14 October 2015

Hands on with Guitar Hero Live and Rockband 4

Go back a few years and the problem of having yet another plastic instrument taking up space in your house seemed like it would never happen again, but apparently both Activision and Harmonix think that enough time has passed for people to spend more money and find the floor space for a new one. Personally, I love rhythm games and I’ve put more than too many hours into both the Guitar Hero and the Rockband franchises, so I'm totally up for some new entries. However, whether the general audience is on board for more remains to be seen.

At the Eurogamer Expo this month both Rockband 4 and Guitar Hero Live were on display, and both were high on my list of games I wanted to try out. Since the over saturation of the market, only games such as Rocksmith have tried to fill the guitar playing void left by these franchises. This is now their chance to win back their previous audience as well as trying to gain some new fans at the same time.

Rockband 4 has been taken in the expected direction. By keeping the game play and controllers the same as previous entries, choosing a set list of crowd pleasers and making very minor changes to the general game play it feels very similar to older versions.

Activision, however, have gone back to the drawing board to try and create a completely new experience while retaining the appeal that made Guitar Hero the big success it was before. The most obvious change is to the controller itself - gone is the old 5 button layout of green, yellow, red, blue and orange buttons. Instead we have 3 black and 3 white notes at the top of the controller in a 2x3 grid. This change is intended to give the player the feeling of playing guitar chords and, at first glance, is an idea that's enough to make Guitar Hero Live stand out from previous entries. The new guitar looks great and is satisfying to play, retaining that familiar click when you strum.

To me, the most fun to be had in older Guitar Hero games was playing a solo on expert perfectly hitting all the notes on a tricky solo, so I was curious to see if this new control scheme could provide the same level of fun. The answer, from the short time I had with it, is yes... potentially.

The playlist is much more varied than in previous entries with a larger focus on pop and alternative genres rather than rock. The demo version I played had five songs to choose from, and while the final set list hasn’t been confirmed yet, I would guess it would follow this pattern and feature songs that would please a wider variety of people.

Following the selection of a song you’ll then immediately notice the second largest change to the Guitar Hero formula. The background is no longer the stiffly animated rock concerts of the past, but now filmed with real people from the perspective of the guitarist in front of a live crowd. The footage will change on whether you are playing well or poorly, but from what I saw the crowd are either just cheering or booing with nothing in between. Not all songs will use this though so when this footage isn’t being shown it will instead show the music video for the song. It definitely makes the game stand out and give it a unique style but it didn’t feel entirely natural or smooth. But ultimately this is just screen filler because, as always, the focus of the player will be the notes scrolling in the middle of the screen.

The note track follows the changes to the controller and now features just 3 tracks for the notes to flow down on. Black notes indicate the notes on the top row and white for the bottom row. On the easier difficulties the notes have to be played one at a time and gets the player used to switching between single notes and swapping from the top to the bottom rows. While not as colourful or as intuitive as the older Guitar Hero games, it’s still quite easy to get a grasp of and beginners shouldn’t have too much trouble with this.

What I was more interested in was how the game ramps up the difficulty. On the normal difficulty and above, chords are used far more prominently than in older Guitar Hero games. In addition, chords can now be made up of notes on the same row or notes from both. The challenge comes from swapping between multiple chords quickly and combining multiple notes from both rows. A certain note symbol indicates that you have to hold the same note in both rows which makes for an interesting change. Of course, the more traditional sweeping up and down the buttons game play is still present, it's just not as big of a focus.

It's disappointing that not all the changes work with the traditional Guitar Hero game play, for instance hammer-ons and pull-offs are less obvious to see than before and can get easily confused with notes that reward the player with ‘Hero’ power (the new star power). On top of this, the difficulty cap may be far lower than previous entries. By the end of my play session I was already getting the hang of the expert difficulty level, and while it was tougher than I was expecting, I’m sure that within a couple more songs I would’ve been playing this level without much problem. It seems that the days of ‘Dragonforce’ levels of difficulty may be gone. This may only affect a small percentage of players but I hope that in the final game there are some tougher challenges to expect. Apart from this, I had great fun getting used to the new control system and really want to play some more.

It will be interesting to see if the new mechanics of Guitar Hero Live or the more traditional approach taken by Rockband 4 will be the victor, but I’m curious enough to want to try the full game. The limitations in the song selection and differences in difficulty from previous games may put off some, but it’s fun and different enough to make me want to try out the full game. Looks like I’ll have to add one more plastic guitar to the collection.

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