Guitar Hero Live Review (XONE)

Guitar Hero Live scren
Guitar Hero Live. Activision

I have to admit that I had low expectations for Guitar Hero Live.  The new six-button guitar and gameplay setup just looked confusing and I wasn't sure it was worth learning a new way play a fake plastic guitar all over again when that time would probably be better spent with RockSmith learning real guitar.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  Guitar Hero Live is definitely new and challenging and crazy compared to the old five-button setup like I expected, but it is also really fun and surprisingly intuitive once you start actually playing it.

  Guitar Hero Live brings back the same warm and fuzzy feelings I had when I first played the original Guitar Hero on PS2 ten years ago.  Guitar Hero Live is fresh and new and fun and satisfying and easily the better of the two new music games of Fall 2015.

Game Details

  • Publisher:  Activision
  • Developer: Freestyle Games
  • ESRB Rating: "T" for Teen
  • Genre: Music / Rhythm
  • Pros:  New guitar is solid; gameplay is fresh and fun; GHTV is addictive; FMV backgrounds are cool
  • Cons:  On-disc track list is poor; somewhat confusing microtransaction setup; what you play doesn't always match the music you're hearing; steep learning curve


While Rock Band 4 is a little disappointing because it doesn't do anything new - and its best features are the fact you can play your old songs / use your old instruments ... - Guitar Hero Live throws out almost everything you know about rhythm games and does everything new.

  This means your old instruments and Guitar Hero DLC won't work here because the gameplay is totally different, which is a bummer, but having a fresh new innovative game to play is a good thing, right?.  People always say they want innovation and new ideas, well Guitar Hero Live is exactly that.

Instead of the traditional five-button setup of past Guitar Hero games, Guitar Hero Live uses a new guitar that has two rows of three buttons - black on top and white on bottom.

  This way you don't ever have to move your hand up the neck to reach the high notes and can play with just three fingers, but it does create some confusion at first as you try to figure out how to read the note highway and teach your fingers where to go.  Because there are two rows, it seems sort of like playing two strings on a real guitar, and some of the button combinations you have to hit actually do resemble real chord shapes.  There are also bar chords where you press both buttons in the same column at once. 

There is no denying that learning all of this new stuff is a challenge, though.  Learning how to read the note charts and figuring out where your fingers should go on the black and white notes is hard at first.  Very hard.  And it only gets harder as the difficulty increases and they want you to play chords and quickly switch between stuff and it will make your mind explode.  But it feels really, really good to play and is surprisingly intuitive.  The first time you see new stuff like chords it seems impossible, but by the second or third time it just feels like second nature.  Maybe its because I play real guitar and am used to moving my fingers like this or something, but I picked it up much faster than I expected to.

  Watching videos of how the game works makes you think it will be harder than it is, but once you get your hands on the guitar and actually start playing, it somehow makes a lot of sense.   

The new guitar itself is also interesting in that it feels really good.  It is really solid and the buttons and clicky strum bar (halleluiah) feel nice.  It looks good to with a black and gold scheme that works well.  It doesn't connect natively to your Xbox One, however, and requires a USB dongle.  The dongle is tiny, so it isn't much of a hassle to use.

When you put it all together, Guitar Hero Live is just plain fun to play.

  The new six-button gameplay is fresh and fun and new and reminds me of playing Guitar Hero 1 and 2 on PS2 for the first time.  The thrill of learning how to play and feeling like you're  playing music is just as fantastic now as it was in 2005.  With that said, my one complaint about the gameplay is that it doesn't always feel quite like it should.  You don't always feel like you're actually playing the music you're hearing.  The note charts can feel arbitrary at times and not fully based on the actual music.  This usually happens when you have to play other instruments besides guitar, though, and not so much through dedicated guitar parts. 

Track List and Guitar Hero TV

My only other main complaint has to do with the track list and how you access all of the songs.  The 42-song on-disc track list is pretty bland.  Not bad sounding, just not terribly exciting to play.  Thankfully, you also have access to 200+ additional songs through the new Guitar Hero TV mode and new songs will be added and the mode expanded all the time.  In GHTV there are channels where songs are streaming 24/7, and there are different channels with different types of music.  You don't get to choose what song you play, however, and just have to play whatever is "on" at the time.  While you play, you also are competing with other players on that channel at the same time, and you can see their scores as you play.  It is very interesting and very cool.  It is also surprisingly addictive as you'll hop onto a channel and just keep playing song after song.  The best part is that this mode is totally free to play, so you'll have new music to play, for free, for quite a while.

If, on the other hand, you want to play a specific song and don't want to play the randomly selected streaming songs, things get a little more complicated and this is where microtransactions come in.  As you play the streaming channels you'll earn coins that you can use to buy plays of songs on-demand.  Playing one song is one play, however, so you can burn through your stash of free plays pretty quickly.  If you want to buy plays, 10 plays costs $2.50, or you can get unlimited access to all of the songs in the game for 24-hours for $6. 

Before you fire up your anti-dlc hate mail, however, there are some things to consider.  Say you're having a Guitar Hero party, paying $6 for that evening to get access to hundreds of songs is really smart and makes a ton of sense, and is a lot cheaper than buying the songs for $2 each like the old days.  There is still definitely an appeal to being able to buy any song you want and getting access to it forever so you can play it as much as you want, I won't deny that, but what Guitar Hero Live is doing is really smart.  You don't have to pay anything at all if you don't want to, as the streaming music channels will provide you with a never ending lineup of songs that will constantly be changing.  And if you do want to play a favorite song over and over, paying $6 for a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet isn't that bad.  This is a different way of doing DLC, but this is a different music game than we're used to.  I appreciate the willingness to try something new.  And just to clarify, you do have full  access to the 42 on-disc tracks to play whenever you want.

Graphics & Sound

Guitar Hero Live makes a major change in the presentation department as well.  Instead of using characters and environments designed for the game, Guitar Hero Live just uses real videos of real bands as the background while you play.  In the career mode you play as the guitarist for a number of different bands and see things from a first-person perspective.  These videos are dynamic, so when you play well your band mates will be really supportive and the crowd will go nuts, but when you play poorly everyone gets mad at you.  It is pretty cool overall.  Honestly, though, I don't really care about what is going on in the background in these games as I'm usually too focused on the note highway to notice.  In the Guitar Hero TV streaming mode, the background videos are the music videos for the songs you're playing, which is cool.  The note highway in both modes is nice and clear and easy to read as well.

The sound is a key part of any music / rhythm game, and Guitar Hero Live is just fine in this department.  You can't adjust the levels for the instruments, unfortunately, which means I can't make the guitar louder like I like to, which makes it easier to play.  It all sounds fine, though.

Bottom Line

I should have had more faith in FreeStyle Games (who brought us the awesome DJ Hero games previously) because Guitar Hero Live really surprised me.  I was fully prepared to hate it while I was trying to wrap my head around the new gameplay from watching videos before release, but after I actually played it I couldn't help but fall in love.  It is just really, really fun to play and really feels like a fresh experience that the genre hasn't had in ten years.  It does make a lot of drastic changes to the classic plastic guitar formula both in the gameplay as well as DLC, but I think if you give it a try and see how it all works people will be very pleased with how well thought out everything was and how well executed it is.  I know that for me, after playing hours and hours of both Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live, I have had a lot more fun overall with Guitar Hero Live and is the game I would recommend right now if you can only get one.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.