I live in Colchester and round here everyone has a story about the band Blur. Mine is that my parents were friends with the drummer Dave and when I was a baby he knitted me a shawl. You’re impressed, I can tell. During the great Britpop war of the mid-nineties, being a contrary little bugger I fell on the side of Oasis. This was mostly down to some instinctual teenage reflex to dislike whatever everyone around me liked. But time has brought me round to the idea that I was probably wrong; that Blur actually were quite good and that maybe the most popular option isn’t automatically the worst after all.
This brings me tenuously onto Guitar Hero versus Rock Band. I’m a huge fan of Harmonix (to the extent where for large periods of my first year as a student I was playing Frequency like it was a full time job) and I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about Activision sweeping in, swamping the shelves with releases and strolling away proudly satisfied with yet another cash cow well and truly milked. It always bugged me that ‘Guitar Hero’ was the name synonymous in the public consciousness; like ‘Fifa’ is with football or ‘Call of Duty’ is with everything. I’d be at pains to explain to people that ‘well, actually, the makers of Rock Band made the first two and you should really play their previous games which you’ve probably never heard of’ before adjusting my glasses, stroking my beard and noticing that the person I was talking to had fallen into a twat induced coma.
Well, perhaps I was wrong and Harmonix aren’t all sunshine, buttercups and pies cooling by the kitchen window. Rock Band 3 may be The Greatest Videogame of All Time but 4 has proven that they are just as capable of producing a cynical cash grab when the mood takes them. Guitar Hero Live on the other hand seems like an uncharacteristically brave resurrection; dropping drums, rearranging the guitar buttons, replacing the chunky graphical style with first-person live action video and completely changing the approach to DLC, making all your old tracks incompatible in the process. It’s a bold move; some might even say even stupid and far from the kind of thing you would expect from a company as risk adverse as the hulking, evil mega-corp that is Activision. But do you know what? They’ve only gone and pulled it off.
Firstly, the new guitar. The traditional row of five coloured buttons has now been replaced with two rows of three; black at the top and white underneath. The theory behind this is that it will simultaneously easier for beginners, who now only have to deal with three buttons, and more complicated for experts who will have to twist their fingers into more chord-like positions. I found that getting used to the new placements was surprisingly easy, considering my brain was fighting against ten years of muscle memory, but once it started to introduce notes that covered both black and white buttons, it took a monumental amount of concentration to fight every instinct and get my fingers into the right positions. But once it clicked, the feeling was electric. I don’t play a real instrument so this is based entirely on my uneducated perception, but the new layout does feel fractionally more like playing the real thing. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that either button layout is definitively better than the other but this new method is refreshingly different and that’s surely to be applauded. It’s quite nice to be crap at the videogame guitar again and experience the progression from novice to not-so-novice. The only major downside to the new guitar is that the strum bar makes an awful lot of racket. I believe that this is intentional and some players prefer to rock to the sound of incessant clicking but for me it does verge on the distracting and could have done with being toned down a bit.
Next up, the way it looks. I’ll admit to nearly cringing myself inside out when I saw the initial reveal and expected the finished product to be endearingly rubbish at the very best. The danger in putting you directly behind the eyes of the lead guitarist is that most of the bands are populated by unlikeable dickheads and their cheesy thumbs-up, overly-earnest nodding and in the case of one bassist, outrageous flirting, can feel faintly ridiculous. The crowds, although convincingly large, seem to have taken a leaf out of the Pro Evolution Soccer guide to banner writing and litter the scenery with embarrassingly poor quotes and you’ll catch the occasional Hollyoaks reject desperately trying to mug their way into the centre of the shot. But somehow, despite all the naffness, it actually works.
It would be generous to say that the acting ever goes high above the passable but the live action sequences are directed by someone with an eye for the spectacular and the timing to produce moments of genuine magic. To give one example, early on you will play for a band called The Portland Cloud Orchestra at a mock Glastonbury festival called SoundDial. This band consists of the most punchable bunch of bare-footed, daisy chain wearing, faux folk rockers you could possibly imagine. Their care-free frolicking and beardy banjo-twiddling is irritating beyond all belief and I spent the first song desperately trying to avoid eye-contact lest I launched my guitar into the television. Weirdly, over the course of the next two songs, with the day gradually turning into night and the crowd being whipped into a sing along frenzy, I actually warmed to them. By the time we got to the tweed frivolity of Mumford and Sons ‘I Will Wait’, a song that usually brings me out in a severe case of the vomits, I was all ready to paint flowers on my face, jump in their organic cider bus and tootle off to their mountain retreat. It’s difficult to say much more for fear of spoilers, but often the timing between the live action and the music is so wonderfully perfect that it can pierce even the most cynical of black hearts. These games have always been brilliant at capturing the dank dinginess of a club or the brash excess of a stadium tour, but Live has managed to bottle the bliss of a festival where it never rains. You can almost smell the naughty cigarettes.
And this is playing for a band who are essentially my kryptonite. When you’re the guitarist for a band you might actually quite like to be in (in my case, despite their wonky musical inspirations, Quantum Freqs, whose name I can’t help but hope is an appreciative nod to Harmonix’s debut) the wish fulfilment is taken to previously untapped levels. There is a danger that in capturing 2015 music culture so effectively that the whole deal is going to age terribly. But for now, it works a treat.
Lastly and perhaps most controversially, is the T.V element. Live’s approach to downloadable content and providing the player with an extended music library is to give you a couple of constantly rolling music video channels that you can play along to. What this does is give you access to over 200 tracks for free, but not necessarily the ones you want, when you want to play them. If you do want to pick and choose you can either use ‘plays’ that are rewarded for high scores or, you guessed it, via microstransactions. Even then, you don’t get to keep access to that one song forever so you never actually ‘own’ any of the additional tracks. It does feel all a little bit icky, more so when you notice that the multiplier power up, surely essential to compete in the leaderboards, is restricted to high level or cash rich players.
This kind of behaviour would normally find me storming Activison headquarters with a placard where it not for the fact they seem to have got the rate at which you’re awarded free plays woefully unbalanced to the point where I’m currently sitting on thousands of coins and thirty-odd free song choices. You would expect this generosity to dry up rather quickly, but currently I see little evidence of it slowing down. It’s also quite a lot of fun to just play along to the streams, letting song after song just wash over you and not concentrating on one track for hours on end. Personally, I can actually see this model saving me money as I’m less likely to drunkenly purchase a song, play it once and then promptly forget about it. But there’s no doubt that this shift in ownership of your music library does have a faintly sinister air and there is the permanent danger that this whole chunk of the game is going to be switched off one day when the suits notice it’s not bringing the cash in. Again, it’s an interesting new direction, but one you suspect was inspired by balance sheets rather than any kind of artistic endeavour.
So I like the guitar, I like the live action and I quite like T.V; so why isn’t the score higher? Well in implementing all these radical changes Freestyle have somewhat thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The loss of drums is massive for me and the focus is now very much on the solo guitarist. There is a two player mode somewhere and you can plug in a microphone if you really want, but both seem like a bit of an afterthought. Rock Band and Guitar Hero have always been at their very best when played by a group of four and it is a little bit odd that this defining feature has been removed entirely. It is very, very good on your own (although not quite as good as Freestyle’s DJ Hero) but like most guitar solos, it’s just massively self-indulgent. Remember the Guns ‘N’ Roses November Rain video where Slash walks out in the middle of his mate’s wedding to play guitar in the middle of the desert? Playing Live can feel a bit like that; epic but selfish.
To bring it back to my painfully strained Blur vs Oasis metaphor, while Liam and Noel have spent the last twenty years trying to recapture their glory years with ever less successful tribute acts, Damon Albarn has formed a cartoon hip-hop band and penned an opera about monkeys. Guitar Hero Live feels like one of these experiments. It’s unique, fresh and strangely life-affirming and not even the looming shadow of the record company suits can completely take that away. Maybe the most popular option isn’t automatically the worst after all.