The 2015 battle of the video game bands is booked.
On Tuesday, Activision pulled back the curtain on the worst-kept secret in gaming: After a five-year hiatus, Guitar Hero is staging a comeback. The new effort is called Guitar Hero Live, and it’s due out this fall.
The announcement effectively revives the music game rivalry that once dominated consoles, as developer Harmonix recently revealed that Rock Band 4 is also coming before the year is up.
But while we know only a few tidbits about the new Rock Band, Activision and new developer FreeStyleGames (they made the DJ Hero games) have already given press hands-on time with Guitar Hero Live. In general, it’s the same sort of game that it’s always been — you bang away on a plastic guitar to notes flying down the screen — but it’s got a few new tricks up its sleeve. Here’s what we know so far:
It’s got a new guitar.
Hope you have room in the house for another plastic instrument.
The new Guitar Hero Live guitar sports the typical bits you’d expect — a strum bar, a whammy bar, a few knobs at the bottom — but the big change is at the top of the neck, where in place of the five iconic colored buttons now sit two rows of three buttons, sans coloration.
So six buttons instead of five? Yep, but it’s the placement that will throw even Guitar Hero vets for a loop. Having two separate rows better emulates the feeling of playing a real guitar and opens up more complex chords and other gameplay tweaks.
“It was about making it super-easy,” Jamie Jackson, the studio head for FreeStyleGames, told me. “We knew that three buttons was the safe zone — if you didn’t have to bend your pinkie, it was easier — but we also wanted to give some depth to medium players. And on top of that, there’s a totally new, deeper challenge for advanced players … there are so many more button combinations with this layout.”
As the buttons forgo coloration, so too does the note highway. Players will have to follow only two tones: Black notes are played on the top three buttons, while white notes correspond to the bottom three. It’s a fairly innocuous twist, but it introduces an entirely new learning curve. I could reliably slog through Guitar Hero tracks on Expert difficulty by the end of 2010, and while I nailed a good 95 percent of notes in Easy mode in Guitar Hero Live, that sunk to a dismal 67 percent just by bumping it to Medium. Shred it up!
There’s a significant downside to a new guitar with a new button layout, however: It means that old guitars will not work with Guitar Hero Live. If you want to play the new game, you’ll need to fork over for the new plastic doodad too. And by fork over, I mean Guitar Hero Live will run a hefty $100.
That’s a bummer for gamers who still have loads of gear left over from the music game heyday, not to mention a step back from Rock Band 4, which is being designed to work with whatever controllers you already own. But getting old gear to work insinuates that Rock Band 4’s new instruments won’t have much in the way of fresh features. Guitar Hero Live is at least giving innovation a shot.
The game will focus specifically on the guitar, too. No other instruments are planned for Guitar Hero Live, so don’t expect to plug in microphones or drums.
It’s got live-action video. With actors.
More jarring than the new guitar is the game’s new look.
In past Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, you played a character represented by a cartoonish onscreen avatar. In Guitar Hero Live, that character is gone, because you’re the star.
It’s all done through a first-person viewpoint. Before a gig, you’re handed a guitar by a roadie. You huddle up with your band, share a few inspiring words, fight the nerves jangling in your stomach as you ascend the backstage stairs in the dark, and bathe in the warmth of your fans as you walk out in front of a packed crowd staring at you.
But they aren’t cartoonish avatars; in Guitar Hero Live, you’re interacting with real actors in every role.
That roadie? Just some grungy dude. Stare at your bandmates and the actors playing them (in my demo, the fictitious band was called Broken Tide) stare right back. The crowd isn’t an ocean of 3D character models, it’s a bunch of human beings standing around waiting for you to blow their minds with your Eddie Van Halen impersonation.
“We wanted you to feel a bit of stage fright,” says Jackson.
They’ll even react emotionally to your performance. If you’re nailing notes, the crowd — and your bandmates — will get into it, all thumbs-up and devil horns and “woo-hoos.” But start sucking, and they’ll turn on you, faces aghast at your flubs, a sea of unimpressed jerks. It’s like they suddenly transformed into Pitchfork.
The move to full-motion video is surprising, to say the least. It’s a bold idea, and in some ways it demonstrates that this is a grown-up version of Guitar Hero. But something about the look also reminds me of cheesy old games like Sewer Shark, a far cry from the fresh, groundbreaking approach the developers were going for. Are you in the middle of a live concert, or are you playing a Sega CD game? This is going to take some getting used to.
It’s got a big new online mode.
You’ll wow that crowd in the game’s main single-player mode, which takes you through the life of a band trying to hit it big. But Activision has kept the specifics of solo rocking under wraps. For now, it’s focusing on another big change: Guitar Hero TV.
One of the buttons on that guitar controller takes you directly to GHTV, an always-on playable music network that connects you with other players around the world. There you’ll find a few different “channels” continuously streaming songs. Jump into a channel, and you’ll start playing whatever tune happens to be on the air at the moment. It works a bit like sifting through your cable guide or, perhaps more accurately, popping into different stations à la Pandora. You do not pick the tracks — they are cycling automatically, 24/7.
Unlike the single-player mode, you’re not playing with bandmates here. Instead, a video for the song you’re playing runs in the background. And if you’re not into whatever’s playing, you can pop over to GHTV’s “songs on demand” area, cue up whatever song you’d like, and play away.
Expect to hear a pretty eclectic mix of songs. The artists currently confirmed include the Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Gary Clark Jr., Green Day, Ed Sheeran, the War on Drugs, the Killers, Skrillex, the Rolling Stones, the Lumineers, Pierce the Veil and Blitz Kids. What, no jazz?
Not that a Wes Montgomery channel is entirely off the table. An Activision rep confirmed to me that you won’t need to pay a subscription for the initial channels launched alongside the game, nor will you need to pay to play any on-demand songs. But they certainly haven’t ruled out charging for additional channels in the future. Hello, DLC.
You can play it just about anywhere.
Activision announced that the game would be available this fall for most systems, including the Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. But it’s also coming to “select mobile devices” (that’s marketing code for “We’re still working on getting approval for the Android version”).
It’s that last bit that’s most interesting. Activision hit it out of the park with the iOS version of Skylanders: Trap Team, which came in a smartly designed package that included a tiny gamepad. It will be interesting to see how they tackle this for mobile gamers. A phone clip for the guitar? Or will you just prop up your iPad on a table?
You are probably still not sold on it.
Five years might seem like an eternity to your Labrador, but gamers have good memories. While Activision and FreeStyleGames are convinced that the time is right for the return of the franchise, it’s unclear whether the masses are on board.
The meteoric rise of the music game genre had Activision seeing green, and it capitalized on this by releasing a torrent of Guitar Hero spinoffs alongside new yearly installments (EA did much the same with Rock Band). By the end of 2010, we were all staring at closets overflowing with plastic crap and games that just felt like minor tweaks on the same formula. By early 2011, both bands had broken up. By 2012, most of us had sold all our gear.
The good news is that Activision doesn’t plan on doing that again. Like Harmonix, the company has gone on record as saying that it isn’t planning to release annual installments of Guitar Hero Live. It sees the game as a new platform and GHTV as the way to deliver new content.
But is five years enough time to feel nostalgic about the good old days of fake shredding? And will Guitar Hero Live bring enough positive change to the table to get us back onboard? We’ll find out more during the E3 conference in mid-June.