Rocking out with Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4, two very different rhythm games

Rock Band is back! So is Guitar Hero! We went hands-on with both at E3 to compare and contrast their approaches to a familiar genre.

Rock Band 4

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Rhythm games are back. And yes, I mean games plural—like Hollywood’s penchant for releasing two extremely similar movies as competitors, both Rock Band and Guitar Hero have decided on 2015 for a reunion tour.

I’ll admit—I’m biased towards Rock Band. Why? Because Rock Band 3—for all the fact we were culturally tired of rhythm games—was still a solid title, with an obvious amount of passion behind it. Guitar Hero, on the other hand, steadily self-destructed once it left Harmonix’s hands.

And my biases were confirmed at E3, in that I think Rock Band 4 is a better game than Guitar Hero Live. On the other hand, I like Guitar Hero Live a lot more than I expected—due in no small part to its unique guitar. Read on for hands-on impressions of both titles.

Rock Band 4

“This is basically your Last Guardian ,” Harmonix’s Nick Chester jokes with me before my Rock Band 4 demo. And he’s right. It is. I’ve been waiting for a new Rock Band for years now. Every Chroma demo, every A City Sleeps demo, I’d do the ol’ “So…what about Rock Band?” It’s basically the only non-PC title I’ll give the time of day to. It was easily my most-anticipated game coming into E3 2015.

And now it’s Monday night at a Microsoft showcase and Rock Band is here. It’s a real thing. I get to play it. Over the course of the next three hours I proceed to wait in line eight separate times to play more Rock Band. I play drums. I play guitar. I play bass. I sing.

Rock Band 4

There are some changes. Drum fills, for instance. Instead of free-form drum solos, Rock Band now suggests tiny fills for you to play. While it’s going to be a lot harder to nail the fills, the whole system now feels less intimidating. There’s no more worrying you’ll end up out-of-sync during a drum fill and throw off the whole band.

Guitar on the other hand has been opened up a lot. Solos are now completely free-form, similar to real improvisation. You are given a general instruction like “Tap” or “Sustain” (represented by icons inlaid on the note stream) and then you just hit buttons in that rhythm—always in key. Like a harmonica-guitar. It’s interesting, although it takes a lot of skill out of certain songs (which is, I assume, why you can turn the feature off and play the normal beat-matched solos if you’d like).

But despite some changes, there is still that old feeling of familiarity. Rock Band 4 is more Rock Band, and that’s fine. That’s exactly what I want.

The sense of deja vu is enhanced in the current build because it’s mostly old Rock Band tracks. Unlike Activision, which seems content to shotgun its tracklist into the air each week, Rock Band’s been fairly reticent with its song selections. So far we’ve had a scant dozen revealed—you know, in addition to the 3,000+ DLC songs already available for you to buy or re-download at launch.

So it’s mostly classic Rock Band tracks. Playing No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” or Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker,” or Heart’s “Barracuda,” it’s like it’s 2009 again and I’m in a crappy college apartment in Southern California jamming with friends.

It’s funny how the narrative flips. That warm feeling of familiarity? Of slipping into a well-worn groove? It’s like I now love Rock Band for the same reasons Rock Band needed to die. That familiarity is exactly why everyone got sick of Rock Band (and all rhythm games) in the first place. Now, six years later, it’s all I really want out of E3—to play more. To get all my friends into a living room and jam. To essentially “get the band back together.”

Guitar Hero

Which brings us to Guitar Hero Live, Activision’s attempt at reviving its own rhythm-game brand. What’s interesting is that Guitar Hero Live is almost as odd and unique as Rock Band 4 is familiar.

For one, there’s the new guitar. Guitar Hero Live ditches the five colored buttons made famous by the original Guitar Hero back in 2005. Instead, you have two rows of three buttons each, arranged one atop the other. Thus there’s actually some vertical movement for your fingers, which is brand new. At times you’ll also have to strum without holding down any notes, which is also new.

Speaking as an actual guitarist, I think it feels quite a bit more like playing a real guitar than any of its rhythm-genre ancestors. Will it teach you to play guitar? Is it really like playing an instrument? No, not really. It’s not, in other words, Rock Band’s drum kit, which doubles as an extremely effective learning tool.

But with just a bit of vertical movement between the two rows, as well as the ability to form “chord shapes” with buttons on both rows? Guitar Hero Live’s controller seems just a bit more lifelike.

Unfortunately, I wish some other parts of it were less lifelike. During Guitar Hero Live’s reveal, we learned the crowds would be completely FMV—meaning video footage of real live humans. This audience, as well as the interactions with your FMV bandmates, land squarely in some sort of uncanny valley area. It feels super awkward, to me—though also easy to tune out if you zone in on the note stream.

guitar hero live

Activision’s also showing off its new premiere content a bit, which lets you (for instance) play songs over official music videos, or otherwise keeps a steady stream of content flowing into Guitar Hero Live. I still don’t really know what’s free and what’s paid in this category, or how often Activision will add new songs, but it’s definitely a key selling point for Guitar Hero Live—assuming it doesn’t cost much (if any) money, a steady stream of new content could be a huge boon for a genre that’s traditionally been mired in DLC.

Bottom line

I’m actually glad to see Guitar Hero head back to its guitar roots, because it means these games are…slightly less competitive. Rock Band ‘s doing some amazing things—particularly bringing across all the old peripherals and songs, and those amazing freeform solos. And Guitar Hero is bringing a more realistic-feeling guitar peripheral and a (supposedly) endless supply of content.

Either way, we stand on the edge of a plastic instrument renaissance.

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