Posted Mon Sep 14, 2015 at 09:00 AM PDT by Brian Hoss
Just a matter of opinion.
Editor's Note: Recently, I took in several hours with 'Guitar Hero' Live developer FreeStyle Games along with some hands-on time with 'Guitar Hero Live' at YouTube Space LA. This two-day session came courtesy of Activision.
Welcome to Guitar Hero Live
With 'Guitar Hero Live,' the times that I have been able to play it have done more for me than all of the game's marketing, setlists, etc. have combined. From a dry point of view, I know that the feel of the new guitar intrigues me and makes me want to learn the ins and outs of mastering the 3x2, six-button design. I also know that the GHTV delivery method of music is like some sexy combination of vintage MTV and modern Spotify.
Along with some other check boxes, these characteristics make the game seem like a winner to me… on paper. But I when I say that playing the game (and watching friends and colleagues play) has been instrumental in catapulting the game into one of my most anticipated for 2015, there's a quality at work that's hard to nail down.
When I was invited to visit with some of the devs from FreeStyle Games and to play 'Guitar Hero Live' with a deeper level of access than ever before, I had a goal in mind, to learn something new. In the end, I think I've puzzled out what it is about 'GH Live' that grabs me, what it is that makes this genre worthy of resurrection.
Wish You Were There
I've played rhythm games. I've even played a lot of 'GH Live' earlier this year (see those impressions here). And while much of that original 2005 era 'Guitar Hero' formula can be found in 'Guitar Hero Live,' it's this 2015 rendition that feels like the first real update in the genre since, well the early PS3 days.
'GH Live' brings a serious dose of new blood to a well-travelled genre. At the core, there is a new guitar with its new button layout that seeks to redefine how the game is played. This new input method is employed heartily along two very distinct avenues, the live musical circuit, and the expansive feed-style GHTV.
Back when 'GH Live' was first announced, I had some real concerns about the lack of in-game rendered characters. And as I suspected, there are some big advantages for the game just from the perspective of being able to exist on platforms like the new Apple TV. My fears, however, had more to do with having modern gamer's reaction to live-action footage in-game. (It's just not done. See 'Red Alert III' or anyone's memories of 'Night Trap.'
The live-action footage does seem to work well, and even modernizes an older (and nearly left for dead) mechanic. The lack of rendered characters is a bit like the shift when going from a third-person view in an action game to a first-person view. When first-person is working, it's engrossing. (More on the live festival audience and bandmates, later).
More so, however, I've been drawn to GHTV as the part of the game that really puts it out over the top. Let me use Tenacious D's 'Tribute' track as an example. The song is an enduring love of mine on multiple levels, and it's a track that has been available to play in the rhythm games of yesteryear. And yet, tapping into 'Tribute' in 'Guitar Hero Live' is as near a perfect summation as I can reason for why 'GH Live' is about to take the multi-platform gaming audience by storm.
When I had the chance to play 'Tribute' in GHTV, I was stunned to find almost the perfect analog to my original reaction. This came via the 'Tribute' music video which backs the GHTV gameplay. (I wish I could show you the game running, but the below video still supports my point.)
(If you can't watch the video, and have no idea what I'm talking about, it's goes something like "This is one those lame karaoke things!" only to later be of a different opinion.)
Having the 'Tribute' video merged with the new six-button Guitar Hero controller is such a satisfying pairing that honestly I wish you were there.
Playing on Regular difficulty, 'Tribute' wrecked me. In addition to just an overall flood of notes, 'Tribute' had a combination that I hadn't seen yet, Black 2 (that's the center top button for righties) + White 1 (that's the left most bottom button).
Frankly, I haven't seen that kind of finger combo outside of my attempts to play a real guitar. (Though I have now seen it plenty in the new game.) It's going to take some more playtime to get it working with my stubby fingers.
Mark It Zero
Part way through this in-depth look at the game, I sat down and interviewed, Pete Bucknall, Producer at FreeStyle Games, and as I learned part of the team responsible for marking up the vocal and guitar notes for 'Guitar Hero Live.' The bulk of those questions and answers are spread through the rest of this article.
Guitar Is the Focus, but Vocals Were Always Part of the Project
I got shower deep into the vocals of 'Guitar Hero Live,' which, as expected, got me more into the musical variety, the experience, and even to a bigger party feel. The vocal feature is a big plus for me, and I've been wondering about the thinking that led their inclusion.
High-Def Digest: Since the game's initial reveal, one the biggest announcements for me has been the vocals, what was the thinking that lead to vocals being a feature?
Pete: So, first off, I'd like to say, Guitar Hero, our main focus is the guitar. It's a guitar-driven game, and that's what makes it what it is. The vocals we added in just as a little added incentive to bring that kind of social party feel back.
High-Def Digest: When did vocals become part of the project development?
Pete: It's always been part of the project. Definitely been in awhile. The vocals, well, you're running alongside the guitarist profile, you'll be scored independently on the vocals, but they won't add to, they won't affect the guitarist score in any way. It's scored completely independently, and it won't add to the end result. It's purely just for that social element. Just for that little bit more.
High-Def Digest: Are their different difficulties for the vocals?
Pete: Vocals is just one difficulty. Like the notes are the notes. Whereas there are difficulties for the guitar, vocals is just one track.
So the vocals are scored, and tracked by the game (there is only one difficulty for Vocals), and, in effect, the vocals are an enhancing touch, just deep enough to be fun and worth playing. I sang vocals a few times in 'GH Live' on the PS4. All I had to do was plug in the USB mic, which prompted the PS4 UI to ask me to assign a user for the mic (with an associated controller), and that brought up the pre-song vocal options. After that, it was pretty vintage pitch-matching, much aided by a familiarity with the lyrics and melodies. I even tried singing vocals while two other people battled on their GH guitars, which made for a competitive, party feel that I love.
Guitar Hero Live versus GHTV
Before I played much GHTV, I had asked Pete if there were any concerns that once the game was out, that some artists and bands might be a little peeved at the relative difficulty of their tracks. His immediate answer was to laugh in surprise.
Sure enough, dialing up Weezer's 'Buddy Holly' and finding a video backing that everyone should know and love (see here), the comparative ease in difficulty (despite still playing on Regular) was telling. Of course, the song does lend itself to some of that chord, chord, other chord play, but I'll bet that within the game there will be songs that (much like player rating in 'Madden') will rankle some artists on account of their inherent challenge level (or lack thereof). Playing 'Buddy Holly' on Regular after playing 'Tribute' on Regular, made for a dramatic change in complexity note wise. In both cases, however, I felt some crazy rhythmic patterns (crazy for my musically challenged self).
Hopping over to GH Live, I played one of my current favorite NBA associated tracks, 'My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark' by Fall Out Boy, which really got my wondering about how FreeStyle picked songs for GH Live. GH Live is not only the game's namesake, but it's also where the live-action musical festival setting is put in play.
High-Def Digest: Are there certain songs that makes sense for GH Live versus GHTV?
Pete: The songs we've gone for with GH Live- the biggest thing is genre. So we've got the different bands playing over the different festivals, like Rock the Block and Soundial. The festivals have totally different feels to them, so we wanted the songs in GH Live to represent that. So you'll have a band that might be… an all-female rock band, so they'll be playing songs suited to that, or maybe like an alt metal band, or a folk band as well. So the songs that we've chosen them to play, we feel really represent that style and that band.
Soundial is UK-based festival, set in a massive field. It features 10 different bands over 7 different stages. Rock the Block is US-based, placed in the city, with an urban feel. No doubt the "light 'em up" lines that so scintillate NBA arenas is welcome in the right festival setting. It was certainly popular to play at YouTube Space LA.
Progression and the Crowd
When I prompted Pete about the possibility that artists will be upset over how theirs are marked in terms of difficulty, he countered with an idea that must resound in the world of musical festivals, the crowd reaction is the real decider.
I think what he was pointing out is how much more involved the crowd is in the GH Live part of the game. No doubt as my colleagues and I tried our hands at winning the crowds over (and not getting hate stares from our in-game bandmates), the key was ultimately the reception of the crowd. The scoring, the multiplier, the drops in the track- these are all as important as ever, but making sure the crowd is having a good time is a nice measuring stick when tackling tougher tracks. This is one of those vintage 'Guitar Hero' aspects that has been brought back in a big way. This crowd reaction is much more nuanced than the last gen days.
Post-song, the points are broken down. Scores factor into leaderboards, but the global ranking progression is there. Even when dabbling with the game, there is an allure of leveling up and unlocking various rewards.
Game performance is an area of concern for so many games these days, but generally, it hasn't been a major concern with rhythm games, at least not for the public. In my experience, it's a huge concern for the rhythm game developers. A single hitch can really sour a song, and can be picked up by the most casual of gamers.
In the case of 'Guitar Hero Live', there is not only a full range of platforms to account for, but the core on-screen assets are big part of the reward system. For example, popping in an Avenged Sevenfold highway essential changes a large part of the game UI. (Check it out in-game.)
High-Def Digest: In creating the tracks, notes, abilities, and customizations, which have to be usable on all the platforms, did you run into any kind of performance issues in getting the track to perform like you want it to?
Pete: There's always going to be trial and error…
High-Def Digest: Like, did you ever deploy and break the game?
Pete: (Laughing) That's part of making the game, surely? All I'll say about that is that the entire FreeStyle team is so passionate about this whole thing, so if it does, like they do something, it breaks, they go at again, they go at it harder and harder until we like get exactly what we want and what we think is going to be best for everyone playing the game, and we feel like that's what we've done.
'Guitar Hero Live' has plenty of bullet points to win over new and old players, but as I said early on, playing it bears out the idea that the core gameplay has been revamped via the new controller and new track design. In the past, I often felt like I was playing Simon with a guitar. With 'Guitar Hero Live,' the payoff has been that I actually feel musical when I play. (Maybe when I get better, I'll feel like a rockstar, but this is a nice start.)
While "incredible note mark-up and track design" is unlikely to be a trailer or box art tagline, I think these are areas that are essential.
High-Def Digest: When you say the mark-up team, are you talking about coordinating with the tracks and the track data?
Pete: Absolutely, We'll get the tracks. We'll listen through it. Tempo map it. So get everything all in time in our project and go through and start in on the expert difficulty. Again, trial and error, go through and figure out what's going to be the best balance between musical accuracy and fun gameplay. And with the new controller, the new the 3x2 set-up, the six buttons, there is so much more freedom. Absolutely, so much more freedom, the chord shapes, the realistic sort of movement up and down and over the rows, stuff like that.
High-Def Digest: Announced this week. Passenger's 'Let Her go' is any interesting choice. There are not a lot of instruments in the track; it's a surprising choice. You must have songs that are dense with track data and songs that have relatively simple track data. That has me wondering. The first time you open up a new song, what do you do?
Pete: Figure out what's going to be the most fun. So, with something like Passenger is obviously sort of a more mellow, acoustic-based track, but it still connects really, really well. Like, the kind of picks, acoustic strings, connect really well. The chord shapes as well, 'cause it's a chord-based song. With the new design, you can use those chords and incorporate those chords in. These tracks are a challenge for us in a great way. Like, we just want to figure out how to make them the most fun to play. Whether it's a crazy metal song that's full-on for however many minutes or whether it's a more chilled-out acoustic song like with Passenger, there's still going to be that challenge and it's still going to be as connected as possible and as fun to play as possible.
So many AAA games terminate in a product where the development wound up in a grind, and by extension, the resulting game can feel like a grind to play. 'Guitar Hero Live' feels like it's got some passion and artistry mixed in with those admittedly attractive bullet-points, and, (this is key) that has impacted the core gameplay. I can' wait until 'GH Live' goes live, and I can see how the public at large responds.
You can find the latest info on 'Guitar Hero Live' linked from our Video Game Release Schedule.
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