Unless you were born after 2011, you've probably played Guitar Hero, the video game franchise that raked in more than $2 billion in sales before its publisher pulled the plug. Many mourned the passing of Guitar Hero, but most felt it was time -- after seven years, players were tiring of the repetitive music rhythm genre.
So when Activision Inc., the publisher of Guitar Hero titles, announced in April that the franchise would stage a comeback this fall with Guitar Hero Live, two things flashed through my mind. The first: Awesome! What's on the playlist? The second: How is this going to be any different than where we left off nearly five years ago?
We recently had a chance to get answers to both questions via a live demo with the developers at FreeStyleGames, the British studio that's building Guitar Hero Live. With regard to the playlist, Activision is licensing tracks from major labels, drawing from a diverse group of crowd-pleasing artists, including Skrillex, Fall Out Boy, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, the Rolling Stones, Pantera and others. The total track list currently numbers 75, but Activision promises to announce new songs right up to the game's release date, scheduled for Oct. 20.
Getting music is the easy part for Activision, which until recently was corporate siblings with Universal Music Group. Much harder is fresh gameplay. FreeStyleGames is hoping to deliver that with Guitar Hero TV, which is being unveiled this week at E3, the annual industry show in Los Angeles.
Here's how it works. The game will launch with two channels, linearly programmed with music videos, just like the old days of MTV. Players can hop on the channel and start jamming to whatever song is playing at the time. Activision is calling it "the world's first playable music network."
While some tracks will be the same official music videos you see on VEVO, others will be original recordings that FreeStyleGames filmed from a first-person perspective of the guitarist. As you play, the camera moves around your virtual stage. If you perform poorly, you'll see footage of your fictional bandmates giving you the stink eye. The "live" audience will stop clapping and start to jeer you. If you do well, the game will splice in happier scenes of pumped-up fans.
GHTV solves two issues for Activision. First, it gives the franchise a complete facelift. Gone are the cartoony avatars with their janky joints and awkward poses. With one stroke, live video footage immediately differentiates the game; you'll never confuse Guitar Hero Live with any of the previous installments. It also makes it much easier to slip into the rock star fantasy implied in the franchise. This begs the question: how about upping the suspension of disbelief even further with virtual reality technologies such as Facebook's Oculus Rift, Microsoft's HoloLens, Google's Cardboard or Sony's Morpheus? The game's development director, Jonathan Naper, declined to answer that question, saying only, "It is certainly an interesting technology trend."
Secondly, GHTV neatly removes some of the thorny image-rights issues that cropped up in the previous era, notably with protests from Courtney Love regarding Kurt Cobain's imagery in Guitar Hero V and Gwen Stefani's lawsuit against Activision over her No Doubt's portrayal in Band Hero. Now all the imagery comes from either licensed music videos or recordings of paid actors playing the part of the band and the audience.
There are other departures from the past, particularly with the game mechanics. The leveling system has more sophisticated layers. The "Premium Shows" mode, for example, requires you to pass three successive challenges in order to unlock the main challenge. You also need to accumulate points to unlock new songs, get new "highways" and customize your profile. Or you can shell over hard cash to access content right away.
Activision also showed off a new game controller that looks more like an actual guitar and less like a plastic toy. The button configuration is now two rows of three at the top of the neck, with a "Hero Power" button in the main body just below where the bridge would be:
The effect is an experience that's a step closer to the experience of playing an actual guitar, allowing for finger movements that mimic chord playing. (For a fun game that teaches you how to actually play an electric guitar, check out Ubisoft's Rocksmith.) The button arrangement also makes it easier for players to achieve higher levels of difficulty by eliminating those gnarly combos that require all four fingers doing pretzel acrobatics down the length of the neck.
If you're a fan of the music rhythm genre, this could a good year for you. In addition to Guitar Hero Live, Harmonix, which developed the original Guitar Hero game, announced in March that it would release Rock Band 4 on Oct. 6. While the games will differ from the past, one thing remains the same -- expect to shell over serious cash. Guitar Hero Live will cost just shy of $100, while Rock Band 4 will have two bundles, priced at $250 for the Band-in-a-Box bundle and $130 for the game and guitar-only bundle.