramore’s “Now” down, when the band’s singer smiled at me approvingly it felt more legitimately validating than I’m probably willing to admit. All in all, being a festival-level rock star was a satisfying experience. The biggest improvement over my own time touring was that when it was all over, I didn’t have to load a thing into the van.
Miles Raymer is a grown up teenager. Follow him on Twitter.