It’s long since gone from the App Store, but once upon a time, playing Guitar Hero on your iPhone simply meant tapping along to the colorful icons that scrolled down the screen. While the home console (and Mac) versions had plastic guitars and other instruments, the touch version kept things simple and affordable for mobile players. Makes sense, right?
That’s no longer the case with the new Guitar Hero Live, which reboots Activision’s classic franchise after a five-year hiatus with a new guitar, fresh aesthetic, and different ways to play. And that’s true across consoles and iPhone and iPad, as well, thanks to a mobile version—available for $100 with the guitar (and currently on sale at Amazon for $60)—that lets you use the same full-sized controller while the game runs on your iOS device.
You can also fling it over to your TV using AirPlay on an Apple TV, or a Lightning Digital AV Adapter—and it’s now natively available for the new Apple TV too. Also, there’s a happy surprise with this new rendition: You can still play without the guitar on iOS in a tap-centric mode, making this a Guitar Hero that’s ideal for home or on the go.
A Hero reborn
By the end of its previous run (in 2010), the Guitar Hero franchise had lost steam. Granted, most of the music game genre had, with awesome games like Rock Band 3 and DJ Hero 2 landing with a thud at retail—but Guitar Hero in particular had lost its identity by emulating Rock Band and introducing drums and vocal parts. It was still fun, but the time away has really done wonders for Guitar Hero.
Now, it’s not only refocused, but reborn: Guitar Hero Live is still a toy guitar-strumming game, but the details are all different. The neck has a new six-button design (three across, two down), which not feels a bit more like playing a real axe than the familiar five-across format, but also gives your brain and fingers a whole new playground to explore. And beyond the same act of playing along to scrolling notes, everything around it is different.
Most notably: The live-action crowds and bands filmed just for the “Live” side of the game. It’s a throwback to early ‘90s CD-ROM fare, as you’ll see real fans and fellow musicians in the background as you shred along to popular hits. Each song has its own little concert featuring a made-up band, and you’ll take them on in multi-track sets that add a theatrical element to the experience. And the crowd gets upset if you’re terrible, just as they should.
It’s a little lame, admittedly—these are fake performances staged to sell video games, after all. You can almost hear the corporate suits talking about brand engagement backstage. Still, it’s oddly endearing, rather than off-putting. And the soundtrack is nicely diverse, with rock mainstays new and old like The Rolling Stones and Fall Out Boy joined by surprise picks from the likes of Skrillex, Eminem, and Katy Perry.
I want my GHTV
With 42 songs, the main Live soundtrack is slimmer than past Guitar Hero entries, but there’s a reason for that: GHTV, the online streaming side of the game. GHTV is more or less the interactive version of a classic MTV, with themed blocks of music videos streaming around the clock. Only instead of just watching these videos, you can jump right in with your guitar controller and play along to them.
GHTV has two channels running at all times, and some 200 songs split between them as of now. Past entries offered a wealth of downloadable add-on tracks to purchase for a couple bucks a pop, but instead, GHTV delivers always-on programming as part of the package. It’s a great way to discover new songs, not to mention an ideal casual alternative: with music videos streaming instead of a moody crowd, there’s little in-your-face pressure—just the names of other online players as you vie for the best score in the current song.
But GHTV on iOS loses something from the Xbox and PlayStation versions, which were also just released. In those games, GHTV comes with an added sense of progression: you earn credits simply for playing along, and they’re used to access additional content in the game, such as one-time-use tokens for playing individual GHTV songs on demand. That’s missing on iOS and Apple TV.
When the iOS version launched, you could purchase a party pass to play GHTV songs at will for a certain span of time—like $1 for 30 minutes of play. But for some reason, that feature was cut via a post-launch update. I asked Activision’s PR reps for an explanation at the time, but wasn’t able to get a response. However, a recent update to both the Apple TV and iOS versions put a “Coming Soon” banner for on-demand play and the party pass on the GHTV menu, so maybe there were just kinks to work out.
Not having any way to access those on-demand songs right now is disappointing. Still, between the concert gameplay and the GHTV streaming channels, there’s still so much about Guitar Hero Live that is entirely fun and appealing. And I love that you can play the entire game without the guitar: the touch interface features just four buttons, and you’ll tap, swipe, and hold as notes scroll down the screen. The guitar experience is more intricate and absorbing, but away from home, the touch gameplay is an excellent perk.
In fact, you can play the game without ever buying the $100 guitar bundle: Guitar Hero Live is a free App Store download, letting you try out a couple songs with touch controls. However, unlocking all the content within for touch-only play requires a $50 in-app purchase. Yeah.
Even with all the licensed music, I’m not sure that I could convince myself to spend $50 on a purely tap-centric game like that. But $100 with the guitar for a much broader experience? That works. Connecting the guitar via Bluetooth unlocks all the content in the free app, so you’re all set going forward whether or not you have the guitar handy.
When using the guitar, the larger the screen you’re playing on, the more freedom you have to really rock out and get into the music. It’s plenty fun on the iPad; less so on the iPhone, only because of potential visibility issues since you’re not holding the device. But playing on the TV as you jam in your living room is the ideal way to experience Guitar Hero—much like the console games.
Using AirPlay with an Apple TV was a slightly less-than-perfect experience in my testing. Even after going through both calibration options in the game, I noticed a very small visual delay between your guitar inputs and what registers on the screen. If you know the song well, you can play to the beat and probably do fine—but if you’re closely following the note charts for a less-familiar song, that split-second delay can muddle the experience a bit. Switching my TV to “game mode” improved the timing a bit, but also made the already-compressed live footage look really terrible. So that’s a downside.
But there’s also a downside with the new native Apple TV app, as well: Numerous downloads. It’s a shame, but not unexpected given Apple’s download size limits. Before playing a Live set, you’ll need to sit and wait for the content to download, which can take a good couple of minutes before a multi-song performance. Luckily, the songs stay on the box, so you’ll only need to do it once for each concert performance. Plus, the GHTV stuff streams, so there’s no download needed there.
Guitar Hero Live looks significantly crisper on Apple TV with the native app (which requires the guitar bundle), and I experienced none of the lag issues—even without enabling “game mode.” It’s by far the best way to play this version if you have the option.
That said, if you have an Xbox One or PlayStation 4, you’ll get a fuller version of the core game at the same price, featuring all the GHTV stuff that’s sadly omitted here. But then you don’t get the tap-only mode on iPhone and iPad, which is an excellent addition. It’s a trade-off, but I can definitely see the portable play and multi-device flexibility swaying some buyers towards the Apple-centric release, and it’s great fun wherever (or however) you play.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. PST with additional information and new pricing.
Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.