Putting The Bands Back Together: Guitar Hero vs. Rock Band

I am fascinated that both Guitar Hero and Rock Band have actually returned after a multi-year hiatus, much less that both have come out within weeks of one another! On top of that, both take such different angles in their comeback special!

Let me state first that I have yet to play either either franchise’s newest entry. But I’ve kept curiously up on news and features, and find so much of this compelling. As such, I felt inspired to write about it. Wanna read it? Here it go.


Early preview for 360 port of Guitar Hero 2

Classic Rock
I’ve been on board with this phenomenon since Guitar Hero 1. Back then, I had to beg outlets to let me review it. I recall only getting a half-sized review from one very large site. That lukewarm response quickly changed with Guitar Hero 2, the breakout sophomore release. The cool kids were starting to come around, and the game definitely improved. It was more co-op friendly and was starting to trickle in artists’ original tracks instead of (admittedly well done) covers.

Guitar Hero 3 represented the mainstream success years – the equivalent of Nine Inch Nails‘s Downward Spiral, if you will. I was at the LA launch party, which featured Poison (a band I loved as a kid) on stage while Slash mingled with attendees. It was most definitely a big deal. However, behind the scenes, a lot had changed. Development shifted from departing Harmonix – always an innovator in the music-game genre – to Neversoft, best known for the beloved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.


Poison having nothing but a good time at Guitar Hero 3 party

Harmonix went on to make Rock Band, which they put out with help from EA. I was loyal to Harmonix’s history (Amplitude!) and forward-looking design choices. Of course, I would usually scoop up Guitar Hero games after a price drop. The main appeal of Rock Band, to me, was that it became a platform unto itself. Yes, drums were cool – though noisy. Yes, having a roomful of people rocking out is a great concept – which I used far too infrequently. But being able to have a large library of songs, and import songs from previous disc-based games onto sequels, was truly awesome. It may be the best use ever of micro-transactions in video games.

Of course, no trend stays hot forever. And really, over-saturation by both brands necessitated a cooling-off period. By the time Band Hero and LEGO Rock Band came out, you could see the wussification and demise of both series. But who could have guessed both would come back in fall of 2015?!

I'm sure she's a fine gal, but Taylor Swift doesn't rock (Band Hero screenshot)

I’m sure she’s a fine gal, but Taylor Swift doesn’t rock (Band Hero screenshot)

Rock Band: Greatest Hits
Rock Band 4 came out first, releasing on October 6. From all I’ve read, it’s not a departure in any way. But that seems to be by design. Remember that “platform unto itself” aspect I loved about earlier titles? Harmonix wanted to retain that. They want you to be able to use your old instruments and your old song downloads to supplement this new title. It’s a great idea, with one caveat.

This console generation, I went with PlayStation 4. For much of last gen, I was an Xbox 360 gamer. That means all my instruments and all my songs are on Xbox. As such, I could not use them if I got Rock Band 4 on my platform of choice. Is that Harmonix’s fault? No, but it sure as heck is a buzzkill for me – rendering the coolest feature useless.

So what else is there? Well, prettier graphics, it seems; 65 new songs; slightly better plastic instruments, probably. As I’m not a total newb and can’t capitalize on backwards-compatibility, I find it really difficult to get excited about this. I’m sure the soundtrack is well chosen and each song is expertly note-tracked. I have no doubt the quality is there. I bet my niece and nephew – too young to appreciate the earlier titles – would be into this.

But I wasn’t clamoring for a new guitar game, to be honest. I admit that seeing a new Rock Band 4 does get my juices flowing. The sad truth is: It’s been a long enough time away from the franchise that I could just dig up my old gear, plug in my 360, and have much the same experience without spending a dime. I hate to be so blunt and curt, because again I love Harmonix, but facts is facts.

Guitar Hero: Reinventing Itself
I’m quite surprised that Activision of all publishers would veer into such new directions. I mean, look at the (alleged) abomination that is the new Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 – rumored to be cobbled together because their license was expiring. But Guitar Hero Live, which released days ago, does some completely new and interesting things!

The guitar is a drastic departure. Instead of a row of five buttons to press you have two rows of three, black and white. Does it work better? Ask someone who’s played it. If nothing else, it gets me excited to try something new. Of course, there’s a risk involved with messing with tried-and-true gameplay. You don’t want gamers to regret your decision.

Guitar Hero Live includes about 20 fewer songs than Rock Band 4 and lacks the legacy tracks. I imagine part of that is because they had literal venues filled with human “fans” and bands recording positive and negative takes on each song. That’s quite the undertaking. From what I’ve read, the full-motion-video vibe comes off as cheesy; but I imagine when you’re actually playing the game, you aren’t studying every extra in the 5th row to see if they’re feeling you.

Despite the smaller setlist, GH has an ace (of spades) up its sleeve with GHTV, where you have two channels of streaming official music videos that you can play as they happen. Leaderboards show how you stack up with others in your area. Or put your guitar down and watch actual music videos like we used to in the 80s and 90s. This is probably the most exciting aspect of either game to me. It whiffs a little of iPhone microtransactions, but hopefully the balance is there and in-game currency used to play specific tracks is liberally doled out. Then again, this is Activision… But I want to believe that this is a cool, varied way to just hunker down and play a bunch of different tracks.

So definitive. (from Metacritic)

So definitive. (from Metacritic)

The Reviews Are…In?
I expected a lot of good coverage on these games – the two rock giants going head to head. Beatles vs. Elvis. Rolling Stones vs. Led Zeppelin. White Stripes vs. Black Keys. Instead, what I got is this: Metacritic has Rock Band 4 averaging a 79 and Guitar Hero Live averaging a 78. What the hell does that tell me, that Rock Band 4 is 1% better?!

I watched both Game Trailers reviews, because they do great videos. The same writer over there gave Rock Band 4 an 8.8 and Guitar Hero Live an 8.7. Seriously…? And very little was said to compare the two, giving preferences. Don’t you think that would be important to justify? What makes one 0.1 points better or worse? A few other reviews I read didn’t help much, either. It makes me a little upset at the wishy-washy nature of game reviewing – a business I was in for 8 years. Or maybe it exposes the holes in Metacritic’s aggregate formula.

In the end, I’m not getting either game in the near future, even if the thought of playing more guitar games is somewhat appealing. But, ya know, I have an entire semi truck’s worth of gear (keyboard! Pro guitar!) and 100s of songs as it is. I have a feeling I’ll dig into my back catalog again soon. In fact, it’s more than a feeling…


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