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Guitar Hero Live: getting the band back together

After a five-year hiatus Guitar Hero is returning to reignite your inner rock god. We've had the chance to check it out and found much to our pleasant surprise.

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"Any original Guitar Hero gear you’ve got lying around is now relegated to the past, along with it the goofy caricatures that served as your on-stage avatar."

The pop culture moment that was Guitar Hero has been reinvented in the pursuit of resonance with today’s legs-akimbo stage strutting wannabes. In an age of digital downloads and high-def streaming services, the appeal of owning let alone wanting a permanent play-along collection is waning. Rather than this being a problem for Activision, whose Guitar Hero series once thrived off track-listings to capture particular crowds, the company has seized an opportunity to reach a much wider audience, but with one crucial 'feel' front and centre: the eternal thrill of a live performance.

Leamington Spa’s FreeStyleGames is producing, whose creative director Jamie Jackson explained: "We believe there’s two ways that people consume music these days: there’s the cloud from which we consume stuff however we want, physical collections just don’t exist anymore. The other way that hasn’t died, and won’t die, is live because it’s such a different experience; whether the band is on form or not, the non-produced sound, plus the crowd adding its own level of noise."

A new controller is the centre-piece of Guitar Hero Live, which seeks to provide a more authentic home for fingers yearning to imitate the fast-fretting action of the musicians we worship on stage. Gone is the singular row of large brightly coloured buttons, in its place two rows of three tightly grouped keys occupying what guitarists know as first position. The lower set is coded white, the upper set black which is how they’re shown on the familiar ‘highway’ prompts during the game.

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“The idea for having six buttons came from wanting to mimic the idea of [wiggles left-hand fingers] this is playing guitar,” Jackson says. “We also wanted to offer a new experience if we were to bring this game back, we couldn’t just regurgitate the same gameplay.”

The new controller design and how its buttons correspond to the music mean that any original Guitar Hero gear you’ve got lying around is now relegated to the past, along with it the goofy caricatures that served as your on-stage avatar. In their place is the opportunity to master much higher degrees of difficulty after cutting your teeth on a more intuitive command scheme: tougher routines imitate simple bar chords alongside regular transitions between upper and lower keys, meanwhile holding your hand in one place to press only the white keys is an easy skill to acquire.

While it’s a stretch to call Guitar Hero Live serious, it grabs credibility by the ‘Ernie Balls’ putting you on stage beside real musicians while nervously eyeing some convincing crowds. It doesn’t want to teach you to play the guitar; it wants to let you know how it feels to be out there under the lights. The pressure of performance is conveyed via real-life scenarios from your bank of effects pedals all the way back stage. On-the-fly video editing shows the changing mood of fellow band members and the response of the hardcore fans in the pit according to how well you carry the whole thing off.

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We grabbed the new controller to bounce through two specially chosen songs for press day: Fall Out Boy's ‘My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)’ and Black Keys’ ‘Gold On The Ceiling’. The latter appeared to be taking place at a Glasto-style outdoor festival, with tents en route to the stage and a ridiculously huge crowd. If you’ve ever dreamed of being that guy on such a pedestal, overlooking an orange sea of sweaty foreheads and banging fists, this is your moment. We got more of a chill, however, from snaking through the corridors backstage of a more traditional venue with a roadie’s torch guiding our steps over the mess of power cables held roughly in place by gaffer tape. Edging onto stage past the female drummer adjusting her seat, the vocalist and fellow axe-men awaiting your arrival, the bizarre sense of solitude contrasting with the baying crowd was uncanny.

"The Guitar Hero Live concept basically works, and it’s kind of beautiful."

With the songs underway the desire to keep punters singing back at you while band mates sneak a wry smile here and there immediately runs white hot. The appeal of Guitar Hero Live is dead simple, as it should be, instantly summoning that Rockstar alter-ego that most of us suppressed a very sad long time ago. Nobody is going to want to suffer the glare of your disgraced drummer, or see the shrugs and notice all cameras lowered of your betrayed front row fans.

The Guitar Hero Live concept basically works, and it’s kind of beautiful. But in addition to this there’s another mode called Guitar Hero TV, set out to be a Playable Music Video Network offering several channels around the clock. “This is our ‘Massively Multiplayer Online’ if you like,” Jackson suggests. It’s a hub from where match-made showdowns take place day or night, versus anyone that’s up for the challenge any place around the world that you can get online.

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Given the global stance of GHTV, we asked FreestyleGames’ project director John Napier about the likelihood of any international acts of note making their way onto the playlists eventually. In terms of deals, however, Activision is keeping a lid on this for a while. “Though I can’t say too much about our licensing deals, the labels are enthusiastic about the fact that it’s coming back and they’re keen to work with us,” Napier told us. “We’re going to have so many songs in GHTV, there’s going to be a lot of new material for players to enjoy. We wanted to have a mechanism that would enable a continual supply of new music coming to the network. To master every song is going to take a very long time.”

As a parting shot on press day, Activision’s VP of European marketing Dan Green mentioned that there is a mobile app underway that’ll offer a fully featured version of Guitar Hero Live, Guitar Hero TV and all. It’ll allow the controller to connect via Bluetooth and be capable of running on your TV. “No console, no problem,” Green cheerfully delivered.

There’s much more information promised for E3, taking place June 16-18 this year in LA. For now, VG247 is happy to report that Guitar Hero Live is humming with potential to raise adrenaline levels in all those that sling the controller over their shoulder. The release date is loosely ‘Fall 2015’ for versions on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U for an RRP of $99.99. Although the various deals being struck with music labels are work in progress, artists so far 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.

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Guitar Hero Live

Android, iOS, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U

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Paul Davies