The first three strums in Guitar Hero Live (2015) are electrifying. “Let’s try that again,” the engineer says as you power into the second half of soundcheck. In this dimly lit hallway stuffed full of bandmates and crew members, developer Freestyle Games tries to sell you on their vision of what Guitar Hero could be. A game not of highscores and increasingly ridiculous outfits, but a first-person, live-action concert experience. The proposal is one part intriguing, two parts outrageous, and as you hear the overdrive kick in and are waved onto the stage it starts to feel like this could actually work. But once the band begins to play it becomes clear something’s been forgotten. You may be looking out over a crowd of thousands, but you, yourself, are alone.
My first exposure to Guitar Hero was as a Christmas gift to my older step-sister. Her generous grandmother had bought her a Guitar Hero 2 set after my sister fell in love with the game at a friend’s house. This was 2006, when Guitar Hero hype was at its peak and finding it in stores was only slightly easier than nabbing a Nintendo Wii (a hunt that would take us several more years to complete). But here it was, in our backroom, two guitars and a box on which two guitarists struck impossible and impossibly cool poses.
I became obsessed.
I spent days cramped up in that back room with my sister, tearing through track after track, congratulating one another with each new unlock and marveling that music this good existed. At one point my mother remarked at how I was looking skinnier, and to this day considers standing with a plastic guitar highly effective exercise.
GH2 rarely left my PS2 until the system finally gave up the ghost and I was forced to bury my third console. It wouldn’t be until sometime later when my family splurged on the massive full set of Rock Band (2007) that I would be reintroduced to the joy of plastic instruments and colored notes. Rock Band and its many sequels became the centerpiece of my family’s entertainment diet. Together we put hundreds of hours into each game, devoured an upsetting amount of DLC, and rebought the lot three times over as games stopped being released for the PS2 and then the Wii. It was a fixture of our house now, a shrine of polycarbonate to the rock gods I could never hope to summon with real strings.
As rhythm games began to die it became harder to gather my family for a living room concert, and eventually the shrine was dismantled and carted away into a closet where it remained as a reminder of fun nobody cared to have again. At times I would bring out a guitar and play a few songs to try to recreate what I felt when I first plugged in my and my sister’s guitars so many years prior. But without bandmates to back me up, the shows always fell flat.
Guitar Hero Live’s conceit is that all its concerts are fully filmed and performed. There are no outrageous characters but real bands playing through each set of a fictional music festival. The bands are split up by musical style and range from spunky girl-groups to uncomfortable metal-heads whose outfits could double as cheese graters. The performances are universally amusing (although the quality varies wildly) primarily due to how clear it is the fake bands are having a great time.
Live also introduces a new guitar which splits buttons into upper and lower groups, adding an extra twist to the familiar five button setups but losing a lot of that model’s accessibility (discerning white and black notes on a flashing highway is a lot harder than picking red from blue). Ultimately, this is Guitar Hero and it still plays like Guitar Hero. Nobody is going to be won back, and those who missed the series will find it easy to slip back in.
But that surface experience – the guitar, the tracklist, even the new live-action visuals – all misses what matters most in a Guitar Hero game, the thing that made it a household name and caused people to erupt with excitement at the sight of a plastic guitar in the corner: Guitar Hero has always been, and is at its very best as a social experience. Playing plastic instruments by yourself fluctuates between being as worthwhile as any other videogame to a sad reminder you are only pantomiming a song and not actually learning the Free Bird solos. Playing with a group, however, can at times border on the euphoric. There is nothing like getting a full Rock Band group together for a night, and every music game since has been chasing that feeling.
Live approaches social play from the same angle it approaches revitalizing the overall tone of the series. Rather than sell you a set of instruments, Live hands you a guitar and provides the rest of the band on the disc. There they are, right now, sitting down at the drums and hyping up the crowd. Don’t worry about your real friends, you’ve got a band (for a set) and then we’ll hook you up with someone else.
To those who only ever played Guitar Hero as a solo game, nothing will feel amiss in Live. But for anyone who’s experienced a full Rock Band setup or played tug-of-war in Guitar Hero, there is an immediate gap in the fantasy Live is trying to invite you into. What few multiplayer options exist are hollow echoes of previous games, either having two players inhabit the same first-person perspective or overlaying music videos in the background. Gone are heated character wars or trademark band lineups. The player is a ghost, drifting from booth to booth, playing a few tracks, and drifting off to find someone else to possess.
It sounds hyperbolic, but the amount of personality that has been stripped out of Live combined with the loss of developed multiplayer becomes increasingly depressing with each set. The crowds get bigger but the initial novelty fades and what remains is a stage full of people you don’t know. The crowd cheers and boos in time with your missed notes, oscillating back and forth as your vision blurs like some sort of rockstar purgatory where everyone comes prepared with “you suck” signs, just in case. Imaginary tweets sale by the bottom of the screen with hashtags I can’t make out on my TV. The announcers repeatedly mention the guitarist separate from the rest of the band, just a stand-in for a dozen groups that don’t exist. I don’t get a name, not even a fake one.
As I prepare to walk on stage for the final set, my hands are shaking. This is a big deal, as I understand it. A crew member asks if I’m ok. I huddle with the band and walk on stage. The set passes, fireworks explode, the band hugs. Credits.
I turn the game off. The excitement was lost on me. Or perhaps it’s just hard to be that excited when you can’t share it with anyone. Perhaps I should celebrate with my TV. Or I could invite friends over and play something else.
Let’s play something else.
Guitar Hero Live was developed by Freestyle Games and is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PlayStation 3, and iOS.
This post was made possible through the generosity of my wonderful Patreon peeps. If you like my work, consider spreading the word or buying me a coffee :)