After a five-year hiatus, the two big music rhythm game franchises reawakened in unison this year in the form of Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live. Indeed, in a strange twist of marketing fate, they ended up being released within two weeks of one another.
However, despite both appearing almost simultaneously, and both featuring fundamentally similar gameplay, they each took subtly different tacks in terms of their design. So how do both stack up against one another?
One of the biggest differences between the two games is how they treat the past. Guitar Hero Live is all-new, and is basically incompatible with previous iterations of the game, and any prior Guitar Hero peripherals. Rock Band 4, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach: It's built with the past in mind, and works with most of the guitar, mic, and drum kits from prior editions of the game. It's also compatible with the Rock Band songs you might have previously bought.
The reason why Guitar Hero Live doesn't work with older versions of the game is because its guitar has been reinvented. The new version now features six buttons – two rows of three stacked on top of one another. This essentially presents a new challenge to players compared to the "traditional" five-button setup. On the easiest settings, it's actually simpler to use than the old system, since you only play one row of three buttons – making it ideal for beginners. However, up the difficulty setting and you'll need to use all six buttons, which is quite challenging. It's a neat setup that feels a little more like you're forming actual chords with your fingers. On the highest settings, the game is exceptionally tough, and will test even the most adept of Guitar Hero veterans.
Rock Band 4 plays the same as it always has. Like Guitar Hero Live, it still features a note highway, only it has five lanes, representing each of the buttons compared to Guitar Hero Live's three-lane highway (which uses black and white notes to differentiate between top and bottom frets). On the easiest difficulty setting, you use four buttons, while at higher levels, all five buttons and hammer-ons come into play – plus, obviously, there are far more notes to hit.
Because Rock Band 4 features both guitar and bass lines, plus mic and drum compatibility, it's more of a party game than Guitar Hero Live. Of course, that's not to say Guitar Hero Live isn't a party game either – it does support local multiplayer for two participants – but it's just that there's nothing quite like playing Rock Band 4 as a full group. Guitar Hero Live's two-player does feel more like an afterthought, because both players are essentially playing the same parts of the same song at the same time, while everybody in Rock Band 4 has their own part to play – whether it's strumming a bass line, belting out lead guitar, banging out the beats, or singing. The whole thing feels like it's been designed from the ground up as a party game.
However, as a single-player game, I think Guitar Hero Live has the edge. It has two basic modes: Guitar Hero Live, and GHTV. The former is a career mode in which the player takes the role of a gigging guitarist who plays for a bunch of different bands. In this mode, you play the game's 42 songs, and strum along to video concert footage that's filmed from a first-person perspective. While it's a little cheesy and over-acted, it nevertheless looks very impressive. If you do well, your very self-aware band rocks out, mugging for the camera excitedly and putting in a really over-the-top performance. Start doing badly, however, and the crowd boos and catcalls, and your band-mates get seriously pissed off with you. Like I said, it's a little overplayed, and the transitions from doing well to doing badly can sometimes feel somewhat abrupt – there's no intermediate footage – but it's fun if you don't take it all too seriously.
The real heart of Guitar Hero Live is GHTV. This is an online mode that feels almost like old-school MTV in that it features music shows - only you don't just watch them, you play along to them! Shows are scheduled and play out in realtime, and all you have to do is choose a show and strum along to whatever track happens to be streaming at the time. The music that is featured is supplemental to the standard tracks that come on the disc, and new tracks are added each week, making this an interesting way of discovering new (and old) music. Unlike Guitar Hero Live mode, instead of playing along to band footage, the background shows the actual music video of the song you're playing. You're also ranked in real-time against other on- and off-line players on a leaderboard, which helps dial up the feeling of competition.
As a single-player game, Rock Band's highlight is its career mode. Here, the player gigs in different locations, using a typical Rock Band avatar that follows the same aesthetic style as the ones seen in previous titles. Some sets are pulled from the game's 65-song tracklist, while others can be compiled from your library of Rock Band songs. The objective is to simply successfully play songs to earn stars and open up new sets. Money is earned at gigs, and this can be used to buy new clothes and hairdos for your band members. It's basically the same as old Rock Band games, although its experience doesn't feel quite as engaging and varied as earlier games – there are less items to buy for your avatar, and there aren't any cutscenes to add atmosphere to the storyline. Sure, it's fun and fairly well designed, and more entertaining than Guitar Hero Live's career mode, but compared to GHTV, it's not as deep or as interesting.
The thing that might put some people off GHTV is that it's microtransaction-based. Depending on how well you do at playing along to a GHTV song, you're awarded experience and in-game money. Experience essentially ranks you up and unlocks new note highway skins and GHTV features, while in-game money is basically a freemium currency that lets you buy "plays" – the opportunity to play GHTV songs on demand so you can build your own set list, should you so desire. You can also buy currency microtransactionally using real cash, as well as purchase a 24 hour pass, which lets you play unlimited songs on demand – which I imagine would be useful if you're holding a party or an event where you want to offer Guitar Hero Live's complete catalog of tunes for people to play.
However, while the specter of microtransactions does sound ominous, in practice I found that the rate of earning in-game money was pretty good. Unless you're really desperate to play specific songs on demand, you can find a decent balance between playing streaming songs on GHTV and ones on demand, and play without having to spend a dime. And even if you don't feel like playing what's streaming and don't have any credits to your name, you can always go play GH Live for a while until something a little more to your taste starts playing on GHTV. That's the great thing about that mode – it's quite varied and delivers an interesting mix of music.
Rock Band 4 also has microtransactions: you're able to buy new songs from a catalog of some 2,000 available tunes. The choice is incredibly broad, and covers pretty much every kind of genre of music, and ranges in eras from the early 60's to date. Unlike Guitar Hero Live, you "own" the songs you buy, and can practice with them and play them whenever you want – but they are more expensive, costing up to $1.99 per track.
It's a tough call to make in terms of which game features the more wallet-friendly business model. If you're new to the series, you're probably likely to spend more money on Rock Band 4 if you want to build out a custom track list to suit your tastes – and there really is something for everybody in Rock Band's downloadable song list. However, with GHTV, even though you're likely to spend less cash on plays overall – if any money at all – you don't actually own any of the tracks, so unless you're willing to pony up your earned credits, you're at the mercy of whatever happens to be streaming at the time.
Both games are built for the future: Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4 are essentially platforms that will be improved and built out over time. As of now, GHTV is probably the most exciting aspect of both games, with new music and videos being added regularly. Developer Harmonix has promised that Rock Band 4's purchasable song library will continue to grow, and that the game will soon have functionality that will enable users to import old Rock Band disc tracks to the newest edition – at a price. The first will be Rock Band 3's setlist, which authorized Rock Band 3 purchasers will be able to import to Rock Band 4 at a cost of $14.99.
Of course, the big question is: Which game is the better of the two? I reviewed both Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, and ended up giving them the same rating of four stars. However, while I rated them identically, both are good for different reasons.
If you've played Rock Band in the past and have previously bought songs – assuming you've purchased more than a handful – it makes sense to stick with the series. Likewise, if you have old peripherals lying around the house, being able to buy the game on its own is cheaper than having to buy Guitar Hero Live and its new guitar.
However, if you're buying the game from new, Rock Band 4 is a more expensive proposition, with the Band-in-a-Box pack (featuring a guitar, mic and drum kit) costing anywhere from $200 to $250. depending on whether or not you can get a deal. Buying just the game and guitar will cost you around $100 for Rock Band 4, while Guitar Hero Live's price has recently dropped to $80, making it the cheaper option.
In terms of judging the games regardless of price, I think that Rock Band 4 is the better multiplayer/party game. It simply caters to multiple players more effectively than Guitar Hero Live, and is a more fun game overall. As a single-player experience, though, Guitar Hero Live beats Rock Band 4 by a nose. Its new guitar offers a new level of challenge for newbies and veterans alike, and the GHTV mode is a great new way of playing and discovering music.