After a five year hiatus, 2015 is the year that plastic peripheral music games have made their triumphant return. With new, next-gen consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One offering more processing power than ever before, there was a massive gap in the market for the popular party games.
But how do they compare? Guitar Hero Live introduces not one, but two new play modes to the genre, along with a fundamentally different play mechanism, while Rock Band has focussed its efforts on further perfecting the whole band mentality.
With both titles here at techradar’s Australian office, we decided to throw the games against each other in an old-school rock off. To make matters interesting, each of us has a slightly different take on the rhythm music genre – Rob is a real-life musician with a real-life band, Stephen is a bit of a music game expert, and Nick is a relative newcomer to the music game scene.
Together, our little band tackled both Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4. And here are our thoughts:
For those about to rock
Nick: It’s been a long time coming, but the rhythm music genre is back. Interestingly though, after years of copying each other, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have approached next gen with very different ideas.
Slams, you’re a plastic guitar God from way back – what are your initial thoughts of the next gen offerings?
Stephen: It’s true – I do like to rock and roll all night (and part of every day), so I was looking forward to the glorious return of the plastic instrument genre of video games.
Though I’ve been eagerly anticipating the return of Guitar Hero and Rock Band for several years, I immediately wondered what these titles would have to offer gamers in 2015.
For Rock Band 4, it’s really offering more of the same, basically repackaging last gen’s experience with some slightly nicer (and much more expensive) instruments.
The question is: does it really need to do more than that? The game was damn-near perfect last gen, so why fix what isn’t broken?
It’s a question that its rival, Guitar Hero Live, has completely ignored.
While the new Rock Band feels unchanged, Activision has taken its Guitar Hero franchise right back to the drawing board, with a brand new guitar and a split gameplay model that sees you rock out in front of a ‘live’ crowd on one hand, and play along to a streaming, MTV-style music channel on the other.
When it comes to both titles’ approaches to this generation, it feels like Guitar Hero Live is the only one that couldn’t have existed on last gen consoles.
Rob, you’re a bonafide rock star, how do you feel about the new Rock Band and Guitar Hero games?
Rob: I agree, Slams. Guitar Hero Live is definitely the game that feels like it couldn’t have existed on the PS3 or Xbox 360.
Maybe it has something to do with the fragile egos of us musician types, but the use of a ‘live’ crowd that responds positively or negatively to your playing is surprisingly effective in creating an atmosphere. It really adds to proceedings. While some of the other performers on the stage might seem like the last people you’d want to form a band with – backstage bust ups would be a certainty – Freestyle Games has really nailed the whole rock star fantasy element.
After playing Guitar Hero Live and flicking over to Rock Band 4 I found myself becoming bored quite quickly, and wanting to change back. The crude animations that Rock Band has always offered just didn’t cut it anymore. It was like I’d been thrilled watching Prince wailing on his guitar and then all of a sudden I was confronted with *shudder* Nickelback.
The same goes for the guitars. Guitar Hero’s use of six buttons in two rows of three requires more concentration than Rock Band, which sticks with the five coloured buttons down one end and five for soloing higher up. After playing Guitar Hero, Rock Band felt kind of shallow.
That’s not to say that Guitar Hero is perfect. Maybe it’s the rock purist in me, but something about playing guitar in time to the electronic beeps and squeals from Skrillex’s latest abomination really irked me. There’s a reason DJ Hero never really took off.
While my guitar gently beeps
Nick: I found the two rows of buttons on the Guitar Hero controller incredibly challenging at first. It was like my brain had to almost completely rewire itself in order to make them shift up and down.
But I didn’t get bored by Rock Band. I actually felt that the Rock Band Guitar was significantly better in almost every way.
I really hated the “clickety-clack” sound every time you strum on the Guitar Hero guitar, and the fact you have to stick a Bluetooth dongle into the PS4 in order to use it feels very last-gen. Given the Rock Band instruments manage to connect without taking up a USB port, this really just seems like laziness.
I also enjoyed the new freestyle solo element of Rock Band, which introduces a new rhythm element and the five higher buttons up the neck.
I definitely don’t think the Rock Band guitar is worth double the cost of Guitar Hero Live’s guitar (which is what it costs in shops around here), but it certainly did have a quality advantage over Activision’s unit. Nailing a solo section in Rock Band felt way more satisfying for me than in Guitar Hero.
Less appealing, I think across both games, is the track listing. The fact of the matter is I didn’t recognise the vast majority of songs in either game. But that said, I really like Guitar Hero’s approach: short sets with different bands to unlock songs, or jump into GH Live TV, which is like interactive 80s MTV on crack.
Rock Band does have the benefit of porting old downloaded tracks forward (so long as you’ve stayed in the same console family), but given my Best of Bon Jovi DLC from Rock Band 3 is on Xbox 360 and I was testing on PS4, that’s not something I could take advantage of.
Stephen: I completely agree with you about the Rock Band 4 guitar. I actually really dislike the new button layout on the Guitar Hero axe, and find that its build quality makes it feels like a cheap toy.
While I find that Rock Band 4’s on-disc tracklist is severely lacking in quality songs, things do get much better once you’ve brought your old DLC purchases back into the fold.
Annoyingly, there is no option to automatically download these songs. You actually have to manually scroll through over 1,300 tracks in order to find the ones you’ve purchased before. this feels like poor design on Harmonix’s part.
Thankfully, this gives you the opportunity to grab a few other tracks that you may have missed last generation.
Sure enough, you’d have to spend a significant amount of money to get a tracklist that rivals what’s available in Guitar Hero Live’s TV mode, but the fact that Harmonix actually uses 4-track masters for all of its songs, and that it uses, in my opinion, vastly superior note charts, makes it much better overall.
We should also compare the vocals in each game. In Rock Band, it feels like a significant part of the overall experience, whereas in Guitar Hero, it feels tacked-on and mostly worthless.
I’m singing in the game
Rob: The vocals in Rock Band are certainly miles ahead of Guitar Hero. I like the way Rock Band’s hard and expert difficulty settings enable you to sing an alternate melody to the one on the original track, and provided the new melody works with the backing music the game will award you points for it. This isn’t perfect, but works often enough, and Harmonix gets points for trying.
Comparatively, Guitar Hero’s vocals have the appearance of an afterthought. The game’s ability to register when a player is and isn’t singing is very hit and miss, and it wasn’t long before I started to lose interest. The fact that vocals aren’t offered in conjunction with the ‘live’ crowd performances – Guitar Hero’s greatest strength – is pretty disappointing, too.
Playing as the vocalist also further highlights the issue of both games’ limited track selection. If you’re playing along with the guitar or drums it doesn’t really matter whether you know a song or not, because as long as you follow the prompts you’ll get by just fine. Vocals are a different matter entirely, and I struggled to find songs that I knew the melody and lyrics to – yes I know the lyrics are provided for you, but good luck getting them out in time when you’ve never heard a particular song before.
Nick: Definitely agree. I think the vocals component of the games showcase the other major difference between the franchises – that is, Rock Band is a party game, best enjoyed with a few mates (and perhaps a few beers), whereas Guitar Hero Live is all about letting you live out the dream of being a real-life rock ‘n’ roll guitarist.
While you can technically have two GH guitars paired up and playing together, it is a case of two people playing the exact same thing, rather than creating a cohesive band environment.
I’d love to see Activision push the Live element of Guitar Hero a bit further. I love the sense of being on stage with a real band… But that’s not enough for me. I want to start a band, playing the dingy club scene, and then rise up to the massive festival circuit. I want to be able to mix things up, playing online with friends in the same band, where they see the stage from a different perspective.
But even more than that, I want to be able to play on stage with my favourite bands, working through their greatest hits. And I want to do it in virtual reality for a truly immersive experience.
I don’t think any of those things are too much to ask for on their own, and if Activision can pull them off, then Guitar Hero has got my money. Rock Band, on the other hand, can keep doing what it’s doing, but it really needs to slash the price of its instruments – When a game costs more than the console you play it on, you know something is wrong.
Stephen: It’s true that Rock Band 4 has got a serious price problem, especially when Guitar Hero Live’s (admittedly lacklustre) double guitar set is going for less than half the price of the full Rock Band 4 band kit.
Pricing aside, I can’t help but swear allegiance to Rock Band, as it provides a truly polished and undeniably fun multiplayer experience – it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, but why should it? Harmonix has pretty much perfected the music rhythm game at this point.
While I admire the new concepts Guitar Hero has brought to the table with its next generation reboot, I don’t feel that its gameplay is anywhere near as fun as it should be, especially when it comes to singing duties (my favourite bit).
I mentioned earlier that I’m quite impressed by the potential of Guitar Hero Live’s expanding tracklist, though I think developer FreeStyle Games should focus on music from actual rock bands, and leave the likes of Skrillex and Eminem to a potential DJ Hero reboot somewhere down the line. Like Rob said, standing on stage and playing guitar to a bunch of ‘wub wub’ noises feels stupid and breaks the illusion in a major way.
Like Nick said, I think the future of Guitar Hero Live will be in the expanding of its Live portion. Bringing real bands into the mix and giving the player the ability to stand on stage and play along with them is a brilliant idea.
Rob: I think both games have their flaws, but if I was going to fork out for one of them it would have to be Guitar Hero Live.
Rock Band may have perfected the music rhythm game, but is that more true this time around than last? I don’t see any incentive to hand over a wad of cash for the same basic experience, especially when the price is so ridiculously inflated.
And yes, I know Guitar Hero’s instrument feels cheap, but not significantly more so than Rock Band’s. They’re both kind of crappy, but at least Guitar Hero prices its instrument accordingly.
I’m impressed that Guitar Hero Live is trying to do something different. It’s not there yet – and to be completely honest I’m probably not going to buy either of these games – but it looks like Guitar Hero is on a path that’ll lead to something I’d invest in.
I’m excited by what future installments of Guitar Hero have in store, whereas I feel like I can already see what Rock Band will offer. It includes PS2-quality animations and instruments so expensive you could go out and buy a real guitar, which you probably should instead.
Nick: Learning a guitar takes a lot of time and practice. Sometimes you just want to feel like a rock star without having to worry about any of that rubbish.
And yeah, I think Guitar Hero does a better job of giving you that sensation this time around. If you like gaming with plastic guitars, Guitar Hero Live is definitely a unique enough experience to be worthy of your money.
Rock Band 4, on the other hand, feels like a more complete game to me. It’s got more to do, more to see, and the instruments are more robust.
But it has practically priced itself out of contention. I’m eagerly awaiting the moment retailers try and clear stock from shelves and I can pick it up cheaply, but until that happens, I’m more than happy playing Guitar Hero Live.