In Guitar Hero Live, you perform in front of images of an actual, living crowd of real humans, who cheer and sing and dance along to the music as you strum away. It’s as if you’re actually there, living the rockstar dream through the eyes of a live-action guitar hero, and not sitting in your dressing gown at home in front of the telly, gripping a plastic toy guitar as toast crumbs roll down your naked chest.
Play well, and the crowd of actors unfurl banners bearing supportive slogans: oddly generic things like “rock”, “groovy” and “awesome”. Play badly and the fickle crowd suddenly turns on you, flipping their placards around to reveal things like “terrible”, “boo you, bad music man” and “frankly the quality of your guitar playing has left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed”. This isn’t how live music works. Who are these people? And why have they these brought weird double-sided banners to a gig?
It’s all part of Guitar Hero Live’s reality kick. Unlike the more cartoonish Rock Band 4, which also launched this month, this game puts you inside the skull of a live performer in a series of fictional cover bands. The fantasy of performing a live set is fully emulated here, from a roadie chucking you a guitar, to strolling on to the stage, to the braying demands for an encore, to the disappointed faces and shaking heads of your bandmates when you clumsily stumble over notes.
And you’ll probably stumble over notes, even if you consider yourself a veteran of this kind of guitar-based rhythm action game. For the first time in a decade, Guitar Hero Live has re-engineered its iconic guitar controller, scrapping the classic row of five colour-coded frets in favour of a newly configured set of six buttons, a pair on the top and bottom of the first three frets. The resulting game takes some getting used to, but slowly gives way to the sorts of realistic finger placements and bar chords that more closely resemble actual guitar playing. It’s not strictly an improvement over the old button layout, but it’s different enough to be novel and freshly challenging. Plus it looks a bit like a chocolate bar.
Besides the career mode, you’ve got Guitar Hero Live TV, an online, 24-hour music video channel that you can drop into at any time. It’s sort of like auto-playing Spotify, or an MTV that you can jam along to live, with two hundred tracks split across two stations (more coming soon). As you perform, you unlock credits that let you play tracks on demand, and it’s online where most of the game’s music library is hiding. This is also where you’re invited to spend real money to unlock credits to play your favourite songs.
Perhaps as a result of that, the game’s 42 built-in tracks aren’t as great a selection as that found in Rock Band 4. And with updates seemingly leaning towards improving and expanding on the Guitar Hero Live TV side of the things, you need to be on board with spending extra cash if you want to jump into a song of your own choosing.
Couple that with a poorly built guitar – those new fret buttons tend to stick – and the complete lack of any compatibility with old Guitar Hero peripherals or songs, and the competing Rock Band 4 becomes the preferred option for those looking to quickly conjure up a bit of impromptu plastic guitar fun at a party.