It’s widely accepted that the briefly-inescapable guitar game genre collapsed under the weight of a zillion stagnant sequels, expansions, and spin-offs – that corporate greed killed the rhythm peripheral star. But it’s been decades in video game years since Warriors of Rock shuffled onstage, and so a whole new generation has grown up not knowing how great it feels to nail a behind-the-head solo on a plastic guitar in front of its parents.

Sounds like it’s time to get the band back together and show these whipper-snappers the true meaning of ‘cock out’, said someone at Activision, probably. And so we have Guitar Hero Live – it’s like the other ones, but for the Spotify set!

To be fair to Activision, Guitar Hero Live isn’t a rehash of old classics by a bunch of saggy balding dudes. Or it isn’t only that, at least. Rather, Live shakes things up by presenting its action in first-person, and by swapping cartoony crowds for footage of actual human beings rocking moderately. Oh, and this time the plastic guitar has two rows of three buttons rather than five in a single row, because money?

Guitar Hero Live review

Yep, those gaudy old gats you have collecting dust in the closet won’t work with Guitar Hero Live, and nor will any DLC you purchased for the older games. Cynics will argue that’s because Activision wants to reap the whirlwind twice by selling everyone a marginally-different plastic toy – one that will join the others in the closet in a year or two – while developer FreeStyle Games says it simply wants to shake things up.

Wherever you land on that, the redesigned guitar is certainly a nicer-looking thing than its predecessors – less game-y looking and more understated. Its buttons are flush with the neck rather than raised, its fretboard is a tasteful light brown, it feels sturdy, and in all honesty I prefer playing it.

Two rows of buttons make chord shapes feel closer to real guitar chords, and playing is less tiring as you don’t have to shift your hand up and down the neck to hit some notes. (Yes, I’m aware of how lazy that makes me sound.) Those worried about the dilution of challenge here need not – there are a bewildering number of shapes to contort your hand into, and the game feels as tricky as ever on expert.

the redesigned guitar is certainly a nicer-looking thing than its predecessors
Guitar Hero Live review

Guitar Hero Live is split into two sections. GHTV offers multiplayer and extra tracks (more on that later), while Live allows you to dive in and play the 42 songs on the game disc, or to play a portion of them in live festival sets via a campaign mode. For this, you choose a fictional band to guest with, join them backstage for a quick shot of scripted banter, then take the stage to burn down or muff up a predetermined set of songs.

The bands you play with are roughly grouped by genre. There are mellow strummers, chick metallers, painfully generic rock dudes, and more, and the venues, crowds, roadies, and backstage vibes of each all match the theme.

For example, if you fancy playing a set of twee bullshit (think: The Lumineers), you can join the hippy-dippy Portland Cloud Orchestra for a marginally rockin’ set under fairy lights in an expansive garden setting. You’ll strum along with some twat dressed like a 1900s coal miner, girls will dance along in flowing dresses and headdresses, beards will be everywhere, and confetti will rain from above.

Alternatively, you can join badass all-girl rockers Vivid Screamr for a night set and throw down out some, er, Paramore, while a huge crowd throws up their horns and fireworks explode in the background.

It’s a novel way to play Guitar Hero, and it’s sometimes beguiling. It’s clear that immersion was the focus here: FreeStyle Games wants you to feel like a rock star. Some of the backstage scenes are fun, and your bandmates all look like they are actual musicians that learned the songs note for note. A lot of care has been put into the stages and crowd.

Guitar Hero Live review
Guitar Hero Live review
Guitar Hero Live review
Guitar Hero Live review

However, the actual rush of being up there on stage is absent – it all feels a bit like a Broadway production of a rock gig, a lip sync, sanitised, Christian rock. There’s no-one drinking or smoking, or even really losing their minds dancing. There are no circle pits. There’s minimal, polite, contained bouncing, but no danger. In its place there’s a bunch of attractive people rocking politely and with regard for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Well f*ck that.

No-one sweats, but everyone poses or mugs shamelessly for the camera, including your bandmates. The inanity is far-reaching: each singer spouts the most generalised and bland welcome to the crowd, who in turn hoist signs that read ‘I feel proud of you’ and ‘So excited right now’. The songs are censored too – can’t have the kids hear the word ‘drugs’, can we?

In short, the whole thing feels like a high school gig that’s being filmed for broadcast on Nickelodeon, and I can’t help but feel that it would all have been vastly improved if everyone had just gotten seriously shitfaced before filming began.

Your bandmates will sulk, yell at you, and give you the side-eye at every opportunity

And while it’s easy to understand why the songs themselves need to be foregrounded for the most part, the crowds are mixed too low. Some gigs look like they take place in front of 100,000 people, but your audience would be drowned out by the sound of geriatrics shuffling to the dinner table at a retirement home half a mile away.

And yet it's all still reasonably fun thanks to those ageless Guitar Hero mechanics… until you start messing up.

You can’t fail a song, but if you start missing notes, boy do things get sour – hilariously so. Your bandmates will sulk, yell at you, and give you the side-eye at every opportunity, while the crowd boos and hurls things at you. It feels incredibly condescending and juvenile, like when people post ‘smh’ on the Internet, but multiplied by 1000. You will feel bad, and angry.

Unfortunately, the transition between these emotional states has by necessity had to be covered with a dissolve, which makes things feel binary, so crowds and bandmates go from happily rocking out to fuming mad. It feels like they either love you unconditionally, or stare at you like you just took a dump on their dead fiancé’s coffin.

Also jarring is having a singer shout a greeting in his own voice, then sing in the voices of Billie Joe Armstrong, Chris Cornell, and Eddie Vedder. Perhaps cover versions would have worked better?

Guitar Hero Live review
It feels like they either love you unconditionally, or stare at you like you just took a dump on their dead fiancé’s coffin.

All that said, twice during the campaign you do gigs to smaller crowds in more intimate venues, and these work really well. The crowd feels like it’s right there, and it’s intoxicating in a way that the bigger gigs aren’t. The move to a smaller stage also highlights a problem with the campaign in general: there is no career arc or feeling of progression. You never become attached to your bandmates, and you’re playing the biggest venues immediately.

Guitar Hero TV is the online section of Guitar Hero Live. Here, two MTV-style channels offer a variety of genre-specific programmes that at the time of writing raise the total song count to somewhere north of 240. You can dive into either channel at any time and play along with whatever’s on, and in doing so, you are matched up with eight other players (or their ‘ghosts’ if there aren’t enough people online). It's strangely hypnotic and moreish in a way I couldn't fathom before I tried it.

Everyone’s score is updated in real time as a song progresses, and this is much more motivating than I expected, possibly due to a matchmaking system that consistently managed to match me with people of a very similar skill level. The pressure to play along perfectly and retain multipliers is high, and it’s incredibly satisfying to overtake someone in a song’s final bars by nailing its outro.

Guitar Hero Live review
Guitar Hero Live review

Should you not want to wait for a song to come up on the rotation (and there’s no way to know when it will next be on), you need to use a ‘Play’, which accumulate at the roughly rate of about one for every four GHTV songs you play. (It’s tricky to accurately calculate this ratio, as you are rewarded with coins depending on how well you do in each song, and then spend the coins on Plays, but 1:4 seems like a decent ballpark guess.)

Of course, you can also spend real-world money to buy Plays (it works out at roughly NZ$0.16–NZ$0.25 per Play), but you cannot buy extra songs outright as DLC. FreeStyle Games’ rationale for this is that it wants people to play along with GHTV’s free content, discover new music that way, and be rewarded with free additional content.

That’s all well and good, and I have actually discovered two songs I enjoy this way, but it seems odd to not offer the option of a full download as well. If you want to nail a tough song on GHTV, it could cost you upwards of a few bucks (or a lot of time grinding through songs you don't wanna play).

Elsewhere, it’s possible to unlock every song available on GHTV for a few hours via something called a Party Pack. In theory this is handy for when friends come over, but I can’t see myself jamming this game with friends given that we live in a universe where games that also feature drums exist. Anyway, in a perfect world, GHTV, the Party Pass, and a DLC option would all be available.

Song-wise, Guitar Hero Live offers up a familiar blend of modern rock (Jet, Green Day, Incubus, The Killers), classic rock (Queen, The Rolling Stones), wank (Dream Theater), and metal (Judas Priest, Slipknot, In Flames, Mastodon), while also throwing in a smattering of newer tunes.

I like a good portion of the songs (Biffy Clyro, yuss), but “Girls” by The 1975 is boyband-level terrible, Jake Bugg sounds like a sad frog, and I’ll never know what Skrillex is doing here. Your mileage may vary, but most should be happy enough with what’s available. Besides which, the most fun songs to play often aren’t always ‘good’ songs anyway – all you need is a big riff or solo, and those are here in abundance.

It might sound like I’m bagging Guitar Hero Live pretty hard here, but the truth is it’s reasonably close to being something special. It succeeds in being unique in a long-tired genre, and while it doesn’t nail its live gambit, GHTV is a bold move that will have the neighbours of bedroom shredders wondering what all that clicking is all over again.

The core of Guitar Hero was always rock solid and fun as hell, and that holds true here. It’s still one of the best games for achieving a zoned-out flow state of mastery, and Live’s presentation is immaculate. With more songs and another channel promised for GHTV, it can only get better too. Just a shame about that lack of DLC.

Updated 21/10 14:30pm:

When this review went live there were only 80 extra songs showing up in the GHTV rotation, but now there are more than 160, bringing the total number of songs available to more than 240. That’s a lot of songs!

In addition, the prices for Hero Cash bundles have gone live, so we can evaluate that side of things.

Hero Cash and Plays are both cheaper per unit the more of them you buy at once, which makes an exact calculation of value for money tricky. Keeping that in mind, according to my maths, a single Play will cost you somewhere between NZ$0.16 and NZ$0.25.

Meanwhile, a Party Pass that unlocks all songs for 24 hours will set you back NZ$8.45. This is decent value if you are planning on playing local multiplayer or are embarking on an epic play session alone, but honestly, I can’t see myself using either option much. Playing the random rotation is much more fun than it seems on paper, and until those songs get stale, it will remain my preferred way to unlock additional Plays.

We have amended the review text to reflect these changes.