Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS
We Played On: Xbox One

Rock Band has returned after a five-year break, more or less maintaining the familiar party-friendly structure of its past installments. But rival Guitar Hero has charted a different course back to the spotlight. Guitar Hero Live still has you jam on a plastic guitar to dozens of popular rock tracks, but much of what’s found within that familiar framework is new.

It starts with the guitar controller itself. The plastic guitar no longer has five colored fret buttons in a row, but rather six buttons in a grid—three across, two down. If you spent years honing your craft in past Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, this’ll be a dramatic change. But the finger movements feel a lot more like playing a real guitar, and as one of those hardened players of past entries, having a different challenge this time around was really refreshing.

guitar hero live

Instead of the colored buttons, the new Guitar Hero controller has six buttons lined up in two rows of three.

The change is reflected in the gameplay too. The notes you’ll strum—by holding a fret button and flicking the bar—are shown with black and white guitar picks pointed up or down. But ultimately, the goal of playing the scrolling notes remains the same. It can be challenging to adapt to the new approach. Luckily the game starts things off easily with a tutorial, and multiple difficulty levels are available.

Also, Guitar Hero isn’t a full-band experience anymore. Drums and bass guitar are out, although you can use a second guitar for one-on-one battles. Additionally, a USB microphone can be plugged in to add vocal accompaniment to the guitar action.

Much more has changed besides the guitar interactions. That’s clear once you start up the tutorial and find yourself onstage and surrounded by video of real people playing instruments, not to mention a vast crowd of admirers. Activision shot footage of bandmates and fans alike for each song on the disc, making you the lead guitarist of several fictional bands as you play multi-song sets at large festivals.

guitar hero live

The game puts you in front of a live action crowd that reacts based on how you’re playing.

Play well in this mode, and the crowd cheers and sings along, and your comrades continue happily rocking out. Start missing notes and the image changes—the audience becomes bored and irritated. Your fellow players get confused at your poor performance. While definitely cheesy, the “live” surroundings are a nice change of pace from the usual video game bands and generic audience members.

guitar hero live

Guitar Hero TV allows you to play along to songs presented in TV-like format.

And that’s only half of the experience—or less, really. There’s also GHTV, an online streaming mode in which you can access two always-on channels filled with music videos to play along to. These MTV-like channels have seemingly hundreds of songs to play at no extra cost. Your score is ranked against other online players in real time as you shred along. It’s a really smart evolution of the music game genre, and a great way to discover new artists.

The downside is that you can no longer buy downloadable add-on tracks and play them over and over again for a single fee. Instead, GHTV has a system in which you earn “plays” for individual songs outside of the streaming channels. You can buy additional play tokens if needed, or purchase a 24-hour all-access pass to the entire library. That will rub some players the wrong way, but GHTV is generous with free play tokens. The more you play the channels, the more in-game currency and plays you’ll earn.

Guitar Hero Live includes a wide range of hit songs on the disc, including “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, “Waking Up in Vegas” by Katy Perry, and “Berzerk” by Eminem. And the GHTV selection will continually expand with new songs.

Guitar Hero Live is rated T for Teen with access to loads of mostly modern rock and pop songs, so you’ll hear occasional expletives, as well as sexual innuendo and drug references. The songs are partially censored to remove the harder swears and references, but they’re not clean versions. And since music videos play for the GHTV songs, you’ll sometimes see suggestive images there, too, including scantily clad women.

While Rock Band 4 is the better pick for family and party play, given the ability to support several players between all the instruments and microphones, Guitar Hero Live delivers a more compelling guitar-centric experience—particularly for a single player. And the GHTV service provides a lot of continued value with its streaming channels and expanding content.

This article was written by

Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor, and his work has appeared in more than 50 publications around the world. He’s also a work-at-home dad to a wild toddler.