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Guitar Hero Live is a first-person rock star simulator coming this fall

After a long hiatus, plastic guitar controllers are back. Activision has announced Guitar Hero Live will be coming this fall to consoles and mobile (the $99 box will get you the guitar controller and a platform-specific game). It’s the first Guitar Hero title in over five years and will once again compete with Harmonix’s Rock Band, which is also coming out of retirement this year.

But this isn’t the same Guitar Hero as before. Developer FreeStyleGames, whose past work includes the unique DJ Hero series, has rethought huge swaths of the familiar Guitar Hero formula (as well as creating its own 24-hour playable music video channels). From what we’ve seen and played so far, it’s a legitimately exciting proposition.

GHL variations EMBARGO

The biggest change, in that it breaks with all past guitar titles, is a new button layout for the guitar controller. The classic five rainbow-colored buttons are gone in lieu of a three-by-two vertical grid. It’s a small step toward actual guitar positioning (i.e. two strings and three frets). Accordingly, each fret now shares one of three on-screen lanes differentiated by black picks pointing up or white picks pointing down.

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Picture this: if the lane of notes has a black pick followed by two white picks, your pointer finger would be on the top first fret, your middle finger would be on the lower second fret, and your ring finger would be on the lower third fret. Chord shapes!

It may sound complicated, but the end result is a more streamlined experience that requires relearning how to "read" Guitar Hero’s real-time sheet music. All of which is to say, like past Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles, the more challenging levels will be as much about reflexes as they are about pattern recognition and memorization.

Got that? Okay, let’s talk about the background.

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Guitar Hero Live’s main campaign is designed to play out from the first-person point of view of a rocker on stage, with actual humans both in the audience and on stage with you.

Think of it as two parallel dimensions that you keep hopping between in real time. If you’re playing well, you get the "good" version with the audience going crazy and the band nodding favorably. Start playing poorly and the screen will briefly distort and switch to the "bad" version, where the band starts giving you incredulous looks and the audience gets increasingly irritated as the song goes on. (We also noticed some poster board signs change — a smiley face turned sour, for example.)

FreeStyleGames shot each performance twice using a motion control camera rig that could replicate the exact same movements multiple times over so that you could jump from "good" to "bad" at any point and maintain the same first-person continuity and choreography. We had a chance to play through two different venues — each with its own pre-performance build-up, literally walking from the green room on stage and onto a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of fans. The effect is cool in action (assuming you pay attention the background at all while playing), but we’ll have to see how many venues are included in the final build. We could see it getting pretty repetitive.

Guitar Hero Live

And then there’s Guitar Hero TV, an online experience that lets you play along with various "channels" of music playlists that run 24 hours a day. GHTV eschews the first-person background for official music videos. It’s Guitar Hero Live’s de facto online multiplayer / offline party experience, and it’s so integral to the game that the guitar controller has a dedicated button for jumping in and out of the mode. "Out of the box you can go play on the channels to your heart's content without paying any kind of subscription fee," FreeStyleGames’s Creative Director Jamie Jackson told us. If you’re wondering about potential premium channels / premium à la carte tracks, that’s something the company isn’t talking about yet.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about Guitar Hero Live, including final venue count and set list. "We've gone really broad with our musical genres," Jackson said. "If you look at Coachella, you look at Glastonbury... it's diverse. We've brought that to Guitar Hero." (The press release specifically calls out rock, folk, EDM, hip-hop, country, and pop.) And it won’t necessarily be guitar-specific tracks you’re playing. "If it's got a beat, and it's got a rhythm, you can make good gameplay out of it... we're not making a simulator, we're making a game that's fun."

The mobile game will be as full-featured as the console counterparts

Guitar Hero Live will arrive on the quintet of major consoles — Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PS3, and Nintendo Wii U — as well as "select mobile devices." Interestingly enough, Activision confirmed that the mobile version would be as full-featured as the console counterparts and could optionally connect to a television, giving you the same console experience but without the bulky hardware. (Activision did not elaborate on specifics here.) You can now theoretically play Guitar Hero on a flight, because why not.

The remaining Guitar Hero Live details will be revealed at E3 in June. Whether or not there’s an audience for plastic guitars, be it GHL or Rock Band, will be revealed this fall.