The rhythm genre is a special subset of games for me. In addition to being a genre that I spent at least a couple thousand dollars on and poured untold hours into during my college years, it was also the genre that allowed me to transition from music journalism to game journalism. When both Guitar Hero and Rock Band went on hiatus, I felt as though a part of my gaming life was forever going to be behind me. To say that I was excited that both Guitar Hero and Rock Band are coming back is an understatement.

This past week, I had the opportunity to meet with Activision and FreeStyleGames to see the game that heralds the return of one of my favorite franchises: Guitar Hero Live. Going into the meeting, I was fairly apprehensive about the direction that FreeStyleGames had decided to take. While I was skeptical about the new guitar controller that does away with the single row of five buttons in favor of two stacked rows of three buttons, it was the live-action gameplay that had me poking fun at the title.

History hasn’t been kind to games that utilize FMV sequences in place of computer-generated graphics. While I understood the potential of the concept, I knew it had a high probability of failure, and I was concerned for how it would turn out. As Jamie Jackson, creative director and studio head at FreeStyleGames, went over the new features, you could tell he was legitimately excited to show it off.  I wondered if the excitement could be sufficiently backed up by this version of Guitar Hero.

Then he handed the new guitar controller to one of his teammates, and they loaded up a sequence featuring Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.” The sequence begins backstage as my band is gearing up for the final moments before hitting the stage. The crowd’s muffled chants are heard as your bandmates make idle chit chat while navigating toward the stage. The closer you get to the stage, the louder the crowd gets, and the more excited the band appears. 

The mission of Guitar Hero Live is to do a better job of emulating the feel of stepping on stage in a real band, and the pulse-pounding feel of hearing the crowd explode as you walk into their collective field of vision is unrivaled by anything seen in the genre to this point.

In the Fall Out Boy sequence, the band begins with an opaque curtain obstructing the view of most of the crowd. In sticking with the theme of the song, the vocalist brandishes a lit road flare during the build up to the song, waving it to the beat. As soon the instrumentation fully kicks in, the curtain falls to the ground, revealing the thousands of people in attendance at the jam-packed tent we’re performing in. 

It’s a moment that stuck with me for the rest of the meeting and immediately brought a smile to my face, thanks in huge part to the memories it evoked of some of my favorite concerts I’ve attended. The live-action sequences are full of cool performance moments that mimic classic concert tricks such as that one. 

Though I had seen a short trailer featuring the festival sequence starring The Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling,” something about having the music blasting on big speakers, holding the guitar controller in your hand, and knowing you have to perform that made the appearance of the 100,000 in attendance that much more daunting. If the three songs I played in Live mode are any indication, each of the full band sequences are shot and acted extremely well, and seeing it in action in the context of the actual game turned me into a believer of this format. 

A major concern of mine was that we’d see too many repeated scenes across each song, but the constant bouncing back and forth between the crowd being on your side and against you makes each performance feel unique, even if you’re going through the same performance each time. In addition, having different bands that match the style of the song you’re playing breaks up the monotony of seeing the same bandmates on stage for each song. In addition, each band brings with it different stage dressings, giving it a more customized feel for the song you’re playing. At this time, it’s unclear if we’ll see the same audience members from stage to stage.

Unfortunately for me, the 100,000 screaming fans on-hand for my performance were immediately let down by my awful playing. While “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” and The Killers’ “When You Were Young” are fairly simple chord-based songs that required little adaptation from my preexisting skillset, “Gold on the Ceiling” takes full advantage of the two rows of buttons and brings a tricky strum pattern along with a note-heavy chart. 

My abrupt downturn caused the crowd to turn on me, as the camera focused in on fans looking at me in bewilderment as I continually miffed key sections of the song. Bandmates rushed to my side as if to reassure me that I’ve got this, while simultaneously having a look in their eyes that said, “Dude, what are you doing?” Luckily, I was able to recover and the crowd starting jumping back on my side and my bandmates began rocking with the same energy they hit the stage with.

FreeStyleGames wants the new guitar controller to strike the right balance of accessibility to new players and challenge for veteran players. Since there are only three buttons per row, players who had difficulties playing with more than their first three fingers are accommodated in the new controller’s design. Veteran players, such as me, have a new kind of challenge waiting for them.

Though I began getting the hang of the two rows of buttons near the end of my private demo, it’s clear that my years spent mastering Expert mode in the series’ original run were only going to help me in a limited capacity. I was noticeably improving by the end of my session, but this is a different beast all together. All experienced Guitar Hero fans will be required to rewire their brains to accommodate for the two rows of buttons, and to read the black and white icons on the screen as top and bottom. 

In addition, each time I saw a note coming down the rightmost column on the note highway, I instinctually positioned my fretting hand to reach for the where the orange fret is on the old controllers. Getting used to the feel of the new guitar is paramount to any future success Guitar Hero veterans hope to experience. Luckily, anyone who has mastered Expert mode in the original run of games did so through dedication and practice, which means overcoming the new gameplay mechanics will be well within their abilities.

When the two-row mechanic finally started to click for me, it felt really good. Though I was unable to hit sequences with heavy alternation between the two rows with any kind of consistency, as I became more proficient it provided an addictive feeling like the one when I first started using fourth and fifth buttons on the original guitars. 

Therein lays the true reason behind games like Guitar Hero’s appeal – the instant gratification of noticeable improvements in a short period of time. I can’t wait to see how it feels once I finally begin learning to play it near the level I can play the older games. I was beyond skeptical when I walked into my meeting with Activision and FreeStyleGames, but as I boarded my flight to come home, I felt the itch to play more; an itch I haven’t scratched with this series in a long time.