Over the course of the past month we’ve seen two deeply beloved franchises make their return to consoles after 5 long years away. Of course I’m talking about Rock Band 4 as well as Guitar Hero Live. Guitar Hero was the game that truly started the music centered rhythm game genre as we know it today. Rock Band came out a few short years later evolving everything that Guitar Hero started expanding the game from a one to two player guitar simulation to a full band party game. Arguably, Rock Band won out the battle last generation by continually expanding the game not only in terms of instruments (anyone remember the Keytar?) but also by compiling together a vast library of tracks from every generation of music for people to purchase. Everyone that I know who has a Rock Band game has invested quite a bit of money into their library. The reason was that it was worth it. Songs purchased for Rock Band 1 and 2 transferred over to 3. You never had to worry about losing your songs. I believe that it’s because of this that Guitar Hero ultimately faded out. After Rock Band 3 the continually growing downloadable content list eliminated the need for any fourth game…until now that is.
With the new console generation being so fresh we’re lucky in that we get to see many new franchises, as well as the reboots of all the classics we love. Rock Band 4 was set to launch in the beginning of October and just about everyone I knew was excited, myself included. The game launched and…well quite frankly it was kind of a bust. The results can be traced to numerous issues. To begin, the on-disk game feels almost like a beta. The game is missing so many features held by its predecessors that it really just feels like Harmonix was just in a rush to beat Guitar Hero to launch. Besides the fact that the Keytar is no longer compatible, playlists are something completely gone from the game replaced with a voting system. And it isn’t necessarily that the voting system is bad. It functions so each member of the playing group can vote on a genre or description of what kind of song to play next. The issue is when the case comes down to a group who knows exactly what three or four songs they want to play. It’s not possible unless they trek back through the menus each times to find the song in quick play. This is a pretty huge issue to me, especially considering they’ve had it in every other Rock Band title, and I’m unsure really why Harmonix felt the need to pull the plug on this. The awesome cut-scenes that would take place upon moving up in career mode are now also gone replaced with simple text telling you how you’ve done or what your options are. Character customization has been scaled back significantly and I personally found the set list to be sub par compared to any other Rock Band or Guitar Hero game. The game isn’t all bad though. The game has a brand new guitar solo system essentially leaving you to play solo’s however you’d like to. It’s a neat little system that is fluid, and more importantly fun. The other positives are that all of your legacy hardware and content is compatible. Got your old Rock Band 3 instruments? No problem. Plug em in and you’re good to go. Almost all of the dlc you own from previous generations will transfer over assuming you upgraded within the same console family (PS3-> PS4 / X360-> X1). What it really comes down to is that the game isn’t really that fresh. Sure there are some new songs but for the most part it’s the same exact thing you already own and in some ways it’s worse than what you already have. The primary goal of Rock Band 4 seems to be simply enabling you to play the content you already own on your newer console. If you’re a huge fan of the franchise and haven’t grown bored with it then you’ll be heads over heels for the game. Otherwise I don’t think I could recommend paying full price for it.
Guitar Hero: Live took an alternative approach. Though the game isn’t flawless, the changes have made the game absolutely something worth playing. Gone are the days of your video game persona rocking out. GH: Live puts you in the game by having the game played out in a first person aspect in front of a real audience. That’s right, no more 3d modeled characters. If you’re doing bad you won’t fail anymore. You’ll have real people booing and throwing things at you. Do well and you’ll have real people singing along to the songs with you. And it’s an experience that, though took some getting used to, ended up being incredibly engaging. The guitar itself is totally different as well. No longer does it feature your five horizontal buttons; it now rocks six buttons stacked vertically in sets of 3. The change from side to side to up and down is absolutely the game’s biggest selling point. It sounds as if it would be a minor change but having to move your fingers up and down and sometimes hitting both, not only feels more like playing a real guitar, but also creates a huge new challenge. Jumping back into Rock Band 4 I was able to immediately start on expert. Nothing had really changed. In Guitar Hero: Live I really had to work my way back up from the beginner levels and I’m still no where near good enough to play on expert. The challenge is not only fun but truly makes the game feel new again. It also helps that the in-game set list is fairly awesome. The other feature that really makes GH: Live for me is the GH: TV feature. Essentially they have full music video stations running changing music genres every half hour to an hour. The stations which are supposedly going to grow in terms of songs available are free to play out of the box. Jump on a station and whatever song comes on you’re free to play. It’s sometimes a bit distracting to try and play the song while watching the music video but overall it’s been amazingly fun. The more you play, the more you level up and the more in-game money you receive. In-game money can be used to purchase power ups, alternate fret boards as well as “Plays” which allow you to choose a music video from the networks entire catalog for you to play. Admittedly you are also able to purchase “Plays” for real world dollars which I generally am very against. In this case, however I’ve managed to rack up over 70 plays without even making a dent in my in-game money so I’m not really too concerned. I’d much prefer this system over one where I have to purchase each song. Plus the randomness of what you will be playing next has been pretty exciting to me. The game also supports two guitars and a microphone all at the same time so 3 people can still all jam out. The downsides to GH: Live are of course incompatibility with previous title’s instruments leaving you with a roughly $100 purchase for the base game and one guitar or $150 for the two guitar bundle. This is a steep increase if you’ve already got your Rock Band instruments from previous generations so it’s certainly something to think about. The new guitar is pretty nice and for the most part has been great. I’ve always loved the clicky strum bars over the spongey strum bars and that’s exactly what you’ve got here. My big concern is out of the box, one of the buttons on the guitar was sticky and it hasn’t gotten any better. It may just be that mine is a bit defective though as I haven’t heard of this being a widespread issue.
Overall for the Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero battle it really seems like, unlike our previous generation, at this point Guitar Hero: Live is going to win. In their current state it’s just a better, more exciting and more challenging game. Now that’s not to say Rock Band 4 is bad. Harmonix has promised updates and content patches to add in missing features, but in some ways it just feels like too little too late. The way I currently see it is that if you want your old Rock Band experiences and you want to bring them forward to the new generation then Rock Band 4 is something to pick up. I’d probably wait for a sale however. Guitar Hero: Live on the other hand is a new, challenging and unique experience that has really brought new life into the once dying genre. I’d say if you’re currently thinking about purchasing one or the other that Guitar Hero: Live should be your go-to, hands down.
(Both Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live were provided by Harmonix and Activision respectively for reviewing purposes.)