Instrument-powered music games are making a comeback this autumn. We visited FreeStyle Games to find out what Guitar Hero has to offer.
It has been five years since Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and since then the plastic guitars that we all know and love have been gathering dust in basements and attics. But there is a new dawn breaking and Activision promises to return the squeaks, clicks and the fun back to our living rooms with Guitar Hero Live. Gamereactor visited FreeStyle Games at their studio to find out about the upcoming game.
FreeStyle Games is the fifth studio to tackle this franchise, but they aren't new to rhythm music games, having developed both of the DJ Hero games for Activision in the past. Thanks to this history, the studio is also familiar with developing new controllers, which has come in handy in redesigning the Guitar Hero guitars.
Jamie Jackson, who is both a co-owner and art director at FreeStyle Games, told us that they wanted to get away from the toy-like look of the old controllers. The first mock-up they sent to Activision reflected this by being both bigger and heavier than its predecessors. This early version also featured a host of realistic details such as pearl inlays that adorned the guitar's neck.
This admittedly handsome piece, which we were allowed to handle at the studio, proved to be rather pricey to mass produce, so some of those details had to go. The final version may be scaled back a bit, but it certainly isn't as much a toy as its ancestors were.
The obvious drawback to the redesign is that the old controllers can't be used with Guitar Hero Live, but the sacrifice just might be worth it. The old five button configuration has been changed into two rows of three buttons each, one row set above the other. Primarily, this is a blessed relief for pinky fingers everywhere, but it does also make for a more realistic playing mechanic.
Six buttons may sound daunting, but there is no reason to panic, as some of the lower difficulty levels only require the use of three. The two-row setup feels very satisfying though, and even this sausage fingered reporter managed 87% in one of the tracks after a little practice. The test session did leave a semi-lasting impression on the wrist though, but hopefully it was a due to a poor grip instead of an underlying ergonomic issue.
Along with the controller, FreeStyle Games has overhauled the classic Guitar Hero formula. Guitar Hero Live is governed by a more grown up aesthetic, with no flames or barbed wire in sight - even the logo is new. The biggest innovation comes in the form of an actual crowd and bandmates, all presented in full motion video.
FreeStyle has invested a considerable amount of time and resources in creating this rock concert reality. The game contains a number of different stages which all have their own vibe, from intimate club gigs to full-blown main-stage antics. All the crowds and bandmates for these stages have of course been filmed a number of times, since they will react dynamically to the player's performance.
The titular guitar hero will of course be focussing on the highway in the middle of the screen, but we do have to admit that the booing and the various hand signals thrown our way did make an already hectic situation feel a fair bit worse. According to the developer, these no doubt pricey backgrounds are there to primarily create the ambiance of a live gig, and also to entertain the audience in the living room, but they do believe that once the tracks get a little more familiar, the player will also get more out of the show.
There is no doubt some truth to this, but it does raise an issue. Along with the tracks, the player will also learn the video clips by heart as they see the same tantrums and congratulations over and over again. This sort of repetition might not be ideal in a game where people will play the same things repeatedly while trying to master them.
In any case, the video materials are well produced and quite entertaining to watch. All the rapid motion that we were originally worried about didn't distract us much from the notes coming down the highway either. The atmosphere is bolstered by some top notch sound design, as the studio has "faked" live versions out of all the tracks in this portion of the game. They have even recorded the crowd reactions for each track, so you may hear them singing along with the song in the background. To top it all off, the sound changes according to where the guitarist is on stage, so the live atmosphere is assured.
The Live section is just one part of Guitar Hero Live though. The second, more expansive part comes in the form of GHTV (not to be confused with GRTV) which is a cross between Music Television (pre-reality TV) and Guitar Hero. On day one there will be two channels that both offer 24 hours of continuous music videos every day. The player can jump in with their guitar at any time, even in the middle of a track, and their performance will be uploaded onto online leaderboards in real time.
The channels will naturally have slightly different profiles, and the "shows" will focus on a varied selection of genres. Those who do not want to wait for their favourite track to roll around can always buy it with in-game money or actual hard currency.
This is possibly the most problematic of Guitar Hero Live's new features. Although the player can earn in-game currency just by successfully playing various tracks, there has to be some sort of friction in place to make real-money purchases an attractive option. The developers are currently looking to balance the pricing, and frankly, it really has to hit that sweet spot to work out. There is also the fact that the player won't be able to buy the GHTV tracks into any sort of permanent collection, but they must be repurchased each time around. The only other option is to wait for them to come around again as a part of the normal rotation.
FreeStyle Games wants Guitar Hero Live to be a popular party game, but what kind of party game drip-feeds the player with its content? The studio has circumvented this issue with party passes, which give full access to all of the game content for a period of time. How much these passes will cost, and how long a period of time they'll be good for is still a mystery.
It might be that we're old-fashioned, but we prefer to pay once and then enjoy the content we have bought for as long as we like and in any way we'd like to. According to the developers, the new generation feels differently about these things, and aren't quite as bent on owning things. GHTV is thus a service, not a product. Perhaps the developers are right, and we're the dinosaurs. It should be noted though that according to the current plans, there will be no traditional DLC published for Guitar Hero Live, and all the new content will appear on GHTV instead, where players won't be able to permanently purchase it.
Another issue with GHTV is of course that it relies entirely on streaming, so you'd best hope that your internet connection is up to the task if you intend to enjoy the wider selection of tracks that this part of the game offers. The streaming technology is apparently similar to services such as Netflix, and if there is a hiccup in the data-flow, the game will first downgrade the graphics and other elements before it cuts out completely.
Of course, there have already been over a hundred tracks that have been revealed for the Live portion of the game, so even if the net does throw a tantrum, there will still be something to play. It doesn't do you much good though if you'd prefer to get your hands on the latest releases. There's also no backward compatibility with content from older Guitar Hero titles.
Still, if we ignore hypothetical streaming issues and a potentially dubious business model for the moment, Guitar Hero Live seems like an entertaining, well produced and modern music game, and it's clearly an evolved version of its predecessors. We may be devoted Rock Band fans, but after this experience, we are enthusiastically looking forward to this new Guitar Hero.