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Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live want to remind us of rhythm games' glory days

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Remember that box full of guitar controllers you had behind the couch? It's been about five years since we've had a tentpole Rock Band or Guitar Hero release, and yet somehow, both franchises are releasing a new game this October. Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live represent some of the lessons learned in years past; in doing so, they've managed to differentiate more than ever before.

For Rock Band 4, that means giving the illusion of control with "freestyle" guitar solos. What the game is doing is giving guitarists the ability to improvise their own solos by holding down button combinations of your choice and plucking in rhythm; the game has several preset patterns (e.g. scale runs or arpeggios) that correspond to various finger combinations and match the key of the song. In lieu of notes, the on-screen highway will instead make suggestions like playing the lower buttons, double-tap the top buttons, or pluck one note and really let it stretch out.

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It's pretty easy to mess up solos, and I imagine it'll involve a lot of practice to make something sound good, but when done "right" (as the more experienced Harmonix reps demonstrated), it's a fun way to add your own spin on the song and make it more varied. Both drums and vocals, too, will now have guided moments for the players to add their own fills or stretch their vocal cords (provided he or she stays in key).

Rock Band 4 is otherwise close enough to the original games that it's endeavoring to be backwards compatible for a most, if not all, of its previous downloadable song catalog. Guitar Hero Live, however, is a fresh start for the series, now spearheaded by the developers of DJ Hero. The new guitar button layout (a three-by-two grid) adds an initial learning curve in both reading the on-screen highway and in forming new finger combinations, but it's still the same fundamental skill.

The big differentiator is actually Guitar Hero TV, a series of 24-hour streaming music channels that you can jump in and out of whenever. There's an interesting sense of community knowing that you're playing the same songs at the same time as everyone else in the world, with score rankings shown to the left as you're playing. It's also casual enough that you can simply stop in the middle of the song and just enjoy the music video — hell, you can even just let the thing play in the background and treat it like some crazy new MTV.

There is of course a third choice in all this. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been gone long enough that their past success is arguably no indication that people still want to invest the money, or even living room space, for all the necessary music game hardware. But isn't rock music all about old staples trying to make a comeback? Win or lose, it seems appropriately poetic.