It’s been five years since Harmonix and Activision hung up their collective plastic instruments. To some, it was the end of an era. But most didn’t even noticed the sharply declining sales of the rhythm game fad of the mid 2000s. Since then, Guitar Hero and Rock Band kits have collected dust in thrift stores and local bars around the country. The world was asked if it was ready to rock, and it said no. So who would have thought 2015 would see the return of both franchises?
The mics have been checks, the guitars have been tuned, and the metaphors are spent. Let’s find out which of these new entries wins the battle of the bands.
Rock Band 4
What Is It?
For Rock Band fans, it’s everything you already know and love with a slight twist. Up to six players can rock together with each taking a crack at drums, bass, guitar, and three singers. The iconic Note Highway and Overdrives are intentionally left identical to the previous games. The 65 song soundtrack ranges from classic artists such as Van Morrison and Fleetwood Mac to more contemporary bands like Mumford & Sons and Bruno Mars. If that’s not enough, a good majority of Rock Band’s prior DLC can be imported to your current gen console, allowing players to build their own dream set list.
Well, not much. Guitarists can now perform their own unique guitar solos while matching recommend strums for extra points. Vocalists are also encouraged to add a little personality in special vocal. Other than that, it’s Rock Band 3 without the 128 button guitar and keytar.
There’s nothing else quite like jamming together with your friends and that remains true in Rock Band 4. Most of the previous Rock Band hardware can be used on the PlayStation 4 natively and the Xbox One with cheap $20 adapter, which is wonderful news for anyone looking to build the band on the cheap. Finding that perfect song to show off your shredding, drumming, or singing skills is every bit as thrilling as it was in 2007. If you can find five other people, Rock Band 4 is one hell of a good time.
What’s always separated Rock Band from other rhythm games is it’s superb soundtrack. Sadly, this entry simply doesn’t gel together. Rocking out to Cake or the Gin Blossoms is a great way to kick off the set or close out the night, but finding the next song can often feel like too much of a musical switch. These are great songs, but they don’t make a great mix tape. The optional guitar solos may sound exciting, but come off as toy-like with canned riffs and squeals. Also, the new guitar’s strum bar still feels mushy and imprecise.
Guitar Hero Live
What Is It?
In many ways Guitar Hero Live serves as a complete reboot of the series. Drums and bass have been completely removed in favor of a guitar focused game. Vocals can also be performed through a logitech microphone or even a smartphone via the Guitar Hero Live app. The 42 song soundtrack is decisively modern with the vast majority of its tracks having been released in the past 15 years.
Besides a selection of buttons crawling towards the bottom of the screen, nearly everything. The newly designed six button guitar stacks three black buttons on top of three white buttons. This removes the use of your pinky or even sliding your hand to reach notes but also introduces more complex chords and bars. The wammy bar has been slightly flattened for easier use and the navigation dpad has been completely removed for a clicky protruding nub.
Presentation has also drastically changed with full motion videos. Performances now take place with live actors portraying both the audience and your bandmates. Play well and you’ll be showered with cheers and approving nods. Slip up and you’ll quickly receive annoyed glances from your bassist and boos from the crowd. From a portland hipster afternoon concert to a sold out auditorium, Guitar Hero’s campin covers the full live music experience.
But it’s the new Guitar Hero TV mode that really changes the entire music rhythm game genre. Two unique online “channels” feature 30 minute music blocks ranging from indie to hardcore metal and modern country music. Players are matched with 9 other online competitors, raising and lowering your position in real time with in-game currency incentives to perform well.
The new 6 button guitar feels fantastic with click buttons and a snappy strum bar. While initially simple, the three lane highway allows for challenging chord changes and solos. Hammer ons feel dynamic, power chords feel heavy, and complex melodies are a joy to play. Even color blind players can quickly pick up on the action due to the monochrom color design.
Guitar Hero TV is simply amazing. FreeStyleGames have completely nailed the look and feel of MTV’s brighter days with full music videos playing in the background and original animation playing between sets. Rising to 1st place during a tricky guitar solo is one of the most satisfying moments of the year. If the latest music block isn’t doing it for you, simply switch over to the other channel. Best of all, you don't have to wade through dozens of songs.
If you’re not a fan of metal or indie pop, you probably won’t enjoy the soundtrack. Sorry classic rock fans.
The FMV main campaign just doesn’t work. Shifting from a happy crowd to a disatisfied audience feels more like interdimensional teleportation rather than a natural progression. It’s obvious a lot of work went into creating these live performances, and while it is impressive, it often distracts from the base gameplay. Transitioning from backstage often takes far too long with unnecessary cut scenes that can’t be skipped.
If you’re looking to permanently add songs, you’re out of luck. DLC is nonexistent. Instead, Guitar Hero TV allows players to rent out songs for a number of plays with in-game currency or even microtransactions. You want 10 plays? That’ll be $2.50. Yikes.
Winner: Guitar Hero Live
Given that Harmonix exclusively creates music based games, FreeStyleGames was certainly a dark horse contender. But the creators of DJ Hero have once again changed the world of rhythm games thanks to their unique hardware and online components. Yes, it’s implementation of microtransactions is questionable, but with over 200 songs freely playing on Guitar Hero TV it’s an easily avoidable problem.
Is Rock Band 4 bad? Of course not! But it is more of the same. Still, if you can find a group of friends eager to rock the world, you’re guaranteed to have a blast. But Guitar Hero Live feels like a complete reimagining that captures the feeling of it’s 2005 original. For a series on it’s 7th (or 13th) entry, that’s something special.