It's been 10 years since the first Guitar Hero burst onto the scenes, and five years since we last saw a version of the franchise. The boom-and-bust series sold millions of plastic guitars that are now sitting in the back of closets around the world - and unfortunately for everyone, they'll have to stay there. The latest iteration of Activision's popular guitar rhythm game is all-new, and isn't backwards-compatible with any pre-existing Guitar Hero tech.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, however. What that means is that this brand spanking new Guitar Hero will challenge you in a new way. Conceptually similar to the original series, the game is now played with a guitar peripheral that features two rows of three buttons, stacked one on top of the other. The result feels more akin to playing a real guitar: your fingers now move in a way that feels a little more like you're making actual chords. It's obviously still a far cry from playing the real thing, but it nevertheless it feels strangely convincing. And it's definitely a welcome new format for those who hated hitting that fifth button with their pinkie finger. Playing with three fingers feels a lot more natural. The lowest difficulty setting uses just one row of buttons, which makes the game very easy for beginners to pick up and play. However, adjust the difficulty level, and very quickly you're using both rows of buttons in combinations that offer a whole new fingerboard workout for your digits.
The game itself has also changed. Well, there's a new half, and an old half: Guitar Hero Live features two main modes, which are very different from one another. The regular mode takes its name from the title of the game and will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played the series before. Featuring a roster of tracks and a story-type progression, the Guitar Hero Live mode is to all intents and purposes the same game we've seen before. The three-lane note highway is front and center, and you play along to whatever track you've selected using your shiny new black and gold guitar. Black and white notes, as well as combo notes that represent both buttons scroll down the screen towards you, and as always, you press the correct buttons and strum in time to the music to execute notes. It takes almost no time to adjust to the new setup, and I liked it a lot.
However, what's different this time around is that there are no longer computer-generated avatars. Instead, you're playing along to a live video that takes the form of an arena concert, viewed in first person perspective through the eyes of the eponymous Guitar Hero that is you. It's impressive and dynamic: the band and the huge crowd rocks out with you if you hit all the right notes. However, start getting it wrong and you'll get some dirty looks from your band members - and the audience will start to jeer. It's a cleverly executed, and near seamless experience that feels quite uncanny: a huge step up from the prior game and something that definitely feels current generation.
Where things get really interesting, though, is with the all-new game mode, Guitar Hero TV. This is basically an evolution of the game that turns it into something that's fresh and new. It's an always-online mode that features a real-time broadcast of shows and channels that you can play along to with other Guitar Hero Live players. Boot it up, and you can jump into one of the music-themed shows that is currently playing, such as a heavy metal show, or an alternative music program. Playing along with a show and completing songs earns xp, and levels up your guitar and character - and also earns you "plays". These are essentially a currency that lets you play tracks on demand from the hundreds that are available in GHTV.
It's a new spin on the game that feels very up-to-date. According to Activision, GHTV will launch with "hundreds" of tracks that you can play on demand. These are different from the music that comes on the disc in Guitar Hero Live mode - they're basically tracks that you don't own. However, by earning plays - or by buying plays via microtransactions - you're able to build your own custom playlists of tracks you want to strum along to.
It's a flexible setup that I was initially a little concerned about, but actually works pretty well. You can play songs that you can discover through GHTV to earn plays, and then use them to play songs you really want to play - and if you want to own a song, you can buy it, just like you did with DLC in earlier games. Ultimately, there are now hundreds of different songs to play - and as long as you keep earning plays through GHTV, you don't necessarily have to spend any money.
So far, I'm impressed with that Guitar Hero Live has to offer. The new guitar setup works really well, and I really enjoyed the challenge its twin rows of buttons now offers. I also really like Guitar Hero TV. Although the microtransactional side of things sounds a little off-putting, it does work surprisingly well, and gives you a ton more music to play than previous iterations of the game. And anyway, if you don't like the idea of that, you have the regular Guitar Hero Live mode that is the same game we all know and love - but with new live action concert footage which looks and feels really good.
Out on October 20th for $99.99, Guitar Hero Live is definitely turning the music rhythm game genre up a notch. I'm really looking forward to seeing how its arch-rival Rock Band will respond. I'll keep you posted.