'Guitar Hero' gets born again with a new look and a new controller

Guitar Hero has no business being relevant in 2015. Ten years is an eternity for video games, especially so for games tied so closely to specific technology like Harmonix's revolutionary PlayStation 2 game was to its inner-rock-star-summoning controller when it came out. A decade on from that original, and five years on from the last release in the series, Guitar Hero is an icon, but it also feels like a relic, a work hopelessly locked in its era. A 10-year anniversary reissue, maybe with some bonus tracks thrown in, seems like the best-case scenario for Guitar Hero coming back to life in 2015, a dignified archive for the nostalgic. FreeStyleGames has done so much more with its new game Guitar Hero Live. The studio has made a game that feels deeply modern, relevant, wholly distinct from Rock Band and somehow still rooted in tradition. It's all thanks to a new controller and a wildly different look for the series' debut on PS4, Xbox One and Wii U.

Guitar Hero Live keeps the fundamentals of the classics -- using a plastic guitar to play fake notes in a song when they appear in a scrolling bar on your TV -- but it's different in every other way starting with its guitar. Harmonix set the standard for the entire music-game genre, from Guitar Hero to FreeStyle's own DJ Hero, with the original plastic guitar and its five primary-colored buttons located where a guitar's strings would be. The basic shape and weight of the new guitar is the same. The whammy bar is still there to furiously tap during a sustained note, accompanied by a devoted "Hero Power" button to hit when you've hit a series of successive notes just right, boosting your score in the process. The classic five finger buttons, though, have been replaced with six buttons at the far end of the neck. Three black buttons on top of three white buttons, arranged tightly together and flush with the rest of the fret board. It looks slick and, in action, feels even closer to playing the real thing.

The classic five finger buttons, though, have been replaced with six buttons at the far end of the neck.

"This is the universal air guitar, right?" asked Jamie Jackson, creative director of Guitar Hero Live during my demo of the game. He was furiously wiggling the fingers on his left hand in midair while doing a Pete Townsend windmill with his right hand. The air-guitar finger-wiggling is something everyone knows, but how do you translate that motion to a controller? "We actually have six buttons in two rows. We're creating that illusion of playing guitar a bit more -- still really, really easy to learn, but also difficult to master."

When playing Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark," the familiar stream of cascading note cues still fills the screen, but is a little more staid thanks to the black-and-white color scheme. Playing on Easy has you fingering just the left, middle or right white (lower) buttons or black upper buttons in simple rhythmic combinations, but move it up to Normal or Expert settings and you're bending your hand to cover both rows. It almost evokes the very real feel of chords on an actual guitar. It's easier than playing a guitar, but the buttons are, after all, a whole lot bigger than strings.

While the stream of notes on the screen is familiar, the cleanliness of the display is new. It's not just the color palette, but also a clearing of detritus. The neon explosions when your score goes up, the little multicolored meter telling you to use your "Hero Power," are totally gone. In fact, all the cartoon elements of the old series are gone, including the bulbous polygon caricatures that you'd see flailing around in the background while you played. The visuals replacing them are cleaner, but also more complex and strange. "The other cool thing about Guitar Hero is it's not like a Call of Duty where I need to run around," said Jackson. Guitar Hero had a lot of flash, but the cartoon graphics in the background weren't much more than, as Jackson put it, a painting in the background instead of an environment the player needs to explore. FreeStyle figured it would do something more dynamic. "So we thought, 'Fuck it, let's film a movie instead. Let's film real people, looking at you, and responding to you.'"

Guitar Hero Live is played entirely in first-person view on a stage and in front of a crowd of live people. When you pick a song and venue, the game shifts to a shot following a bearded, tattooed roadie out onto a stage in front of a few thousand screaming fans. The drummer will give you an assertive nod before you start going. Jackson clearly loves the concert feel of his game, and it shows in Live's presentation. "You want them to scream at you if you're doing well," he said. "We want them to sing the songs along with you if you're killing it. But if you screwed them up, we want them to tell you you're screwing up as well."

Live's presentation isn't wholly successful. Of the two venues I got to try, including a medium-sized arena comparable to New York's Hammerstein Ballroom and a massive outdoor festival akin to Glastonbury, both suffered from the inevitable feeling of manufactured excitement that comes with an orchestrated concert. Viewed from the outside when you're not playing, Live has the air of a Super Bowl halftime show, full of sign-wielding super fans jumping up and down furiously regardless of what's going on. There's no one in the crowd checking their phones; they're all too excited. Like any truly great illusion, though, Live's filmed action feels best when you're not looking directly at it noticing its imperfections. When you're actually playing the game, the effect is fascinating because you only notice the details of the film when something changes. Stumble over a few notes and the screen blurs for a split second and those adoring fans seamlessly turn to giving you confused, disapproving looks. Keep messing up and you swing around to see that drummer staring daggers right at you. The effect is both engrossing and motivating in the right ways.

There's no one in the crowd checking their phones; they're all too excited.

​The live performances of Guitar Hero Live may not ultimately be what most players spend the bulk of their time with. Included is Guitar Hero TV, the game's most thoroughly modern feature. Rather than a download store for purchasing new songs of even more annualized disc releases (the flood of which arguably destroyed the series by 2010), Live's primary online mode is a set of music video stations. Guitar Hero TV lets you play the game over artists' videos, like a playable cross between YouTube and Spotify.

"It's very much like your TV at home," explained Jackson. Like a cable box, Guitar Hero TV will let you bounce between set channels or pick a tune from an on-demand song list. There's even a multiplayer component, with a list of scores on the left side of the screen showing you in real time other people who are playing the same song while you are. Guitar Hero TV feels like it's delivering what previous games in the series and even Rock Band never could: a streaming service that lets you access new content without having to buy a disc or individually download songs.

Whether Guitar Hero TV can deliver on its promise remains to be seen. Only a video showing off its features was on hand, and Jackson was even hesitant to commit to which artists would be available. Newbies like Ed Sheeran were on display alongside classic staples like Blue Album-era Weezer, but beyond that are a lot of question marks. How many songs, how many live performances and many other details about Guitar Hero Live will have to wait for E3 2015 and later in the year, closer to the game's release according to Activision. Even the briefly discussed Guitar Hero Live mobile version for tablets and phones -- which Activision says is exactly the same game as the $100 versions hitting consoles this fall -- remains under wraps. Still, FreeStyleGames has done something deeply impressive with Guitar Hero Live; it's filled a seemingly dead series with life in time for its tin anniversary.