It’s about time that Guitar Hero II’s been bested. How long’s it been now? 9 years? All we’ve gotten since then is expansion packs and boring copycats. Leave it to newcomer FreeStyleGames, who’d previously cut their teeth on the DJ Hero games, to resurrect the series with features so innovative and bold that it might actually make you stop next time you think of slandering the creative output of Activision.
The game’s shining star is its new guitar controller. The original 2005 Guitar Hero controller simulated a single string with 5 frets, which was two more than Konami’s 1998 Guitar Freaks. Then came the confused Rock Band guitar in 2007 that added 5 frets but wasted them on hammer-ons and pull-offs. Guitar Hero Live’s controller laughs at everything that came before by adding a second string, 3 frets each for a total of 6, supporting vastly superior melodies and chords, and forever condemning the previous controllers to the garbage bin. Playing on this guitar is such a fresh and exhilarating experience that there’s no way I would ever play on one of those plastic relics ever again. It’s that good.
But it sounds like we’re getting into Rocksmith territory here. Not to worry. There’s more to the game than its controller. Rather than filling their virtual venues with the series’ traditional animated monstrosities, Guitar Hero Live forgoes 3D graphics altogether, replacing it all with first-person, live-action video of a choreographed concert. If you’re rocking out hard enough, the concert explodes with an energy unlike anything you’ve ever seen before in a game like this. And if you play poorly, the video transitions to a crowd booing and taunting you, with your fellow bandmates giving you dirty looks and otherwise venting their frustrations at your shameful incompetence. Now this is what I’m talking about! Instead of an abstract meter that measures your performance, you’ve got a live audience that responds according to how well you play. In fact, it’s no longer possible to suddenly fail out of a song and get dumped back onto a menu screen. After all, wouldn’t that be unthinkable at a live concert? Just imagine a musician in the middle of a solo stopping and saying, “Oops. Let me restart the song.” Ridiculous! The show must go on!
This is how Guitar Hero Live escapes the pit of the song list games. Although they’re still just concerts, they’re the best videogame concerts I’ve ever seen.
In order to accommodate a more diverse music catalog, the game has you playing among multiple bands across two music festivals. I would have preferred the structure of the original games that followed a single band’s career, but as I played more and more, I came to appreciate the variety and novelty of the songs, some far more than I would have expected (I must confess that I really liked the pop concert from the girl band). This isn’t the place for music snobs.
After having played through all the concerts, I didn’t feel like the music library was lacking in any way. But if you do want more, there’s also the Guitar Hero TV mode, which functions as an interactive MTV network. It’s a nice diversion, but the live concerts are so great, that’s really what I want to see more of. Not music videos. But at least it’s an easier way to get more content into the game.