When we got the news of a new Guitar Hero earlier this year, it was a startling departure from what we had come to expect in a Guitar Hero title, or any rhythm game title for that matter. Gone were the cartoony characters and the colored frets and in their place are live action videos a new guitar design and non-descript frets. It was a shock to see a game change so drastically from its roots and it has been a decisive change depending on who you ask. But we as gamers always complain about getting a re-skinning of the previous game in a sequel, so I do applaud Freestyle Games on a design level but until you feel how it plays, you never quite know how those changes will play out.

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Activision and Freestyle Games definitely were trying to capture the feeling of being a rock guitar legend with our hands on demonstration as I was put on a stage complete with blaring amps, smoky stage and a selection of cheering fans holding up signs encouraging me of doing a good job. It was a great setup, although it did make hearing the rep from Freestyle Games a bit difficult. He was explaining that they were trying to go for something different, and instead of being cartoony and over the top, they wanted it to capture the feeling of being a guitar hero. I mean it makes sense as it is the name of the franchise. So they went with the live action footage and changed up the guitar to give the game more of a feeling of being on stage for a performance.

Yes, we should probably get to the guitar right away because it is markedly different from the guitars that we have come to know and master for so many years. Gone is the standard row of five frets, green through orange, and in their place are two rows of three fret buttons. So you have a top row of three and a bottom row of three buttons. There are no colors associated with them and they just blend into the fret board and give the guitar a more natural look. The guitar itself has a nice weight to it, and felt comfortable to hold. With my small hands, it was a bit more difficult to get around to reach all the frets, but once you are used to their placement and adjust to the new movements, the size issue went away.

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Of course, trying to unlearn several years of standard fret board playing in Guitar Hero and Rock Band games can be a huge challenge. In Guitar Hero Live, as you watch the fret board on the screen, you are presented with black and white frets that will point either up or down, giving you the key as to which frets to hit on the guitar. Up notes are the top row of the fret bar and down notes go on the bottom row. It was rather confusing for the first half of the song that I played, because I was under the assumption that the white and black color scheme corresponded to the top and bottom row. But the black and white notes can be on either row. It is all about the direction of the note that keys you in on the proper fret combination to use.

I was playing Guitar Hero Live on the normal difficulty, the third of five difficulties that are in Guitar Hero Live and for the first half of the song, it was a colossal mess of me trying to get myself wrapped around the new style and getting the understanding of up vs. down and not keying in on the color of the frets. However, slowly but surely, I did start to get the understanding of catching the notes and getting myself adjusted to the new button scheme. The new layout is more natural of playing a guitar, but it does not start out as feeling like the proper way to play a rhythm game. Don’t expect to roll in and pick this up right away. It will take an hour or two in my opinion before you are cranking out the hits with fluidity. Note that at higher difficulties, there will be combinations of up and low frets and combo frets all at the same time.

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After making my way through a song, I was steered into the new service that looks, in my opinion, to replace the notion of adding weekly or monthly DLC for Guitar Hero Live. The service is Guitar Hero TV, a service that is constantly rotating through numerous tracks, organized by genre channels. To play, you just select TV from the menu and you are presented with a guide, not unlike your cable or DirecTV channel guide. You pick a genre or playstyle and you jump into said channel, always on and always moving. It caught me off guard when I went into a channel and the song was three minutes in and I had to be Johnny on the spot to start playing. Yes, you can jump in at any point in a song, just like coming into a TV show half way through its live viewing. From there, you just keep moving, playing in that channel as long as you like, or switch whenever.

Guitar Hero TV also has the ability to add events that might be limited or special in nature. Maybe you will gain access to an artist that is running a promotion for a new album and you can access some of it via a special channel, or maybe an artist is having a concert and wants to promote it with some new track mixed with some classic tracks. The idea is that the service is flexible enough to add channels in at the drop of a hat or take them out when they are not used as much as others.

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Better still is that Guitar Hero TV will have no cost. It is completely free and included in the base game that you purchase. Yes, you do earn coins and level up, but this is more for unlocking special modifiers or special content, but there is no purchasing of coins and their is no additional monthly fees here. Just buy the Guitar Hero bundle which comes with the game, the guitar and unlimited access to Guitar Hero TV and you are good to go.

Freestyle Games had taken on quite a task with this complete renovation of the Guitar Hero franchise. It is definitely a risk that will either pay off with huge dividends or fall flat with fans. I have to admit that as I spent more time with it, I found myself enjoying the game quite a bit. I am still a little unsettled by the set list right now, as it is more geared towards a younger audience. The live action stuff could also get long in the tooth if there is not enough variety there over your career. But I do like that it is not the same thing coming back to do it again but four years later. Guitar Hero Live is taking a risk and I admire that, but time will soon tell if the risk pays off with a large audience.