It goes without saying, then, that the return of both series in 2015 was a massive deal for me, and the fact that both actually seemed significantly different from each other made things even more interesting.
Not everyone’s as obsessed with this genre as I am, though, so it’s understandable that the vast majority of gamers would probably only want to buy one of these games. The question, then, is which is best: Guitar Hero Live or Rock Band 4?
Having bought both games at launch (with my own cash, I should stress) and spent a couple of months with each now, I reckon I’m in a good position to give you my unbiased, detailed opinion on which of the two you should go for. Let’s rock.
Round 1: Backwards compatibility
Though this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for anyone coming into either series for the first time, there are still plenty of houses around the world with plastic guitars gathering dust from the previous generation. Any game that lets you make use of your old equipment without having to buy new stuff has to be a good thing, then.
Rock Band 4 prides itself on being backwards compatible with a lot of old Rock Band and Guitar Hero peripherals and for the most part this is spot on. My wireless Guitar Hero 3 Xbox 360 guitar works with the Xbox One version of Rock Band 4.
It isn’t completely perfect, mind: because of Microsoft’s device-signing process wired controllers won’t work. That means my trusty Guitar Hero II Xplorer – my favourite guitar controller ever and the one I’ve used for every Xbox 360 Guitar Hero and Rock Band game – had to finally go into retirement.
That’s obviously a very specific example, though: most wireless last-gen controllers should work with Rock Band 4 without any hassle.
The same can’t be said about Guitar Hero Live. Since it has a completely different button set-up (more about that in the next round), that means the old five-colour button system no longer works and as a result none of your old controllers are compatible.
Winner – Rock Band 4
Round 2: Guitar gameplay
Although Rock Band introduced drums, vocals and (eventually) keyboards to the mix, for most fans the guitar is still the instrument of choice.
Since Rock Band 4 sticks with the same classic five-colour highway system, if you’ve played any of the previous Rock Band or Guitar Hero games you should be right at home here.
Very little has changed, other than addition of freestyle solo sections. Here you can play any notes you want and the game will attempt to make a decent-sounding solo out of them.
From what I can tell these seem to be tweaked versions of the freestyle sections in Harmonix’s forgotten Xbox Fantasia game, and to be honest I could do without them because more often than not the resulting solos sound a bit off. Still, there’s always the option to turn them off.
While Rock Band 4 is very much about evolution, then, Guitar Hero Live is certainly focused on revolution. It’s ditched the five-colour system altogether in favour of a brand new guitar which features two rows of three buttons on the neck.
This leads to a different feel, one that makes you feel more like you’re playing a guitar. On the harder difficulty levels you’ll be holding complex chords that stretch over both rows and it’s far more satisfying when your muscle memory eventually learns how to pull them off without thinking.
This brand new design was a big gamble, but the game’s developer Freestyle Games – who had previously created the incredible DJ Hero – already had a reputation for creating brilliant peripherals from scratch. No pun intended.
As such, the Guitar Hero Live system is one that, after an hour or two of getting used to, actually manages to improve on what was a pretty widely accepted five-colour standard. In terms of overall feel when playing guitar, then, Guitar Hero clinches it.
Winner – Guitar Hero Live
Round 3: Other instruments
This battle is far more one-sided, in that only one game is competing in it. The clue’s very much in the titles, you see.
Rock Band 4 is still primarily about forming your own band with other players. This means drums, bass guitar and vocals are still present and accounted for, and once again most legacy wireless (not wired) controllers should work with the game.
Unfortunately your Rock Band 3 keyboard controller will need to stay in the cupboard: Rock Band 4 has ditched keyboard support, meaning one of the most promising instruments in the series has been punted before it had a chance to truly shine.
Guitar Hero Live, meanwhile, has no interest in other instruments. Its decision to go back to basics and focus solely on the experience of being lead guitarist means there’s no drumming whatsoever, and not even the option to play bass guitar.
There is the option to sing vocals, using either a Logitech-compatible microphone or a Guitar Hero Live companion app for iOS. For the most part, though, this is a game that’s all about mastering the axe, other instruments be damned.
Winner – Rock Band 4
Round 4: Visual design
This one’s obviously down to personal preference, so go easy on me in the comments if you disagree.
Rock Band 4 does very little to distinguish itself visually from previous games in the series, other than the expected boost in detail (which isn’t as noticeable as you may expect).
Everything feels very much like a Rock Band game, and you still have to go through the process of creating a band and using its relatively basic character creator to make the same stylised polygonal characters you’ll be used to by now if you’re a Rock Band veteran.
In its defence, this is a graphics engine that’s been designed to handle thousands of downloadable songs, and in that respect it works – all the DLC fits seamlessly into the design with your characters’ lip-syncing and animations matching the music well.
Guitar Hero Live‘s design is completely different, and it’s one that splits me down the middle. The emphasis here is very much on actual video clips rather than rendered scenes, which is both a good and bad thing depending on which of the game’s two modes you’re playing.
In my view it works well in the Guitar Hero TV section of the game, where you play along with a sort of streaming version of a music TV channel. Each song is supported with its official music video and it’s a nice way of letting you get to know the artists if it’s a song you don’t necessarily recognise. After all, a lot of what makes this genre fun is music discovery.
Then there’s the GH Live section: this sees you playing a selection of live gigs from a first-person viewpoint, with the crowd reaction changing depending on how well you play.
These are designed well and everything, but they’re not quite as revolutionary as other reports may have you believe: it’s essentially just running a ‘good’ video and a ‘bad’ video and switching between the two with a not-so-subtle transition effect every time you mess up or get better.
What’s more irritating to me is that not only is the whole thing a badly-acted cringe to watch (think a Mega CD game in HD), everyone in this mode – your fellow band members, every single person in the crowd – is beautiful. And I hate them all.
Without delving too much into the whole body image side of things, it just doesn’t strike me as very realistic. It makes me feel less like I’m in a real rock band and more like I’m in one of those drip-riddled bands you sometimes get playing in the background of mobile phone adverts aimed at hipsters.
In short, then, fuck that mode – I played through every song once and never touched it again purely because its impossibly flawless perfect world shininess annoyed me – but the GHTV mode more than makes up for it, giving Guitar Hero Live the edge over its all-too-samey rival.
Winner – Guitar Hero Live
Round 5: On-disc and free content
Let’s say you’re vehemently against paying for downloadable content and want to know how much content you’ll have access to after buying the game, without ever having to spend a single penny ever again.
You can’t really expand this library without spending any money on extra DLC, bar the odd free song in the online catalogue (of which there are probably only a couple).
Even if you have Rock Band 3 and want to import the 70-odd tracks from that disc, it’ll still set you back $15 / around £10 for the privilege.
Guitar Hero Live’s first-person concert section only has 42 songs, ranging from 1966’s Paint It Black to last year’s Wastelands by, um, Linkin Park.
The GHTV mode, however, launched with 200 music videos to stream and play through at no extra cost. In the two months since its release another 90+ songs have been added, ensuring a continuous stream of new (and free) content.
While the nature of GHTV means you don’t always have the freedom to play any of these nearly 300 songs whenever you feel like it, you can buy play tokens which let you do just that. These can bought with real cash or – to suit our needs in this category – with in-game currency earned by playing the game’s streaming ‘TV channels’.
Given that this library of free, randomly-accessed content is only going to grow even bigger in the future, it’s clear that Guitar Hero Live offers more content for the price of entry than Rock Band 4 does.
Winner – Guitar Hero Live
Round 6: Downloadable content
Now let’s say you’re the sort of snazzy knob who’s got a load of disposable income and are more than happy to drop a few quid on some DLC songs every week to build your song library.
In this situation Guitar Hero Live becomes less of an enticing prospect. Although its GHTV library is large, you never truly ‘own’ any of these songs: if you don’t let the game choose them randomly for you then you have to use tokens to ‘buy’ the right to play a specific song every time.
This means if you’re obsessed with Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls for some reason and just want to play that over and over again, you can’t: once you run out of tokens you’ll need to keep ponying up for more.
And that’s just the GHTV section: because of the full-motion video nature of the GH Live section and the fact that each song has its own bespoke first-person video starring a load of paid (and annoyingly photogenic) actors, adding new DLC songs to that would be a massive expense. As such, don’t expect to ever see any more paid songs added to the 42 on the disc.
Rock Band 4 is a completely different story. Like I said before, its engine is designed to adapt easily to new songs, and it’s done so with gusto.
The vast majority of the Rock Band 3 DLC catalogue has already been ported over to Rock Band 4, meaning you’ve got well over 1500 songs available to you to buy.
And, unlike Guitar Hero Live, when you buy a song you own it for good and can play it as many times as you like.
If you’ve got the extra spare cash and are up for spending it regularly, then, Rock Band 4 is your best bet.
Winner – Rock Band 4
Round 7: Single-player
Rhythm games can be very different beasts depending on whether you’re playing alone or with friends, so how do both titles fare if you’re more of a solo gamer?
With its main focus on lead guitar, its first-person viewpoint and its decision to ditch other instruments, it’s clear that Guitar Hero Live was very much created with single-player gaming in mind.
This is most notable in the GHTV mode, where you create a profile and start gaining experience. The more songs you play and experience you gain, the more you level up and unlock new goodies like song highway styles and profile icons.
Each song in this mode also has a number of specific challenges, and while these are fairly basic (finish with get a certain number of stars, etc) they ensure replay value.
Rock Band 4 is a little less generous to the solo gamer. Its Career mode is surprisingly short (the one in Rock Band 3 was longer) and once you’ve done that your only real options are to keep playing through it or just choose individual songs to play in Quick Play mode.
It’s clear that if you’re looking for a single-player experience that gives a real feeling of progression, Guitar Hero Live is that solo solution you’re looking for.
Winner – Guitar Hero Live
Match 8: Local multiplayer
Playing alone is all well and good but for some the plastic instrument genre really comes into its own when you’re playing with other friends or family members.
In this respect, Guitar Hero Live falls massively short. In fact, it barely even bothers. The game only recognises a second guitar in the GHTV mode and even then you’re both playing the same instrument.
The result is that you’re never co-operating: you’re only ever competing to see who gets the highest score, and given the social nature of this genre means you’re likely to be playing alongside someone with a wildly different skill level to you, there’s no fun in that.
But like I said before, that’s because Guitar Hero Live was designed with single-player in mind. Rock Band 4, however, is very much a multiplayer-focused game and it shows.
While it doesn’t really revolutionise things much there’s still nothing really to beat four of you in front of the same telly playing lead guitar, bass, drums and vocals together and racking up a big multiplier when it all comes together well.
Rock Band was considered one of the best multiplayer experiences last generation, so it was very much in Harmonix’s best interests that it didn’t rock the boat too much here. What’s on offer, then, is familiarly fantastic.
If local multiplayer is something you plan on doing regularly, Rock Band 4 is far and away the best option.
Winner – Rock Band 4
Match 9: Ongoing updates
Both Harmonix and Activision have claimed there will be no more Rock Band or Guitar Hero games this generation.
As far as they’re concerned (at least for now), Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live are platforms which will be continually updated as time goes on.
Two months in, both games have already shown signs of this. Rock Band 4 got a big update earlier this month which added a bunch of social score challenge features and new costumes for your created character.
Most notably, it also added a new Brutal mode, which gets progressively harder the better you play.
Guitar Hero Live has also been dishing out the updates. As well as the steady stream of new songs coming into GHTV mode (90+ new songs since launch), joining them have been a bunch of new customisation options: I’m loving the Christmas-themed note highway.
It also recently added a new online multiplayer mode of sorts: as you play GHTV songs you’ll sometimes be matched against a similarly-skilled player and will play alongside them, with the winner getting more XP and coins.
At this stage it’s clear both games are committed to ongoing support and updates, not just in terms of new songs but also new customisation options and entire gameplay features.
Regardless of which game you buy, then, it seems that over time they’re only going to get better.
Winner – Draw
It might sound like a cop-out, but 2500 words later the ultimate verdict is this: if you can only buy one of these games, it really depends on how you’re hoping to play them.
If you’re primarily a single-player gamer and you don’t foresee many situations in the future where you’ll be jamming along with a bunch of people in your living room, Guitar Hero Live is without a doubt the option you should be going for.
Its GH Live section may be cheesier than a cheese merchant’s feet, but the GHTV mode and its level progression system will have you playing long into the nights.
Its unique new guitar controller also means it’s the one to go for if you’re a rhythm action fan who wants to try their hand at learning a new control system rather than getting exactly the same thing you got last generation.
(For what it’s worth, since I’m more of a solo gamer, Guitar Hero Live is undoubtedly my personal favourite of the two.)
Meanwhile, if you tend to play music games in a more social environment and are confident you’ll be having regular local multiplayer sessions with friends and family, Rock Band 4 is the option for you.
What it lacks in single-player depth it more than makes up for in multiplayer entertainment, and if you’ve already bought a load of DLC in the past you can port the vast majority of it over (as long as it’s on a system of the same family, eg PS3 to PS4).
Finally, the price has to be taken into account. If you need a guitar controller with your game, Guitar Hero Live is currently £49 on Amazon (here’s the Xbox One and PS4 store links), while Rock Band 4 is £84.99 (Xbox One and PS4 store links).
The only way Rock Band 4 is cheapest is if you’re planning on using old instruments with it. In that situation it’s £29.99 on PS4, but it’s still £49.99 on Xbox One because it comes with a special USB adapter that’s needed to recognise the old instruments.
So there you have it. To summarise – if you’re rich and have loads of pals, get Rock Band 4. If you’re a frugal loner/rebel type like me, Guitar Hero Live is the game for you. But either way, both are great games.
Agree? Disagree? Want to hunt me down and play ‘The Ace Of Spades’ with my ribcage? Let me know what you think in the comments below. Um, unless it’s the last one.