All images are copyright Activision 2015.
This is not a bad thing. Instead of cheesy background animations of well-known guitar axe men, the game now lets you choose between performing in front of live audience footage (GH Live) or surfing a curated music video channel (GHTV). Both options make the game as entertaining and addictive as ever.
Gameplay itself hasn't changed much from previous titles in the series: songs are accompanied on screen by symbols moving along a 'note highway'. To score points you have to press the right button on the guitar-shaped controller. The major change here is the new guitar, which has six buttons instead of five. These are placed in two rows near the end of the guitar approximating the position your fingers would be to play chords on a real instrument.
The game has essentially three difficulty levels. The easiest level requires only that you strike the strum bar on the body of the guitar in time with notes represented by a line across the note highway. Harder levels use one of both rows of buttons on the neck.
Guitar Hero Live has ditched the old guitars' color-coded buttons. Instead, notes are differentiated on the note highway by whether or not a pluck-shaped symbol points up or down. When playing there are also the usual variations and enhancements, including long notes and opportunities to use the reintroduced whammy bar and the new Hero Power button.
The downside of the new system is that the old five-button guitars are not compatible with Guitar Hero Live. The benefit is a more authentic-looking instrument because the new buttons take up less space than those on previous guitars and are more discretely integrated into the overall aesthetic.
The six-button arrangement provides for a more realistic playing experience at every level except the most basic. It also takes gameplay difficulty at the highest level up a notch because you need some seriously good co-ordination to secure a spot on the Guitar Hero Live's online leaderboard.
The 'Live' in this new Guitar Hero's title is probably as close as most of us will get to hitting the stage at a major venue. Filmed using full motion video, it puts the player in the role of lead guitarist for a real band on the festival circuit. Performance footage has been recorded specially for the game at different venues and new material has been added to the game since it was first released. Background information on the bands and festivals is provided on screens accessible in the game
In an attempt to make it convincing, Guitar Hero debutant developer FreeStyle Games has reproduced the experience right down to the tutorial, which is provided by a roadie back-stage. You also get to walk on stage encouraged by real-life band members to make you feel part of the team. In GH Live mode you can play an entire set or just one song. You need to get through all the songs in a set to unlock more live shows, though.
One of the most impressive things about Guitar Hero Live is how seamlessly responsive the live environment is. Hit the right notes and the audience will adore you but the boos come thick and fast if you make too many mistakes. Similarly, your fellow band members will mill around you and give you a thrusting thumbs up if your solos rock the house. You'll get facial expressions associated with a different erect digit, though, if the audience isn't happy with your playing.
While GH Live is all about living out personal pop star fantasies with prolonged gameplay, the music video option, GHTV, is more multiplayer-friendly. Single-player is the only option with GH Live but you can add a second guitar controller for two-player GHTV performances once you have completed the tutorial.
Even with this option, however, because Guitar Hero Live requires players to be signed in to an account to save game data, a second player's scores aren't recorded. Any time you have more than one person playing, therefore, you have to keep score on paper and - if you have only one controller - accept that any talentless friends you have might savage your status on GHTV's leaderboard.
Other issues with GHTV are that you are restricted to only a relatively small number of selectable tracks that come on the disc until you unlock more by playing whatever songs are presented on the streamed channels. Also, you cannot purchase and download your favorite tracks and you need to earn Play Tokens if you want to replay a streamed song rather than move on to the next track that comes up.
Moreover, the range of musical genres offered by themed channels and the on-demand track list is narrow given that the guitar is such a stylistically versatile instrument. There is, for example, no category for blues or jazz enthusiasts, although a few tracks by artists that straddle the mainstream, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Amy Winehouse and Bob Dylan, are scattered among the chart hits. New tracks are being rolled out frequently so this might change if there is enough demand.
Even with its limitations, GHTV offers a dynamic experiencing if you think of it like MTV that you can play along to. While you only a limited range of tracks available on demand, you will likely never exhaust GHTV's streamed playlists. Also, while the streaming channel format means you need a reliable internet connection, you don't have to wait for songs to download or be concerned about how much storage space you have available.
Guitar Hero Live is not the ultimate music simulation game but it is a welcome reworking of a well-worn formula that is in line with trends in music streaming and online gaming. In taking this approach, the developer's have sacrificed some of the features that made this franchise a party hit. In their place is is an experience that is more lifelike and diverse and no less fun for someone during the holiday season and beyond whether they are on their own or among friends.
NOTE: The Wii U edition of Guitar Hero Live was reviewed here but the playing experience will be largely the same on all consoles because the game uses its own controller. Activision provided a copy of the game for review upon request.