Activision and Harmonix Want Us to Rock Like It’s 2007 (And That’s Fine By Me)

Guitar Hero LiveWith the obvious recent announcements of Activision’s Guitar Hero Live and Harmonix’s Rock Band 4 it is safe to wonder about the once mega-popular gaming genre that had seemingly jumped the shark. Has it been long enough? Why has it taken this long? I don’t have nearly enough storage space for more plastic instruments!

One thing will always remain constant: people love music and want to immerse themselves in it. Many attend concerts, some form cover bands, others hang out at karaoke bars every weekend. Others strap on plastic instruments and hammer away to their favorite guitar riffs.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of RockEverybody remembers the story, Guitar Hero was the popular lightning in the bottle that Activision and Harmonix jointly created, it was  a success that was built on the understanding of music and note charting that Harmonix had and the incredible peripheral that Red Octane built. When the two went their separate ways and Harmonix made Rock Band with MTV Games and Electronic Arts, Activision saw to keep churning out Guitar Hero, making Red Octane build more guitars and bringing in Neversoft to design the game. While their skill at note charting was not to the same degree as their predecessor’s, Neversoft managed to create several zany iterations of Rock Band until 2010’s Warriors of Rock.

On the Harmonix front, Rock Band saw a gamut of success from music purists with three core iterations of Rock Band. With their multiple instrument approach, weekly expanding library and mastery over creating challenging, yet playable tracks, Harmonix had a formula that worked. Sadly for Rock Band 3, arguably the best in the series, nobody bought in to the additional keyboard or pro controllers and fans of the franchise were feeling burnt out and claustrophobic in their plastic instrument cluttered living rooms.

Rock Band 2So it’s been five years since Rock Band and Guitar Hero filled every corner of retail space, why is it the right time for them both to be making a comeback? Doesn’t the same problems of overlap and oversaturation remain? Of course they do.

But we missed this genre.

Nothing has brought friends together in a space to play a game like a solid multiplayer rhythm game. Not even the dancing games like Dance Central or Just Dance have had the mesmerizing effects of Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Shouting “Star Power!” at your bass player to get the bonus up in Guitar Hero, nailing those perfect drum solos on expert in Rock Band, battling with each other in Guitar Hero III. Rock Band and Guitar Hero were at the frontlines of gaming’s biggest foray into mass media popularity.

But what about the problem where they wore out each other’s welcome?

Certainly Activision has been guilty of beating franchises into the ground, and Guitar Hero was no exception to this story. Despite both franchises offering solid features in Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3, nobody cared enough to drop down all that money into more plastic instruments for barely any new gameplay offerings. While Activision may have stressed the issue, Harmonix was sucked into the whirlpool and did not do enough to differentiate themselves.

Guitar Hero Live2015, I hope, is different. Harmonix is continuing down the path that they know best with Rock Band 4. Retaining their massive back catalog, focusing on the four player band experience (and ditching the key-tar) and bringing players back together. This is the experience that I missed and craved. In a sort of greatest hits move, Harmonix is firing on all cylinders, giving fans the experience they are known for and that they expect.

So it turns out that Activision and Guitar Hero are the wildcards. They have gone in a completely different direction with their next iteration, Guitar Hero Live. The focus is once again only on the guitar, no more copying Harmonix’s formula, Activision is dead set on creating the best guitar experience on consoles. Rocksmith’s strong performance is evident that people clearly want something in this vein, even if Rocksmith is grounded in reality.

Guitar Hero LiveAs for that reality that Rocksmith provides, Activision is watching that. With former DJ Hero developer FreeStyleGames taking over, gone are the cartoony, over sensationalized characters of the sixth and seventh generations and now we have scripted reactions, in FMV form, at simulated concert venues, complete with band mates, crowds and roadies. They react to your great play, they react to your poor play. It’s an interesting concept that seems like it belongs in the days of Sega CD and the 3DO, but it seems to work. So I’ll let the gameplay be the judge. Don’t want that live experience? Activision is amping up their DLC library with Guitar Hero TV which replaces the scripted reactionary video with downloaded music videos that you will play along with.

And lastly, the guitar.

Guitar Hero LiveActivision is changing the way the guitar frets work, to further differentiate themselves from Rock Band’s classic five-button configuration. Now it is three frets, each with two buttons, making a total of six buttons to play. Just the thought of quickly processing the change between top and bottom frets confuses my left hand. Making the challenge greater is that Guitar Hero Live will be using black and white note indicators, doing away with the colored combinations of yesteryear.

When companies compete, the consumer wins. Now that Activision and Harmonix are finally competing with individual products, instead of fighting for who has the best version of the same idea, we can finally enjoy the unique offerings each has.

The music rhythm genre was once on of the most popular genres available and oversaturation killed it. Hopefully a wiser, patient strategy will take place and if Activision is to be believed, no longer approached on an annual basis. This is the perfect time for a comeback tour. Let there be rock.

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