Guitar Hero Live is two separate games united by a single plastic guitar. One is the first game in the series to truly live up to its name. The other is decidedly different.

The core idea behind the Guitar Hero series is right there in the name—make the player feel like a rock (or pop or metal or whichever) god. The first couple of games in the series nearly delivered on that premise but got the perspective all wrong. Instead of being guitar heroes we were watching guitar heroes. As the series transformed from guitar game to band game that original idea was buried even deeper.

With Guitar Hero Live’s Live game mode, FreeStyle Games (of B-Boy and DJ Hero fame) drags the player on stage, gives them a guitar, a band to play with and crowd that’s theirs to win or lose. They can be a guitar hero. Or they can be an inept ass. Their choice!

The developers filmed a series of live concert events with real bands performing covers of popular music (lip-syncing, don’t worry) from the first-person perspective of the guitarist. They filmed a version with the crowd loving every moment and the band loving the guitarist’s work. Then they filmed a version with the crowd wanting the guitarist dead and the band wondering why the hell they let you on stage. Play well and the good video plays. Play poorly and the screen blurs briefly, transitioning to the negative video.

The illusion created is exquisite. When I stepped onto the stage for my first set I felt nervous. Roadies handed me my guitar and guided me to the stage and I wanted to turn around and leave. I was not ready to be in front of a crowd. I was certainly not prepared to perform an entire three track set—songs can be played individually once unlocked but during the games’ core mode they are grouped to simulate a real music festival.

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But perform I did, and soon I found my groove, thanks in part to the natural feel of the new guitar controller and its two rows of six buttons.

While I’m a big fan of the “traditional” plastic guitar controller and its five colored buttons, as an incredibly amateur guitarist I am far more used to my fingers moving sideways across the stings rather than up and down. The 3x3 button layout feels natural and lends itself to a surprising amount of variety once you wander into the game’s higher difficulty levels.

The feel of the guitar, the roar of the crowd and the adoration of the bands (and the opposite reactions) make for an incredibly compelling Guitar Hero Live experience. The developers did an excellent job matching real bands with the musical styles represented across the 42 tracks in Live mode, so I never ran into a situation where a male singer was belting out Katy Perry or vice versa.

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Only one track pulled me out of the experience, and that was Skrillex’s magnum opus “Bangarang”, as made famous by Farming Simulator. This is not a guitar song, and when I tried just jumping around and twisting dials while the song played the crowd got really angry.

I especially like the bit where the girls who rush the stage and start dancing in the good version of the video actively try to kill me.

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Guitar Hero Live’s Live Mode is an amazing solo experience, but it is a solo experience. It’s built from the ground up with the solitary guitarist in mind. Another guitarist and a vocalist can join in while playing the Live tracks in Free Play mode, but the core game only has room for one guitar hero.

Which brings us to the second Guitar Hero game being launched today, Guitar Hero TV.

How to explain this? Guitar Hero TV is basically a cable box that runs two (initially) playable music video channels around the clock and an on demand music service.

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At any given moment the player can go to TV mode, hop into a channel (Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus are not required) and immediately start playing whichever of the game’s 200 or so initial launch titles is playing at the moment. They’ll be matched up against other players, with points and coins awarded according to their rank once the song ends. Then there’s a brief pause, and the next song begins. Want to add another guitarist and a singer? Knock yourself out.

It’s like MTV all over again, only now it’s an interactive competition. At first it was very strange, coming into the middle of a song and playing against folks who’d been there for the whole show. The moment it clicked for me was when I tuned in and heard “Stacy’s Mom” in progress and excitedly tuned in and began strumming. It’s the joy of finding your favorite song on the radio, coupled with a compelling reason to experience new music.

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Like many competitive online multiplayer games (is this the Call of Duty of rhythm games?) the player levels up as they perform, gaining access to special events, new track skins, special Hero Powers and racking up Plays. Plays are the currency used to play any song in the ever-expanding Guitar Hero Live TV catalog on demand.

Yes, this game has paid microtransactions. Players can purchase Hero Cash with real money to purchase Plays if they wish, and Party Passes that give players free access to the entire online catalog for a limited time are available for $5.99.

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I’ve been playing for less than a week and I already have 82 Plays amassed just through regular online play. You get Plays every level. Coins earned through playing can be used to purchase them as well. I’m not worried about additional spending any time soon.

If everyone in the world had plastic guitars, Guitar Hero TV might have been released as a free-to-play social game. But they don’t, so it’s included in a bundle with one hell of a single-player experience and a nifty instrument.

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There will be people put off by the microtransactions—I say they are pretty harmless, and in exchange for them being there players never have to worry about purchasing additional music as downloadable content. Every new song released from here on out—and there are 70 or so planned between now and Christmas—will be inserted into the live channels for everyone to play, as well as made available on demand.

The only negative feelings I have for Guitar Hero Live’s TV Mode stems from the fact that it’ll be the developers’ post-launch focus, and I won’t be getting any more of that exquisite first-person concert experience.

Perhaps it’s for the best. Too many artists continue playing long past their prime. It’s better to burn out than fade away, and Guitar Hero Live’s single-player mode burns very bright. Then it’s off the stage to spend the rest of our days jamming out with friends. I can live with that.

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Contact the author when he wakes up in Vegas with that damn song stuck in his head at fahey@kotaku.com or follow him on Twitter at @bunnyspatial