Pandora, Google Music, Slacker, Netflix, Hulu — the people have spoken. They are done waiting. While there are still hold-outs like me who still enjoy the benefits of physical ownership, it is clear that the way media is consumed has changed drastically. Built on subscription models, people enjoy their content streamed to them on-demand or built on genres, rather than single objects stored locally. While some music titles are still very much clinging to the ‘track pack’ model, Freestyle Games and Activision are embracing this brave new world.

Guitar Hero Live spells the unexpected return of the plastic instrument genre. It’s been five years since our last foray into our simu-rock fantasy. DJ Hero franchise creator Freestyle Games was given the heady task of coming up with an iterative way of bringing back a series that even Activision freely admits they oversaturated. Annualized, Guitar Hero shipped on discs, spawning a flood of offshoot titles like Guitar Hero Metallica and Aerosmith; but that was a different time. Broadband penetration in the United States was at less than 50%, and the consoles at the time were not built for primarily online use. Today, broadband adoption is closer to 80%, and growing at a rate of 3% per year, according to a 2015 study by the FCC. Freestyle decided to take their show on the road, so to speak.

Your new axe
When a new Guitar Hero was mentioned, the first question was whether or not previous instruments would work. Upon full reveal it was very clear that they would not, and for good reason. Guitar Hero Live has iterated on the formula in a way that is simultaneously familiar, yet challenging and new. Gone is the five-colored button layout on the neck of the guitar, replaced with a six-button stack, black on top and white on bottom. While there is one more button than before, it is far more intuitive and easy to pick up than you might imagine.

I’m currently learning how to play guitar for real using another product. I was very surprised at how cleanly the muscle memory translates to the finger-gymnastics necessary at the higher levels of play. Beginning levels only require the top three buttons, but as you move through the difficulty levels, chords become more frequent. Even higher difficulties have splits between the top and bottom, as well as hammer-ons and pull-offs to contend with. This is a case where “easier to play, hard to master” holds true. It does a fantastic job of allowing players of all difficulty modes a new and refreshing way to play, and I never knew how badly I wanted a new guitar layout. It made the whole game feel unique and brought me back to the very first time I picked up a plastic guitar and learned to play. Not only is it new, but it is done so well it has made relearning to play a joy.

So much is new, but it immediately feels familiar

So much is new, but it immediately feels familiar

Guitar Hero Live is ostensibly a two-player affair, but there is a third option available for those with the pipes — vocals. At any point you can plug in a USB microphone and sing along to your favorite tunes, joining the two guitarists as they jam on. The track appears above the note highways, just like in other music games, but without the ability to fail, even the most tone-deaf of your friends can sing along.

Guitar Hero, two ways
Guitar Hero Live is split into two major hubs — Guitar Hero Live and Guitar Hero TV. Live is a bit of a misnomer, as you are actually not playing online or live. Instead, you are cast as the lead guitarist of a band, bringing your brand of rock-awesome to hordes of screaming fans across the globe.

The setup is not unlike U-Fest or whatever flavor of local rock mega-concert you have near you. You’ll play as several bands, playing across a very wide variety of genres, culminating in a final show when you’ve closed out both festivals. Rock, Metal, Punk, Pop, Country, Folk, and more hit the stage in three-to-five-song sets. Each show takes about 20 minutes to play, for a total of 42 on-disc tracks in this mode.

Freestyle introduced a consequence-free experience with DJ Hero, letting players spin platters without risk of ‘failing out.’ This decision persists here, removing the penalty for practice. But what happens if you suck? True to life, the crowd will begin to turn on you, expressing their displeasure with your lack of skill, throwing beer (the only part I found unrealistic — do you know how much stadium beer costs?!), and expressively encouraging you to get the hell off the stage. Battling back causes what I’m calling a “screen smear” effect that fades out, then back in to a happier crowd. Play extremely well and you’ll even occasionally get a few fans on the stage to join in the fun. Although a few times the transition (especially from bad to ok playing) was jarring and took me out of the moment, it is well done overall and a unique and beautiful change from the animated crowds of the past.

The crowd, but more importantly, the band reacts to you.

The crowd, but more importantly, the band reacts to you.

To pull off the vast array of crowds seen at every venue, the team at Freestyle snapped up a few hundred folks and dressed them up. They recorded them in all of their various happiness levels and then cleverly used some duplication to make the crowd absolutely massive. I mention all of this behind-the-scenes stuff as it is done in a flawless manner. Through several hours of play, I never saw the same person twice…with the exception of Jaime Jackson, Creative Director of Freestyle Games. Yeah…I see you holding the poodle, in the crowd, running the keyboard, and everywhere else. Stan Lee’s got nothing on you!

If I had one complaint about Guitar Hero Live, it’s the soundtrack — a pretty scathing indictment for a music game. Perhaps I’m a man out of phase with current music, but I found the vast majority of the 42 on-disc tracks to be way outside of my taste. In fact, I think I’ve heard nearly every one of these songs in a car commercial or trying to sell me something or other. While quickplay lets me freely play any of these 42 at will, I don’t anticipate spending a great deal of time in this list.

Guitar Hero TV – welcome to the arcade
Looking back through my previous reviews, I’ve called for a subscription-based model for a few iterations now. Truth be told, I actually like what Activision and Freestyle cooked up instead. The initial reaction to a ‘token-based’ system turned off fans immediately, with thoughts of a persistent wallet-oppressing DLC stream filling our heads. I’m glad to report that isn’t going on here.

Guitar Hero TV is essentially the ‘arcade’ portion of this iteration of Guitar Hero. If you are a score chaser, enjoy competition, or just enjoy the long-forgotten concept of “music videos,” you are really gonna dig Guitar Hero TV.

At nearly any point during play you can press a special button on the new guitar to access the Guitar Hero TV mode. Dropping you into a lobby, you can opt to jump into the available channels (there are two at launch with a third coming shortly), or play a song on-demand using tokens. Simply completing the tutorial earns you ten of these, and you’ll get more for each level up as you play. Roughly an hour in, I already had 25 play tokens burning a hole in my pocket. Leveling up also unlocks the ability to change out the note highway, as well as your player card. Like Call of Duty, you can customize your player card with available band logos (you can currently snap up an Avenged Sevenfold skull with wings), as well as other colorful cosmetic bits of fun. These are shown when you manage to finish in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place against others in your lobby.

The Guitar Hero TV main menu

The Guitar Hero TV main menu

Guitar Hero TV is, at launch, packed to the gills with 200 songs. The two current channels skew towards Heavy Metal and Mainstream music, though that’s not as hard a break as it sounds. Jumping into Metal gets you tracks from Slipknot, Disturbed, and Megadeth, and Pop throws Echosmith, Paramore (sorry – still not Decode), and Carrie Underwood, just to name a few. They play in no particular order, allowing you to jump in even mid-song as you join the channel. This is where things have truly changed.

Guitar Hero TV provides a platform to continuously deliver content. Firing up Limelight from Rush pops up a video I’ve not seen in at least a decade, showcasing the trio playing in Le Studio in Quebec, Canada. The same goes for American Idiot from Green Day, Disposable Teens from Marilyn Manson, Freak on a Leash from Korn, and many, many more, showing their long-form videos (including any goofy outtakes in the middle). Activision and Freestyle both state up front that Guitar Hero is a multi-year engagement. Not in the form of annualized products, but in continuous updates and support. With an ever-expanding library, this could be Guitar Hero the way it was always meant to be.

As you play Guitar Hero TV you’ll also earn coins. These coins are what you use to buy additional play tokens, as well as the aforementioned cards. You can also purchase Hero Powers (you might remember it as Star Power) that change what happens when it is deployed. Clear Highway wipes out all of the notes in sight, nabbing you all of the points as if you had hit them. Double Multiplier does exactly what you think it does. Dial Down and Dial Up either bumps up the deluge of notes or reduces them for extra challenge or a little breathing room to maintain your multiplier during a difficult section. Score Chaser doubles the maximum score multiplier, and Safety Net holds that multiplier and score streak steady regardless of how you play. Invincibility works almost like Euphoria in DJ Hero 2, hitting all of the notes for you for a limited time. It’ll be interesting to see how their interplay shakes up the persistent leaderboard.

It wouldn't be Guitar Hero without Judas Priest.

It wouldn’t be Guitar Hero without Judas Priest.

Leveling up grants you access to Premium Shows. These shows are going to be special events that let players step on-stage with their favorite bands. You can gain access to these in two ways — buy your way in with real money (called Hero Cash), or you can take on three challenges. These challenges aren’t overly taxing, requiring (at least in this case) that you hit three stars on three separate songs in GHTV. You can bypass one challenge for 70 Hero Cash, 140 for two, and 210 to skate past all three, if you are inclined to bail the entire process. Hero Cash’s current conversion rate is 1800 HC for $5.99. Once you gain access to the show, earning a top three victory nabs you goodies that will only be available via the show, and for a limited time.

If playing in the channels feels like a grind to you (though I can assure you it really isn’t), you can also buy those plays with Hero Cash. Doing a little math, it comes out to about 15 cents per play. The more likely option is that you intend to have friends over to play Guitar Hero. In that case, you can buy a 24 hour all-access pass that opens up the whole shebang for $5.99. At launch that’s 242 songs, but it won’t take long before that number rises precipitously.

I was pretty hard on the on-disc soundtrack, but the array of songs in Guitar Hero TV are a far more attractive offering. Since this is likely the place most folks will spend their time long-term, it’s reassuring to see that Freestyle has at least some taste in music.

Co-Authored by Ron Burke and Bryan Ertmer