The rumors are true: After five years off the road, Activision is bringing Guitar Hero back on tour this fall.
If you’ve been keeping score, that means that yes, the stage is indeed set for a new battle of the bands, as Activision’s longtime rival in the music space Harmonix is releasing Rock Band 4 this fall. But if you’re worried that you’ll have to once again decide between two identical plastic-instrument game setups, don’t worry. The new Rock Band and the new Guitar Hero couldn’t be any more different.
Guitar Hero Live, to be released on PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox One and 360, Wii U, and mobile devices, is a fresh start for the series. Unlike Rock Band 4, it’s not compatible with any of the old guitar controllers you’ve got in the closet, nor with any songs you’ve downloaded for previous Guitar Hero games.
But with that fresh start comes a new way to play. Guitar Hero Live’s controller doesn’t have the traditional line of five candy-colored buttons that have become so associated with the genre. It’s actually got a three-by-two array of buttons; three on the top of the guitar neck, three on the bottom. So you’re no longer moving your hand sideways on the “frets”—instead, you’re moving your fingers up and down on the “strings.”
“Early in development, we maintained the classic colors on the design,” says Jamie Jackson, the game’s creative director and head of development studio FreeStyleGames, which also developed the DJ Hero series. “We were giving you too much information that you didn’t actually need, because your fingers are always in position. We were making your brain compute a color that it didn’t need to.”
Once FreeStyleGames ditched the colored buttons for a simple set of black and white icons shaped like guitar picks—pick pointing up, top row; pick pointing down, bottom row—Jackson says they found that players started playing the game better immediately.
I tried it out, and it’s certainly a refreshing change from the same old five buttons we’ve been using since 2006. Moving your fingers into different vertical positions feels just that little bit much more like you’re really pressing guitar strings.
Although previous Guitar Hero games chased Rock Band into the full-band experience, with plastic drums and microphones, Live is going all the way back to the series’ roots: Nothing but guitar. Meghan Trainor might be all about that bass, but Guitar Hero Live is not; it’s lead guitar for everybody, even if multiple players are jamming together.
Taking the Stage
What puts the “live” into the game’s title is the stuff that plays on screen while you’re slamming that strum bar. Early rumors pegged this new Guitar Hero as having “realistic” graphics. This turned out to be an understatement.
Put simply: Every song on the Guitar Hero Live disc is accompanied by a first-person, live-action video. While you’re playing along to Fall Out Boy or The Killers, you’ll find yourself surrounded by your bandmates on stage, playing to a crowd of thousands.
Actually, there are two videos. If you start to play badly, the video of your bandmates happily jamming and the crowd screaming at you fades out, and is replaced by another video, showing your bandmates staring at you in disbelief that you are so terrible, and a crowd of bored onlookers wishing they’d stayed home.
It’s an incredibly elaborate presentation. It must have been an awfully expensive one. Jackson says it involved a massive computer-controlled camera system that could be programmed to shoot the exact same shots over and over again, plus a whole lot of CG to turn a few hundred actors into a stadium full of hundreds of thousands.
It’s up in the air as to whether Guitar Hero Live‘s first-person videos, all lovingly hand-crafted for each track on the disc, turn out to be a compelling, differentiating feature that enhances players’ experiences, or an incredibly expensive boondoggle that nobody pays much attention to.
Guitar Hero TV
So that’s the songs on the disc. What about adding to your library via downloadable content? The short answer: You won’t.
In lieu of downloadable songs, Guitar Hero Live will feature “Guitar Hero TV,” an online service that gives you a list of music videos that you can play along to. It’ll look like you’re browsing an interactive TV guide, with “programs” that run during different times of day and feature different genres of music: top 20 hits, heavy metal, et cetera.
“Guitar Hero TV is very much like normal TV, right? You turn the program on, and if you missed the first five minutes, you’ve missed the first five minutes,” says Jackson. “But just like TV, if you miss the first five minutes of a show you can go and play it on demand. That’s where you can jump into our song section, and everything that’s currently being broadcast, if you like, that will be available for you to play.”
Does this leave you feeling a little confused as to how Guitar Hero TV works? Me too. I wasn’t able to try it for myself, and Activision is being coy about a lot of the details until the E3 Expo in June. But it did confirm that you’ll be able to play as much as you want in Guitar Hero TV for free. Since it’s highly unlikely that Activision doesn’t have some sort of microtransactions plan to make more money from Guitar Hero TV, there’s surely another wrinkle to this service that we haven’t heard about yet.
Activision is committing, it says, to having Guitar Hero TV be the primary way that it delivers new content to players, for at least the next couple of years: “It is not currently our plan to release a new disc in 2016,” says Tyler Michaud, Activision’s senior director of product management.
Oh, and: You Don’t Need a Console
The $99.99 Guitar Hero Live bundle for game consoles will include the disc and a guitar. But you don’t even have to have an Xbox to play the full version of the game.
Like Activision’s most recent Skylanders release, which replicated the game’s full console experience on a tablet, Guitar Hero Live will also have a mobile version that is identical to the console game.
Now, chances are pretty good you don’t want to be that guy on the bus who’s playing Guitar Hero on his phone. So Activision is going a step further: The mobile version, also sold in retail stores at $99.99, includes everything you need to play the full Guitar Hero game on your television, using your phone as the game machine.
Activision didn’t specify how exactly this will work, or which phones and tablets will work (it specifies that “select” mobile devices can run the game). But the ability to sell the whole Guitar Hero Live experience to smartphone owners is a big deal.
After battling each other for so long, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are going their own ways. On the one side, you have the full band experience that plays with your old instruments and existing music (and promises that it will innovate by changing the gameplay itself, which we haven’t seen yet.) On the other, a game that strips Guitar Hero down to almost exactly what it was in 2006, plus an online-only streaming music solution to replace individual downloads.
Who’s got the right idea? We’ll find out this fall.