Guitar Hero Live Hands-On Impressions: Kicking Off a New Tour

Guitar Hero Live was announced this morning at the Best Buy Theater in New York City. We get our hands on the new guitar and show off our skills in front of a virtual live audience. Is the game enough to intense enough to induce stage fright? Check out our impressions to find out.


After a 5 year break, Guitar Hero is finally set to make a big return. This time, it gets rid of the animated avatars, flips the camera around for a different perspective, and requires an all new guitar controller. By switching to an on-stage view using dynamic live actors, Guitar Hero Live seeks to recreate the feel of actually playing on stage in front of a huge crowd of cheering (or booing) spectators. We try our hand at an early demo to see if we have what it takes to rocket to stardom, or if the band should start auditioning replacements.

Perhaps what's more important than the new look is the new controller, on which all the gameplay relies. Unlike the traditional guitar controller's straight row of five colored buttons, the new Guitar Hero controller has six buttons arranged atop each other to form a 2x3 block. Icons in the game are black and white, as opposed to the multicolored gems one might expect from a music game. White gems denote using the lower fret buttons and black ones are for the upper ones. Every once in a while, a song may require you to press both a black and white key at once. Hitting the whammy bar activates your super ability (charged through playing well), which adds a score multiplayer and instantly cheers up an audience that's hating on you.

As simple as it might look, the new style took some getting used to. I'm one of those people who never made much use of the ring finger and pinky buttons on a traditional controller (dreaded them, really), so having a three button layout felt very efficient. However, it doesn't have the same sense of pretend as a traditional controller, where you would move your hand up and down the guitar neck.

The problem came when I had to switch between the upper and lower frets. I would freak out a little whenever it came time to switch, and just as I regained my composure, it would come time to switch again. My biggest issue was in playing the upper frets, since my fingers would accidentally press against the lower ones when I reached for them. It took me a few practice sessions on Rookie difficulty, which limits the song to just the lower frets, but I realized that I was holding the controller far too loosely, and I got better when I figured out how to adjust my grip, but I can't say that switching between the two rows ever felt quite as natural as mashing buttons on a classic controller. Furthermore, there are no raised bumps on the buttons, so it's easy to lose alignment with them and not realize it until you've screwed up a couple cords. Lastly, navigating the menu system isn't quite as intuitive as using multicolored buttons.

Songs available in the demo include Light Em Up by Fall Out Boy, Gold on the Ceiling by the Black Keys, and When You Were Young by The Killers. Accompanying them are three venues, with a different actors playing band members at each song/location. The game's background is all performed by live actors that react dynamically to your performance. Play well and your band mates will nod at you and rock out while the crowd cheers wildly. Screw up, and everyone gets pissed at you. Band mates shake their heads and sneer while the audience boos. The missed notes might be enough to let you know you're not doing well, but the extra bit of feedback adds a nice touch.

However, it's still difficult to notice what's going on in the background once the song starts. My attention was focused entirely on the notes and trying to hit them, so I didn't get to appreciate the band or audience reaction until the song hit a short break. There are also no big moments, like standing next to the lead singer or second guitarist to rock out together when you're on a roll. Despite the changes in reactions, there is still a sense that you're somewhat removed from the action.

Another feature that seemed to go to waste is the dynamic sound. As your character moves closer to the drummer, the sounds of the drums increase. The roar or the crowd grows louder when you move closer to it. All of it pretty much goes unnoticed after the first few seconds of the song. After that, all you hear is the song lyrics and your own performance.

At this early stage, Guitar Hero Live appears to be a strong evolution for music games. It doesn't have that same playful feel of picking up a plastic guitar for the first time and pretending to rock out, but I suspect those days might be long over. I eventually got into the groove and put on some pretty good performances on normal difficulty, but the game sort of contradicts itself. There are no half measures in Guitar Hero Live. You can play 3/4ths of a song perfectly, and end with a great score, but messing up the last bit will leave everyone looking at you like you ruined the whole show. Come on, people, it's art! I meant to play badly.

Guitar Hero Live releases this fall for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Wii U and mobile devices. 

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