I'm not going to lie to you, my expectations for Guitar Hero: Van Halen were extremely low. It's not just the fact that this is the sixth console "Hero" game this year and I have only a passing interest in the band. Instead I worried that the release date (a mere three days before Christmas) was a sign of weakness. Also troubling was the company giving the game away for free for simply buying the $60 Guitar Hero 5 disc. I went in to this game with the lowest of low expectations, I figured that just as long as the game doesn't blow up my system I would be impressed. Sadly I'm forced to report that Guitar Hero: Van Halen is even more underwhelming than I could have ever imagined. It makes a strong argument for why Activision should not continue to make band-specific Guitar Hero games.
You would think that Van Halen would be the perfect choice for a Guitar Hero game. After all, Eddie Van Halen is one of the very best guitarists in rock music (a mainstay on guitar magazine top ten lists). In the band's almost 40 years rocking, they've managed to sell some 90 million albums and become the band with the most number-one hits on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. They've been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have influenced an entire generation of musicians. What more could you want for a game called Guitar Hero?
Guitar Hero: Van Halen is a fundamentally flawed project that manages to misuse this once-great band every step of the way. This is a half-assed entry in the series, the type of game that feels more like a cynical cash-in than an organic video game project. While I've never been a huge Van Halen fan, even I can see that this band deserves better than what this game offers. Guitar Hero: Van Halen should be a wake-up call for Activision going into the new year, if they want to keep this franchise afloat they best avoid releasing products like this.
This isn't the first band-specific game Activision has released. Over the last two years they have provided us with both Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Metallica. While neither of those games were perfect, at least they offered a comprehensive set list of both new and old songs from their respective artists. That's not the case here. In this Van Halen edition you get 28 songs from the band, ranging from their 1978 self-titled debut album to their 1984 album, also known as David Lee Roth's final Van Halen record. That's it. That's the band's entire span of music in Guitar Hero: Van Halen.
What is completely missing from this game are songs from either the Sammy Haggar or Gary Cherone eras of Van Halen. Oh sure, for a lot of people David Lee Roth will always be the best Van Halen singer, but it's hard to completely forget about two singers that kept the band together for more than 15 years. There's some genuinely good music in that eras and only focusing on David Lee Roth feels a bit shortsighted or, dare I say, incomplete. We don't even get songs from David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen's solo careers, something we saw in Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Anybody looking for a complete Van Halen package will be extremely disappointed with what Activision has done to one of the biggest rock bands of all time.
To make matters worse, the developers of this game have decided not to include a story of any kind. None whatsoever. At no point in this game do you get context for why these songs are important or what Van Halen was all about. There are no videos adding insight or short vignettes that put everything into perspective. Heck, we don't even get digitally recreated versions of the band from the different eras. Instead of going back and giving us the big hair versions of the band from the late 1970s to early 1980s, Guitar Hero has decided to give us the aging portraits of these rock legends.
The obvious comparison to Guitar Hero: Van Halen is The Beatles: Rock Band. In the top-selling Harmonix game you have a chance to see the Fab Four play familiar locales (Shea Stadium, the Ed Sullivan theater, etc.) and watch videos influenced by the band's movies, music videos and lyrics. You also get short vignettes that put everything in context, from the early days in Liverpool to the point where the band was ready to break up and wanted to play one more concert. Well, that's not what you get in Guitar Hero: Van Halen. The venues you play in have no cultural significance and the game doesn't even attempt to show you the bigger picture; it is merely a re-skinned version of Guitar Hero. This half-assed approach may have been acceptable back in 2008, but this kind of product is not acceptable in a post-Beatles Rock Band world.
Anybody familiar with Activision's band-specific Guitar Hero games already knows what to expect, you get a couple dozen songs from the band and then another 20 songs from other randomly selected artists. This formula is in full swing in Guitar Hero: Van Halen. You get the hits from the band, including "Panama," "You Really Got Me," "Runnin' With the Devil," "Jump," "Dance the Night Away," "Unchained," and so on. On top of that you get selections as diverse as the Foo Fighters ("Best of You"), Fountains of Wayne ("Stacy's Mom"), Weezer ("Dope Nose"), Queen ("I Want It All"), Tenacious D ("Master Exploder") and even Queens of the Stone Age ("Sick, Sick, Sick"). Even though I'm a fan of a number of those bands, they feel a little out of place in a game about Van Halen. I would have gladly given up these extra songs to have a more comprehensive package featuring Sammy Haggar and Gary Cherone.
Interestingly enough, this Van Halen game is using the Guitar Hero World Tour engine. While this isn't bad on its own, I couldn't help but notice the dated look after playing both Guitar Hero 5 and Band Hero. The character models look flat and the visual effects from Guitar Hero 5 are nowhere to be found. You also don't get instrument-specific challenges and other cool additions that were made to Guitar Hero 5. Instead we get a list of songs to play and little else. Actually, I take that back, the songs have their own special feature section that lets you see the lyrics and other equally lame options. It all points to the idea that Van Halen is the red-headed step-child of the Guitar Hero franchise, an underwhelming entry that appears to not even try most of the time.
To further prove how disappointing the game is, it's worth noting that there is no downloadable content planned for the game and there is no way to export the songs into one of the other "Hero" games (such as Guitar Hero 5 or Band Hero). Much of the fun of The Beatles: Rock Band is knowing that you will be able to pick up a number of full-length Beatles albums, suggesting that at some point in the future we may have the full catalog playable in one single video game. Unfortunately there's nothing like that planned for Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Gamers will have to settle for the 28 songs found in this game and hope to get the rest in other Guitar Hero games. I hate to continue to harp on my issues with it not being a comprehensive package, but it really is the was blatantly offensive aspect of this release.
At this point I doubt I need to say much about the actual gameplay. If you've played any of the previous Guitar Hero games (or even Rock Band or Rock Revolution, for that matter), then you already know what to expect. You can use your fake plastic guitar to jam out on both the lead guitar and bass parts, or you can switch to drums and vocals. There are no changes to the actual note highway, all of the additions made in Guitar Hero World Tour (touch pad, etc.) are all front and center in this game. Not that I'm complaining, the gameplay is perhaps the only element of Guitar Hero: Van Halen that is actually consistent.
I make it no secret that the fake plastic instrument genre is one of my favorites, anybody that has read my reviews of previous Guitar Hero and Rock Band game can attest to that. Perhaps that's why I'm so offended by this Van Halen project. Here is a game with real potential, but it feels like everybody involved with making the game gave up halfway through the development. Guitar Hero: Van Halen is an enormous step backwards for both Activision and the music genre in general. This is a weak effort that seriously put into question Activision's seriousness about music games (or bands in general). No wonder they gave this game out for free and released it three days before Christmas.
This is not the game Van Halen fans have been waiting for. Not only does Activision's newest Guitar Hero game forget that Sammy Haggar and Gary Cherone were part of the band, but they also refuse to include any actual context or story to the music. Instead we get a re-skinned version of Guitar Hero World Tour with songs from bands that have nothing to do with Van Halen. This is a huge step backwards for not only Guitar Hero, but the music genre in general!