Guitar Hero Live skips backwards compatibility as it reboots series

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After a five-year hiatus, music rhythm game Guitar Hero has reformed with a new perspective: first-person.

Two years ago, DJ Hero developer FreeStyleGames began work on reviving the Guitar Hero series for the post-Spotify world, and the result is Guitar Hero Live, a reboot of a franchise that was among the biggest gaming had to offer before it buckled under the weight of its own relentless release schedule. It's due out this autumn for PlayStation 4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Wii U for 89.99.

Guitar Hero Live's controller ditches the brightly-coloured buttons of old for two rows of three more authentic-looking buttons placed on top of each other. On screen, the classic Guitar Hero "highway" is present and correct, with icons that tumble down to the point where the player should press the corresponding button on the guitar peripheral and "strum". Previous Guitar Hero games saw notes fall in five potential positions and corresponding colours. In Guitar Hero Live, notes fall in just three potential positions: left, middle and right, and come in two colours: black and white. On the controller, the bottom row of three buttons represents white and the top row of buttons represents black.

The idea is that newcomers have an easier time getting started with the game, while veterans have a new system to master. At a basic level, Guitar Hero Live can be played with just the bottom three buttons. Medium-level players don't need to worry about moving their fingers up and down the guitar controller neck, which, according to FreeStyleGames, was a skill many players failed to master. And expert players can combine presses of buttons from both rows in what are Guitar Hero's version of real life chords.


The new Guitar Hero Live controller.

I played a couple of songs in Guitar Hero Live on the medium difficulty and found the new system fiddly to start with, on account of my old-school Guitar Hero-forged muscle memory, but it wasn't long before I hit an 80-something per cent accuracy. It feels like there's less information to process compared to previous games in the series, as the notes slot into just three positions and come in just two colours. Your fingers naturally rest on the three buttons at the bottom of the neck, and there's no need to worry about reaching for other buttons to the left or right any more. So all you're left having to compute is whether you should be pressing the top row or the bottom row. After a short while, you just get used to it.

It'll be interesting, however, so see whether playing on higher difficulties presents a tougher challenge than the higher difficulties of previous Guitar Hero games, given you can now play sort-of bar chords with your forefinger pressing the left black and white buttons, with your other fingers pressing other buttons at the same time.

"If you come at it from a purist's point of view, it's probably the biggest change," FreeStyleGames creative director and studio head Jamie Jackson said of the button changes in an interview with Eurogamer.

"There was a lot of head-scratching and prototyping and different variations that went into it. It had to be new fun. We didn't want to just come out with the same stuff. Definitely, there were a few of us going, 'okay, we hope everyone loves it.' But that's the same with any game you make.

"I hope the purists see there is a lot of fun there. And I hope they also see it will give them something to learn again. If I have a new game, I don't want to just go straight in at the top. I want to learn. I want to have an experience of feeling like I've made my way to the top."

Meanwhile, FreeStyleGames has ditched the third-person, caricature-styled video game graphics Guitar Hero fans are familiar with for live-action footage viewed from a first-person perspective. The live-action footage, shot by FreeStyle, makes up the entire game. Before you start a song there's a short prelude that sees you, as lead guitarist, nervously play with your plectrum before making your way to the stage, the cheers of the crowd an audible clue of what you're about to face. Along the way your band-mates psych themselves - and you - up. At one point a groupie wishes you good luck while provocatively biting her lip. Then, just before walking out on stage, a grizzled, long-haired sound man hands you your guitar with a knowing nod of approval.

On stage, you're performing in a real band in front of a real crowd that reacts in real time to how well or poorly you play. Well, it's not real. It's not like Krist Novoselic is on bass and Dave Grohl is on drums. FreeStyleGames hired actors to play as your band-mates and the people in the front rows of the crowd. The camera darts about the stage, sometimes facing others in the band, sometimes up close and personal with the audience.

Here's the hook: if you mess up, the crowd reacts. They boo. They're all like, WTF? At one point I messed up so badly my drummer pulled this face that made me want to smash my guitar into the telly. But you can pull it back, if you nail a few notes in succession. Then the crowd rocks, the front row is all smiles and your band-mates are your best friends. Again.

It's all a bit, well, odd. The live-action stuff plays out in the periphery of your vision as you focus on the highway. It's not distracting, but every now and then you catch a glance of a screaming fan and think, oh, would you look at that! Then you go back to staring squarely at the highway, trying desperately to nail every note.

The first-person perspective, the live-action crowds and band-mates, and recreation of playing an actual gig, the nervous walk to the stage; I see what FreeStyleGames is going for, and in my head it sounds like a cool idea. But I imagine that, after a while, I'll just want to skip the preamble, my tattooed band-mates will get on my tits, and I'll end up resenting my fickle "fans". We were cool, once. Now we've gone mainstream, it's all a bit Spinal Tap.


The new highway, with live-action crowd in the background. Mess up and they'll boo you, like this.

But! Guitar Hero Live feels like a great fit for a virtual reality headset. Looking around a live action stage and gawping at a live action crowd could - should - be interesting, although it would require a more complex filming process for the poor developer.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I got some ideas about stuff in the future," Jackson said, when I asked about the possibility of Guitar Hero Live being used with Morpheus, for example.

"Where VR is going is certainly interesting. I can imagine how it would work. How we would then film it makes my brain explode at the moment. But I've definitely got some ideas."

Clearly, creating as authentic a live music experience as possible was FreeStyleGames' main goal with this game. And that extends to the new guitar controller. It's weightier than the previous versions and looks more realistic, with buttons designed to blend in with the rest of the fret board.

"Guitar Hero's always had a pretty solid guitar and we wanted to maintain that," Jackson said. "But we also wanted to give you something you wouldn't mind having back in your living room again. If you've got that on a stand it's going to look pretty rad. It doesn't look like a toy as much as it did. We've lost the colours. Those primary colours did make things look a bit like a five-year-old's toy. So we spent a lot of time working on the feedback and feel of the buttons."


GHTV is supposed to be like watching music channels on your telly, except you can jump in to play along. Note the multiplayer score tracker on the left.

Guitar Hero Live also includes GHTV, a 24-hour playable music video network. You tune in to channels that run music video shows curated by FreeStyleGames. You can then jump in to play, matchmaking with other players in competitive high score battles. If you don't fancy the song that's on, you can change channels until you find something more to your taste. Otherwise, you can play a song "on demand" as often as you'd like.

FreeStyleGames said GHTV is the platform from which it will update Guitar Hero Live with new songs for players to download. It said it won't release a new version of the game on disc next year, nor a new controller.

"We recognise times have changed," Jamie Jackson told us. "It's not our intention now to put a disc out every year. It's our intention that we're going to launch this game in 2015 and with GHTV we're going to be able to constantly give you new music really quickly. And we can see what you enjoy as well and we can respond to that. If we in the studio discover some music we think is really rad, we can give it to you as well.

"More people are connected than ever before. GHTV is a platform to give you new content on a regular basis. Live is about giving you something completely new that gives you that rockstar experience.

"It's not our intention to put another disc out next year. And the same with the guitar. This guitar is the one we want to have for a long time."

Activision has yet to announce the Guitar Hero Live track list in full, but we do know the 90 base game includes songs by The Black Keys, Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Gary Clark, Jr., Green Day, Ed Sheeran, The War on Drugs, The Killers, Skrillex, The Rolling Stones, The Lumineers, Pierce the Veil and Blitz Kids and more. And there are a variety of venues, "from the smallest club stage in front of a hundred people, to the massive main stage of an outdoor festival in front of a hundred thousand people", Activision said.

Some owners of previous Guitar Hero games will be disappointed to hear that the songs and peripherals they already own do not work with Guitar Hero Live. This makes sense, when you consider the gameplay and guitar controller have been re-jigged. And let's remember that Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is five years old now. But given Rock Band 4 developer Harmonix is working to let players transfer their DLC over and use the old peripherals, Guitar Hero Live feels a tad stingy.

"It's not 2010 any more," Jackson said. "There are not many other games that let you use stuff you bought back then in their games now. The difference with this is, it's completely different gameplay. So, quite simply, the DLC you bought just won't work. The guitar is different. The way we've presented it is different.

"Guitar Hero Live is a completely new game. We wanted to make sure we gave you something new to learn and enjoy. It's got new gameplay. You're going to be starting with a new game, basically.

"Reboot's an interesting word, but I guess it is. It's a fresh start. It's been away for five years. We always said, when we come back, it needs to be something unique and new. If we'd just come back with the same gameplay and the same look and feel, no-one at Freestyle would have felt like we tried hard enough."

Somewhat improbably, Guitar Hero Live goes up against Rock Band 4 this Christmas in the battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of music rhythm video game fans old and new. These games are expensive, so most of us must decide between the two. Rock Band 4, with its (fingers crossed) backwards compatibility, feels like the safer, more familiar choice. Guitar Hero Live, with its new gameplay and redesigned controller, feels like a clean break.

And a risky one.

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