I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!
I remember a time when there was this massive swell of music and rhythm-based games. The most dominant one at the time was the Guitar Hero series, which was quite an obsession among many of my classmates back in college. But in recent years, the genre has gone dark, and it seemed the demand for such titles fell. Some called it a fad, but there are many who could recall fond memories of jamming out with their friends using plastic instruments. After a long absence, now that the genre is on its way to a comeback.
Just before the week of E3, we got the chance to check out a playable build of the upcoming installment for the Guitar Hero series. It’s been quite a while since the last one in the series, and the market has changed. With the rise of on-demand content and social media, and the drought of music games in recent years, the developers at FreeStyle Games felt that now was the time for the series to make a return in a big way.
And after my hour-long jam session with Guitar Hero Live, it showed me that the devs are aiming high, and plan on giving the series quite a reunion tour.
Guitar Hero Live (PlayStation 4 [previewed], Playstation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Mobile)
Developer: FreeStyle Games
Release date: October 20, 2015
First and foremost, if you’re a longtime fan of the series that may have felt burned by the last title, Warriors of Rock, you’ll be pleased to know that the series has gone back to the basics to keep the focus on jamming out to a variety of tunes ranging from heavy metal, classic rock, and pulsating new metal. While on the surface Guitar Hero Live looks to be a massive departure from the rest of the series, it’s very much in line with what was present in the earlier titles. This is purely about the music and experience of building your own personal rocker profile.
As you may have seen from the reveal trailers, they’ve incorporated real video into Guitar Hero this time around. When selecting some of the classics or new tunes, you’ll be treated to actual music videos or even concert footage of the band while you play. This is in keeping with the new television aesthetic and architecture that Guitar Hero Live utilizes. Gone are the bizarre storylines and cartoonish visuals showing off your character as they rise from garage-band amateur to international rock star, and in its place is a focus on realism to keep you invested in the songs and the experiences of being a guitar god.
During Guitar Hero‘s absence, the developers have refined the gameplay and tweaked many aspects. The biggest change made is that you can’t outright fail songs. As vets know, missing too many notes will fail the song, resulting in game over. In Guitar Hero Live, players that perform poorly can still finish the song. The folks working on the game felt that failing players resulted them in losing interest, so botching songs will only affect your overall score. This gives players the chance to save their performance should they struggle in some spots. Moreover, if players want to take a break during the song, all they’ll have to do is stop playing and the song will revert to an attract mode. It’s neat, and I feel GHL will be much more welcoming to newcomers.
In the two central modes, Live and TV, the game goes about building the rocker experience in different ways; one from the side of media, and the other from in the shoes of a guitar player during a concert. The TV mode will definitely be where most of the action happens. Think of it as the online, multiplayer, and career modes all rolled into one. When in TV mode, you can engage in daily and premium challenges that task you with tackling certain songs to acquire in-game currency and play tokens. Much like cable or satelite television, the TV mode is essentially mix of on-demand and scheduled content.
With multiple channels, you’ll be able to view the current schedule of upcoming songs that are available to play. If there’s one you like, you can jump right in and play. In real time, each ‘program’ plays a certain genre of music or focuses on a particular band, and is set for half an hour. If there’s nothing on the channel’s schedule that you like, just switch over to another and check to see what’s on. I was impressed with the presentation, and it felt like was tuned to a parallel universe where MTV didn’t focus on reality TV and kept with the music. It even made some of the programs feel like events, as you can plan ahead and bring friends over at certain time to rock out.
If the channels aren’t doing it for you, then you can switch over to the on-demand menu and choose the available songs to add to you playlist and experience at your leisure. Like the previous titles, the base game will come packed with existing songs, and more will be added later. However, the on-demand takes a slightly different approach. While you can play whatever song is present in the menu, they require play tokens for you to add to your playlist. Play tokens are acquired from just playing normally, and you’ll accumulate them often. However, if you run out of play tokens, you’re unable to play songs on the playlist. If you want to avoid using the tokens — using them won’t technically give you the song — you can purchase the song outright and make a part of your permanent collection.
I suspect this feature draw some ire from fans. While I understand it on an economic level, I feel this can be very annoying for anyone who likes to binge. By my count, there were three different forms of currency in the game: GH credits, real money credits, and play tokens, which will definitely bother people further. While there isn’t a cap on play tokens, which can be purchased in bulk from the Guitar Hero store if you don’t want to grind, I feel that the system of purchasing that’s in place will confuse and annoy people.
Thankfully, there are many features to keep players busy. The online mode is robust. Players can compete online against others in real time. During scheduled programs, players will be able to compete for the high score, with the current leader ranks being shown to the left of the screen.
There will be many top dogs online, so in order to compete you’ll have to make upgrades to your guitar. Using in-game credits acquired from daily challenges and tackling challenging songs, you can invest in a more sophisticated setup. Many of these upgrades range from score multipliers and other boosts to effectiveness. Thankfully, upgrades can only be purchased with in-game currency (which can only be acquired from in-game activity). With the currency, you can also purchase new highways and player cards for further customization.
While most of the action will likely be spent in the TV mode, the brand new Live mode offers something a bit different. Ever wonder what it’s like to play a guitar to a sold-out concert full of thousands of excited fans and music lovers? Live mode shows that in quasi real-time video that adapts to your performance. With two tours, spread across the U.S. and UK and spanning several sets (songs), you’ll jam out with your band as they seek to keep the crowd on their feet and jamming.
Playing online is one thing, but the Live mode is incredibly nerve-wracking. Maybe it’s just me, because I’m not as good as other players, but watching the crowd and even your band mates turn on me was unsettling. It felt like I was experiencing a bizarre mix between Guitar Hero and those ’90s full-motion video games. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, however. I was impressed with how well it’s presented. It’s like those FMV games, except actually good. Shown from the first person, you’re in the shoes of the lead guitarist, and when he stumbles, you experience it first hand. It can be tense, especially when your own band starts to turn on you.
For the most part, I was largely impressed with my session with Guitar Hero Live. Though I still have some reservations with the game’s economy, I still feel there’s a lot of good here. The MTV-esque aesthetic was a stroke of genius and it really brought me into the experience much more than any of the other titles did. And given the number of platforms this is on, including mobile, it’s clear they want to cover all the bases here.
With Rock Band 4 also seeing a release this year, things must be looking up for the music genre now that the two juggernauts have returned. I’m looking forward to seeing how fans will take to it.