After its unceremonious demise, the game that sold millions of plastic guitars, and kick started an entire phenomenon is back. Having gone from a cult hit to a household name in just a few years time, Guitar Hero is one of those games that everyone's heard of. At some point, almost everyone and their gran has picked up the plastic guitar, held the buttons down, and strummed as the notes made their way down the screen. But while it may have reached the levels of super-stardom, Guitar Hero's also been away for quite some time. And with good reason.
It wasn't so much that the games started being terrible, per se, so much as they simply flooded their own market. Going from one game a year to at least one game, plus tie-ins and spin-offs, Activison smelt money, and ended up killing their own cash cow in the space of a few years. While Guitar Hero Aerosmith may have been a spin-off we could appreciate, Guitar Hero Van Halen pushed things too far, Band Hero was a game without a market, and we can only thank our lucky stars that the series was put on the shelf before the rumoured Guitar Hero Motley Crue saw light of day. Faced with stiff competition from Rock Band, rather than strengthening its hand and emphasising its differences, Guitar Hero instead responded by trying to do everything Rock Band did, but better - something of an impossible goal when Rock Band was on form.
Since then, several years have passed - and Guitar Hero is ready to rock once more. Far from just being a new iteration of an ageing franchise, Guitar Hero Live does everything the series should arguably have done a few years ago to save itself from obscurity, ditching the band aspect to focus purely on guitars - and making you feel like you're right on stage.
Of course, this being a re-boot, there are several huge changes to talk about, but the basics still remain the same. In the middle of the screen is a note track, and as the song plays, notes will come down the screen in one of three columns. It's up to you to hold the right button on the guitar neck, and strum as it passes over the line at the bottom. Mess up, and the guitar part of the track will stop playing - but get it right, and you'll feel like a rock star, shredding like they've never shredded before, live on stage.
One of the biggest changes for this year is the new guitar, which ditches the old fashioned five coloured buttons for a new 3x2 layout. In one way simpler, and in another way much more complex, this may sound like a small change on paper, but it totally changes the way you play the game. With one row of buttons coloured black, and another coloured white, you may only have three columns of notes to worry about, but you now have to worry about moving your fingers up and down between the two rows. Luckily, the notes on screen aren't only coloured depending on the row you need to play, but they also point up or down, to give you an extra hint. Making solos seem much more intricate (and accurate), along with adding the ability to do bar chords, where you hold down both the black and white note, this changes everything about Guitar Hero - yet somehow keeps things oddly familiar.
But this new button arrangement means that everyone who comes to Guitar Hero has to start from scratch all over again. You can't just jump in on expert (or at least, we couldn't) - you have to work your way up from the bottom of the pile, and learn to play again. Luckily, that's actually pretty easy to do, with five difficulty levels on offer, only the top two of which actually use two rows of notes - on the others, you only have three notes to worry about.
That said, it's sometimes actually trickier than you'd imagine to rock out on the easier difficulties than you'd think, especially if you know the song you're playing. Seeing as on the easier settings, you'll only be playing a stripped down version of the song - say, you'll play one note for every three or four they play - it's all too easy to end up strumming too much, or actually find it hard to get the rhythm right, as you'll try to play notes that aren't there - but bumping the difficulty up to the hardest setting, expert, makes the song too tricky.
The other big difference is the camera. When we mentioned earlier that Guitar Hero Live had removed the band instruments (so there's no drum or bass track), they've actually ramped up the whole "being in a band" feeling by playing the gigs from a first person perspective, looking out over a crowd of people. It may be a mostly cosmetic change, but it's also a pretty cool one, as you rock out alongside band mates, and watch the crowd respond to your performance. Play well, and they'll love you, but miss too many notes, and they'll turn on you quicker than you can say Yngwie Malmsteen. Luckily, there's always a way to win them back, as all you've got to do is start hitting the notes again - and with no way to fail, you should do fine.
That said, one of the things we've heard on the grapevine is that some actually find it a little bit intimidating "being on stage" to begin with. With hundreds (or thousands) of real people staring at you, expecting you to play well, some people actually get stage fright, and have their performance hampered by worrying. Luckily for us, we had no such issues - but perhaps that's because being on stage is nowhere near as worrying as the eyesight of the woman who put a guitar around our neck before we went on, whose parting words were "you go girl". Maybe our hair could do with a trim, but surely the beard and moustache should be a giveaway?
Of course, the strength of a music game depends on the quality of its soundtrack, and it's here Guitar Hero starts to have a few issues. Part of the problem here is that the whole "real band, real audience" approach to doing normal tracks makes it very expensive to do, so there's a fairly limited 42 song soundtrack actually on the disc. Unfortunately for the Guitar Hero crew, while anthemic tracks are sorely lacking, space has instead been made on the disc for Eminem's Bezerk, a dull song to play that has no place on a Guitar Hero game, and Bangarang by Skrillex, which ought to have been saved for Dial-up Modem Hero rather than find its way onto Guitar Hero Live.
Where are the decent songs, we hear you ask? Well, they've been pushed on to Guitar Hero TV, a kind of "free to play" mode that we're totally on the fence about. Launching with a library of over 200 songs, this reads like a who's who of songs we can't wait to play (or have at least heard of) - Tenacious D's Tribute, Korn's Freak on a Leash, Disturbed's Down with the Sickness/Stricken, Sum 41's In Too Deep, Chop Suey by System of a Down, The Kids Aren't Alright by the Offspring, and countless other great tracks. The only problems is, if you want to play a specific song, you have to pay.
Yes, Guitar Hero TV replaces the old "pay once, own it forever" model of post-launch downloadable add-on tracks, putting a "24 hour music channel" in its place. Here, you have a choice of two channels, each of which have a variety of "shows" on at different times of day, each themed around a different type of music, be it pop, metal, or classic rock. The only catch is, you have no control over the songs you play, so if you're really in the mood for some Tenacious D, but all you've got the choice between is Country and Emo, your only option is to pay to play.
If you want to play a track as a one off, you can buy "plays" from the store using either in-game currency, or real cash. The only problem is, they cost a fortune using in-game money, and you'll have to play for hours on end to be able to afford even three of them, yet alone enough to be able to spend the evening curating your own play list of tunes, while 10 plays cost around a pound of real money. It's a real shame, as if we could buy the tracks outright, we would - but with a semi-free-to-play model in a full priced release, they're not getting a penny out of us. Still, if you're not too fussy, there's fun to be had here just sitting back and seeing what comes around, but we'd infinitely prefer to be the one pulling the strings.
There's something else we really miss with Guitar Hero Live, too - and that's the ability to play as a band. One of the great things about Rock Band is the way you can get your friends involved across drums, lead guitar and bass guitar, and while it's right for Guitar Hero to focus on the guitars, the lack of a co-op mode, with one player doing bass, and another taking lead guitar hurts a little. There's no greater feeling than rocking out in co-op with a friend, and taking part in the competitive score battles just doesn't have the same appeal. Please developers, take note - maybe co-op for next year's game?
So, is Guitar Hero is back with a bang? Not quite - and sadly, it's unlikely this is going to be the game that'll push it back to the stratospheric levels of success it's previously enjoyed. That said, what is here is a solid enough Guitar Hero game that genuinely tries something different, and pulls it off with style - but all the fun gets somewhat deflated thanks to a poor on disc soundtrack, and the reliance on a free-to-play style model in a game with an RRP of £60+. Still, with a totally fresh feel, this is great fun while it lasts - we just wish Guitar Hero TV was that little bit better. Who knows - maybe it'll be tweaked with a patch later on, and Guitar Hero can live up to its name.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U