Do you still have a forgotten Guitar Hero peripheral stashed away in your home? In the cupboard, attic or garden shed? Go find it. Remember the good times? Of course you do. Clickety-clacking the buttons of that flimsy toy in time to Cowboys from Hell was your life at one point; don’t deny it. But to gaze upon that once wondrous faux-axe is also to remember why it’s been quietly collecting your dried skin for the past five years: the novelty wore off long before the games stopped hitting the shelves. We hit peak Guitar Hero.

So if a returning title from that fold turned up right now and offered nothing more than the nostalgic lure of testing out your muscle memory, it wouldn’t work. You know it and UK studio Freestyle Games knows it. That’s why it’s redesigned the experience dramatically for Guitar Hero Live, from the hardware hanging around your neck to the note highway passing endlessly over your flatscreen.


Firstly, let’s tackle the title: this is about the experience of playing music live. It’s a thrill very few can relate to with any first-hand experience, unless we’re counting that ill-advised James Blunt medley you once honked out at an open-mic night; previous Guitar Heroes certainly didn’t do much to immerse you in the performance. GHL takes a new approach: after picking a song, you’re taken into a first-person, live-action view of a backstage area. Bandmates (sadly actors, rather than hilarious low-rent lookalikes of the actual bands) potter about, prepping for the performance. A crew member looks you up and down and mumbles something into his walkie-talkie.

Then you’re guided through the wings and onto the stage, the sound of the braying crowd growing ever louder. Then the lights hit you, the place erupts in a cheer and that note highway snakes its way between the live-action scene. It’ll probably be annoying as all hell when you’re 20 songs in, but it’s a remarkable piece of scene-setting the first time you experience it. Repetition might not be a problem, anyway we clocked a few intro variations from venue to venue.

Once you’re onstage and hitting notes, GHL pushes the live experience further with its audio, adding reverb to the song so it doesn’t sound like you’re playing an MP3 to 10,000 fans and bringing up a particular instrument in the mix if you wander near it on stage. When the singer swaggers over to you to do that insufferable ‘I’m singing the words to my guitarist, rock ’n’ roll!’ routine, you’ll hear them get louder.

To achieve this undeniably impressive spectacle, Freestyle Games built a selection of stages in thus-far undisclosed venues and flooded them with actors to pretend to perform and pretend to watch that performance, respectively. Filming was achieved using an RC drone camera which moves around the stage at head-height. So if you were in any doubt as to how seriously the developer and its publisher Activision’s taking this comeback, think of what a day of filming must have cost.

Feedback has evolved in this new presentation style, too. Where before you’d hear a few canned ‘boo!’s when your pinkie cramped up halfway through Texas Flood, now that disappointment is written on people’s faces. Actual human beings, with eyes looking directly at you. Call us sensitive, but there’s something very effective about that. Your bandmates get in on the act, too, dishing out the nod of approval when you’re on a decent note streak and flashing you a look as if their insides are dissolving when you fluff a few notes. It’s cheesy, but all the more enjoyable for it.

Not to get all Morpheus on you, but what if we told you that this isn’t even the biggest new feature in GHL? Because that accolade belongs to the new controller and its six-button, two-row layout. It’s essentially now a two-string, three-fret guitar, which means two things. One: your pinkie is finally off the hook, and no longer needs to pretend it’s an actual functional finger like the others. Two: there are so many more combinations of notes coming towards you on that highway. It’s a layout that produces something close to chords you’ll find yourself fretting one note on each row to play a power chord, and different notes on different rows for something like an open chord.
It deepens your belief in the moment that the heroics you’re pulling off are authentic
For returning fans that’s massive. It means you can’t rely on that very specific skill you honed between 2005 and 2010 sorry. An entirely new breadth of muscle memory is required to master higher difficulties. And that alone would be neither here nor there if it felt like Freestyle Games had changed the layout for its own sake, but it really does feel more like playing guitar now. It’s not Rocksmith, and the skills you learn won’t ever help you in the real world (okay, so it’s a bit like Rocksmith, then) but it deepens your belief in the moment that the heroics you’re pulling off are authentic the sensation that has propelled Guitar Hero from the very beginning.

Don’t be perturbed if it sounds like Dark Souls with roadies, though. In some ways it’s notably easier for starters, the colour-coding’s gone. Black notes represent the three buttons on your top row, white notes your bottom row. During prototyping, Freestyle found that people played better when they didn’t have to worry about colours, so away they went. It’s a largely encouraging re-emergence of a gaming phenomenon, but there are unanswered questions. One is the tracklist Freestyle assures us there’s a mix of genres, from blues to folk to classic rock, but the songs we played by Fall Out Boy and The Killers didn’t feel particularly iconic. Electronic music dominates today, so even with an interesting redesign on the old formula Guitar Hero Live may struggle to find an audience for its reunion gig simply because people aren’t all that into guitar music in 2015. We’re hoping not, because the bold changes evident here deserve attention. Don’t call it a comeback…

New vision
Getting your new-song fix from Guitar Hero TV
In addition to all the live-action antics, Freestyle’s rebirth adds TV mode, an online streaming service that pumps new music into the game on what the dev promises will be a regular basis. Replacing the main mode’s immersive visuals, music videos play out while you track your score progress against friends on a sidebar. Pricing hasn’t been discussed yet, but it appears it will offer a free new content model.