After flooding the market with plastic peripherals, and killing off two of gaming’s biggest franchises, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have made comebacks in 2015. While Rock Band 4 tried to recapture the magic that made the games popular in the first place, Activision’s Guitar Hero: Live is an attempt to truly innovate. By introducing a new guitar controller, developer FreeStyle Games is trying to reboot the series completely. With more room for failure, has Activision succeeded on their risky proposition? 

The answer to that question is a resounding yes, and the biggest part of what makes Guitar Hero: Live so special is the new guitar. The gameplay is pretty similar to previous offerings, as players will have to hit notes that are travelling down a highway, but what has changed is how you actually perform. Instead of sporting five buttons like previous guitars, the new controller features two rows of three buttons. The top row is shown on-screen as a black button, while the bottom row is colored white.

While initially it may seem like they just rearranged buttons, this new format completely changes how you play Activision’s signature music franchise. Players not only need to recognize what lane a note is travelling in on-screen, but they also have to determine if they need to press the high or low button. Naturally, this leads to quite the learning curve.

Since the new format is more complex than previous offerings, players will have to start from scratch. I went from acing songs in Rock Band 4 on expert difficulty to being barely passable on the default difficulty in Guitar Hero: Live. It took me time to get used to positioning my fingers differently on the guitar itself. It was a difficult adjustment for someone who played 100s of hours of Rock Band, but I eventually got used to it.

Once I got used to the new challenge that Guitar Hero: Live presents, I didn’t want to go back to previous games. FreeStyle Games has made the most rewarding rhythm game since Elite Beat Agents, and I felt like I truly accomplished something every time I managed to get 5 stars on a song.

To get good at any song takes practice, and Guitar Hero: Live presents two different game modes to play: Live and GHTV. Live is the equivalent to the game’s career mode, and has players performing gigs as the guitarist in several different bands. Each of the game’s 11 different gigs have 3 or more songs that have to be played back-to-back.

What really makes Live special is that all of the performances have been captured in full motion video. Yes, FMV is back in full force in 2015, and it’s fantastic. While it may seem cheesy at first, I found looking at an actual crowd while I wail on a guitar to be incredibly immersive. I’ll never be a rock star in real life, but Guitar Hero: Live made me feel like one temporarily.

Despite being a pre-recorded crowd, the fans will react appropriately depending on your performance. If you are playing poorly, the game will smoothly transition to the crowd booing. Seeing actual people criticize my performance, actually played into my real life anxiety, but in a good way. As silly as it sounds, it made me want to perform better since I didn’t want to disappoint actual people.

While the Live mode contains over 40 songs, there is even more content in the aforementioned GHTV mode. GHTV can be best described as a virtual music station that is interactive. Players can basically play along to the songs on the channel while their music videos play in the background.

There are two different channels on at all times, and each has different 30-minute blocks of programming. For example, one station might be playing nu metal while the other plays pop songs. While there isn’t a ton of selection, I actually enjoyed having to choose between just one of two channels. This introduced me to a lot of new music, that I otherwise wouldn’t check out.

If you want to play one of the specific songs in GHTV’s gigantic tracklist, then you’ll have to use a play token. Yes, Guitar Hero: Live has microtransactions, but thankfully they aren’t really that invasive. While you can buy these play tokens with real money–well, real money that you have to turn into Hero Cash first–you can also purchase them with coins that you earn while playing on the channels. Since coins are acquired pretty often, this really didn’t bother me.

Guitar Hero: Live does lose a bit of what made past games special, as you’re no longer able to play one song over and over again while trying to master it. Instead, you’re constantly playing new songs that have been curated by FreeStyle Games. It’s a trade-off, but one that I feel like is better overall. I’ll be tuning into GHTV for months to come, because it’s a blast to play and a great way to discover new music.

Ultimately, FreeStyle games have crafted an experience that is nearly perfect. More songs in the Live section would have made for a stronger offline experience. On the other hand, GHTV is so much fun to mess around with and feels like the future of music games. If you’re a fan of rhythm games, then Guitar Hero: Live is a must buy. This is easily the best rhythm game released in years.

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A PS4 copy of Guitar Hero: Live was provided by the developer. To learn more about our score, read our review policy.

Tyler has enjoyed video games, both large and small, ever since he was a child with a Sega Genesis controller in hand. When he isn’t playing through strange retro games like Snoopy’s Silly Sports Spectacular, he can be found meditating under a waterfall to grow his beard or eating pizza. Probably the latter.