“This is stupid,” I try to tell myself. “Weren’t music games just a fad?” For one long minute, I struggle to hit a single note on my plastic axe, as game developers and PR people fire eye-daggers into the back of my head. But then, all of a sudden, it clicks. I’m strumming up a storm. I’m playing the new Guitar Hero—and it’s surprisingly awesome.
“Want to know how long we’ve been making this? It’s this long,” laughs Jamie Jackson, the game’s creative director—gesturing to his beard. As you can see, the man has a chin worthy of respect. And yeah, it’s strange to think that we’ve gone nearly five years without a new Guitar Hero game. Music games kind of fell off a cliff back in 2011, after enjoying enormous success. Now, both Rock Band and Guitar Hero are coming back. But how will Activision get us interested in picking up a plastic axe again?
In my short demo with the game, it came down to three things:
1.) You don’t have to use your goddamn pinky to play
The new Guitar Hero controller feels like a blast from the past. Maybe I’ve got rose-tinted glasses on, but the cheap plastic peripheral felt practically identical to the ones from the Guitar Hero 5 / Rock Band era several years back. But this one has one key difference: you don’t have to use your pinkie. Instead of five frets, there are six — but they’re all under your index, middle, and ring fingers.
Jackson explains to me a concept that I’m already extremely familiar with: how Guitar Hero players got stuck on previous games’ medium difficulty setting because — no matter how quick they were with their fingers — they just couldn’t get their pinky in the mix. “As soon as you had to use your pinky, it all went to shit,” says the beautifully bearded man. So yeah, you’re no longer moving your hand like a real guitarist, but gosh is it easier to grasp.
Sure enough, I was banging out notes just like before on medium difficulty—but I also found myself intrigued by harder settings where you have to move your three fingers back and forth on the frets—or hit both together—instead of just up and down the guitar neck.
2.) It shames you into playing better—instead of shaming you not to play
I vividly remember the original Guitar Hero series was all about shame. It felt pretty silly to watch cartoony characters prance about on stage while strumming a fake plastic guitar, and worse when the game totally booed me off stage when I failed. (If you haven’t realized yet, I kind of suck at this game.)
Well, a little bit of that shame is back, but it’s way more entertaining. Now, every major Guitar Hero song is a first-person music video designed to make you feel like a rockstar on stage, where you feed off the energy from fans cheering for you—or booing you when you fail.
The game keeps track of whether you’re doing well or poorly in real time, and can switch between an audience that loves you or hates you on the fly—using giant robot cameras, the developer filmed two versions of every single video frame with those two different audiences: one cheering your name and singing back your songs, and one holding up nasty signs. You don’t fail anymore and get booed off stage completely: you just feel horrible for letting down your fans and bandmates.
Speaking of which, even your own band members will give you the evil eye:
3.) It (sounds like) Guitar Hero won’t make you buy endless new versions and songs again
See that square, frame-like button on the controller? It takes you to a new game mode called Guitar Hero TV, which is a live TV guide of real music videos you can play along to, for free. No subscription, no fee to get more music as long as it’s being broadcast to you through Guitar Hero TV. (The company didn’t rule out additional paid songs, but that sounds promising!)
It also doubles as the game’s multiplayer mode, where you can compete with other people around the world in real time. Not that I’ll ever be good enough at Guitar Hero to do that.
I think this guy might have a chance, though. He looks pretty serious.
The new game’s called Guitar Hero Live, and it’s coming this fall for $100 to practically every console you can think of: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Wii U. Mobile devices, too. Activision says there’ll also be a version for phone and tablet that you can plug into a TV with an HDMI cable, and use a full-sized guitar with too.
I think I’m willing to give music games another go. How about you?