Within minutes of Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg showing off the bizarre new Guitar Hero, visions of Almost Famous danced in my head, specifically William Miller explaining to Lester Bangs how Lou Reed was trying to sound like Bowie, when he should just sound like himself. To which Bangs counters: “Even when Lou’s doing Bowie, Lou’s still doing Lou.”
Even when Guitar Hero Live is trying to be accessible, and appeal to every player everywhere, it can’t help but be Guitar Hero. And that’s a problem considering how far away GH Live seems to want to stray from its niche past. It makes every new decision feel like an odd fit; in trying to appeal to everyone, it seems hell-bent on appealing to few, which is, of course, a classic rock musician trap. GH Live feels like Guitar Hero’s strange misfiring pop phase. It’s the video-game equivalent of Chris Cornell’s Scream.
Everything that’s GH Live is encapsulated by the new guitar controller, a strange hybrid of Rock Band’s flat-key Fender and the old-school Guitar Hero’s classic toy feel. It’s actually a rather solid piece of equipment that feels at once familiar and foreign in the hand. At least until you try to play it.
The big change in GH Live is that the classic colorful five-fret layout has been replace by a two-by-three block of buttons, meant to function like switching chords. It is, to say the least, an odd feel. Of course, there’s the chance that more time with the new layout will feel more natural, but first impression is that, just like the awkward touchpad fretboard Activision introduced with Guitar Hero: World Tour, it’s an attempt to add more realism to what is, inherently, a plastic toy. Jamie Jackson, creative director on GH Live, explained the decision that less hardcore players only used three fingers on the fretboard, and when the far-reaching green-blue/green-orange notes started coming, these players hit a wall. It’s sound logic, but one has to wonder how much better these casual players will fare when complex notes no longer involve a cool, fluid, rock-star downshift, but a complete rewiring of the brain to switch between a set of black-and-white frets, the most technical aspect of playing a guitar. Moreover, it’s a cramped setup. Many a player with large hands found their fingers lost even on the Rookie setting—and on a laidback Black Keys tune to boot.
The good news is that there’s not really a fail state in GH Live, simply the vocal, hostile disdain of the very real, filmed, reactive crowd, a departure from Guitar Hero’s trademark cartoon style. One of the game’s truly inspired, long-overdue touches is that reaching the end of a song you floundered on, your faceless guitarist attempts to make a stage dive, only for him to face-plant as the crowd scatters like cockroaches. It’s the kind of personality the game needs more of.
Instead, GH Live’s strangely retro full-motion-video motif reflects the same commitment to appeal to everyone, which again carries the danger of appealing to no one. Walking through backstage in first person as you gear up to take the stage, you’re surrounded by people you may not generally want to play music with, and the lack of wacky character options means men, women, and children are stuck playing as the same faceless rock god. It’s telling that Activision chose Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz and My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way to show off the game on stage during the presentation. Both represent the kind of inoffensive mall rock that informs the entire experience.
So far, only a handful of artists have been announced for the game. Aside from the aforementioned three, expect tracks from Gary Clark Jr., Green Day, Ed Sheeran, the War on Drugs, the Killers, Skrillex, the Rolling Stones, the Lumineers, Carrie Underwood, Pierce the Veil, and the Blitz Kids—and aside from the Stones, the lack of bona-fide classics for anyone born before the ’90s is a major disappointment, especially for a series that made its bones on making everyone of every age feel like they have a set list to latch onto.
There’s hope, however, in one of the game’s new features, called GHTV, which offers playable, downloadable music videos, separated by genre. It’s a fascinating throwback to the golden days of MTV actually playing music, and there’s potential for it to become the go-to mode for folks looking to broaden their horizons. So far, only the artists mentioned were visible, but Activision promises regular updates for GHTV across all the offered channels.
Still, GH Live, in its current state is a frustrating thing. It shows a willingness of Activision to try and innovate, but it’s innovation for its own sake. It feels cold, calculated, lacking a soul, undedicated to the reason players flocked to Guitar Hero to begin with.
Activision will release Guitar Hero Live in autumn 2015.