Guitar Hero Live is Activision's answer to Harmonix's Rock Band 4, and seems to be the complete polar opposite to it. While the new Rock Band allows you to use old instruments, Guitar Hero introduces a completely new one; where Rock Band 4 allows you to import old songs, Guitar Hero Live doesn't. The two rhythm games, despite being in the same genre, couldn't be taking more different approaches, then – but how does FreeStyleGames' axe-'em-up square up?
The short answer is well. This is most obvious when you take a look at the song list: there are only 42 songs on the disc compared to the 90 or so in previous Guitar Hero games, but the selection is a lot more impressive than Rock Band 4's track list. Bands such as The Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, The Rolling Stones, Green Day, and Kasabian light up the soundtrack, but what's most interesting is the variation, not only in modernity but also genre – Eminem's Berzerk and, strangely, Skrillex's Bangarang are present, as well as Rihanna and Katy Perry. It does seem a little odd, but it's nice to have some diversity.
All of those 42 tracks are available in Guitar Hero Live mode, which is all about playing gigs at two big imaginary music festivals. Each gig is performed by a different band and usually has a set theme: one gig is all about modern hip-hop, dubstep, and nu-metal, while another is themed around pop-punk. This allows you to play whichever type of music you're in the mood in, which is a nice idea. Of course, going through the concerts and unlocking the songs does allow you to play them individually if you so wish.
What's most obvious about Guitar Hero Live, though, is its FMV presentation, rather than Rock Band 4's computer-generated graphics. It's quite cool to see the crowd and band react to how well you play, but after a while the novelty just wears off and it all just seems a bit cheesy. It's also kind of weird how it seems almost impossible to fail – no matter how much you're booed and jeered, the band keeps on playing, which isn't a very good design choice at all as you should be able to fail.
You'll notice this most at the start of the game, as you'll be getting used to the new guitar. Speaking of which, it feels a lot nicer to use than Rock Band guitars due to the sleeker and more integrated design. Instead of having five brightly coloured buttons stretching down half of the neck of the guitar, you've got six buttons right at the top, arranged in a 3x2 grid – the top three buttons representing the black notes on-screen, and the bottom three reflecting the white notes. This way, your fingers don't have to stretch way down the guitar and mess up your concentration, making these new guitars a lot more comfortable to use.
The gameplay is essentially the same, though – if a white note appears, hit the corresponding white note and strum, and if a black note appears, hit the corresponding black note and strum. Hero Power returns as well, which can be activated with either a flick of the guitar or a press of a designated button. This time, however, as well as netting you more points, it also instantly improves the crowd's mood, which sometimes feels like cheating, but doesn't really affect anything too much.
However, it is kind of disappointing that only two guitars can be hooked up, making Guitar Hero Live less of a party game than Rock Band is. Sure, it's fun to play and compete with a friend – and have another on the mic, though you will need a USB splitter – but the fact that you're both playing the same thing instead of contributing to the song in different ways means that Rock Band 4 just edges it out in terms of local multiplayer.
The other main mode in the game is Guitar Hero TV, which is likeable, but has some questionable design issues. Here, there are three music video stations playing, all offering something different. Every half hour, they change to a different genre or sub-genre; for instance, one station could be playing an indie rock section, while another is playing heavy metal. All you have to do is simply drop in and start strumming, while a real-time leaderboard shows how you're doing compared to the other people who are playing at the same time. It's really fun to see what song comes on next, and has led us to discover some new tunes.
After finishing each song, you're granted XP, which levels you up and grants you Plays – a very controversial addition. See, GHTV also has a Song Catalogue, filled with around 200 songs (with 70 more being added soon) that are all excellent choices. Bands like Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, The Strokes, and smaller indies such as Spector and HAIM all get a run out. However, to play a song from this catalogue, you'll need to spend a Play. And, of course, although they can be earned from earned by levelling up, you can also buy them for real cash – either in Play Packs, or by buying a 24-hour pass.
Now, this is already unacceptable – many people will pay around £100 for Guitar Hero Live, so they should be entitled to all of the songs in this catalogue. But the worst part is that even if you spend money to buy some Plays, and then use a play on a song, you still don't own it. This is absolutely disgusting – a real kick in the teeth for people who forked out for the game and the new guitars, who are now being told that, however much money they spend in GHTV, they can't even own the songs on there.
Now, to disclose, we were given 2200 Guitar Hero points, which was enough to get around 150 Plays, so we didn't experience this problem. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't get angry about it – microtransactions shouldn't be in a £50 game, and they certainly shouldn't be in a £100 game. And this is a huge shame, because GHTV is an excellent mode – a well thought out idea that's executed very well. It's just the addition of microtransactions completely drags it down.
Guitar Hero Live surpasses Rock Band 4 in terms of track list and replayability, but sadly lacks the party appeal that Harmonix's latest provides. Though Guitar Hero TV is an excellent addition to the series that really makes the game, the microtransactions ruin it for us. There's no kidding that Guitar Hero Live is a very fun game, it just feels like it cares more about the money than it does about the fans.