I will admit that, being under the age of 45, I’ve never been an avid fan of Van Halen. Their brand of sugar coated glam rock goodness served them well in the 1980s, but, while some of their hits have entered my consciousness, the band hasn’t exactly aged well, descending into obscurity in the eyes of the current generation that Guitar Hero caters to. Unless of course you happen to be a hardcore follower of Van Halen, and I rather doubt there are many left anymore, the existence of this game seems somewhat bewildering.
We all know that Guitar Hero has spiralled into unforgivable saturation, and Van Halen marks the third band-centric game in the series to date following Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica. Such greed has caused many players’ love affairs with their plastic instruments to dwindle however, so does Van Halen have the gravitas to keep the franchise afloat?
As you would expect from a Guitar Hero game, the gameplay mechanics once again remain unchanged from the tried and tested formula – you strum, drum or sing along to the corresponding brightly coloured notes that hurl towards you on screen like a buffoon until you hallucinate into a mass hypnosis.
Guitar Hero 5 took this formula and drastically spruced it up with a fresh graphical overhaul and innovative new game modes, so it’s hard not to be disheartened when you realise that Van Halen runs on the outdated engine that powered Guitar Hero: World Tour from 2008. This immediately has an adverse effect, as it means the game is devoid of Guitar Hero 5’s many lavish improvements – the party play mode and song challenges are nowhere to be seen, for example.
Things don’t get better when you turn your attentions to the very band the game is representing, either: the current line-up is depicted in all their decrepit glory and appear embarrassingly haggard as a result. It’s not until the final tier of songs that you get to play as the classic band with horrendous hairdos from their glory days of the 1970s, but you can’t help but feel it’s a metaphor implying the band is a shadow of their former self.
And then there’s the setlist itself, which consists of 25 Van Halen tracks and an additional 3 Eddie Van Halen solos, ranging from the opening blast of Panama, to the synth driven Jump, to the timeless You Really Got Me, to the furious fret work of Eruption.
Thankfully, the majority of songs are tremendous fun to play due to the anthemic nature of the genre. The later songs become increasingly challenging, with an abundance of Eddie Van Halen’s legendary solos that will test even the most ardent of players. I do question the game billing itself as “the most challenging Guitar Hero yet” however. Guitar Hero: Metallica felt more consistently challenging, though this was mainly because many of their songs are played at such a blistering pace by comparison.
At this point, you might be thinking that considering this is meant to be a full game dedicated to the titular band, a meagre 28 tracks can hardly cover the band’s entire discography, particularly one that has been around for the best part of 30 years.
And you would be right, as Van Halen’s tracklist only encompasses songs from 1978 through to 1984, meaning there are no featured tracks after David Lee Roth’s infamous departure. If you knew nothing about Van Halen, you would believe poor Sammy Hagar, David Lee Roth’s replacement at the time as frontman, never existed. Granted, Van Halen went rapidly downhill after this era, but omitting such a substantial segment is hardly representative of the band’s entire career and is a disservice to die-hard fans who seek a more comprehensive representation of the band’s back-catalogue.
Presumably because they couldn’t license the latter half of Van Halen’s troubled career, Activision saw the need to shamelessly pad out the soundtrack with a copious amount of filler filth, including such notable influences to Van Halen as Stacey’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne. The additional guest tracks in Guitar Hero: Metallica at least had some relevance in the game as they were heralded as prime influences to the band and handpicked by the band members; this is certainly not the case in Van Halen.
In fact, at 19 tracks nearly half of the game consists of these jarringly out of place filler songs including the likes of Blink 182, The Offspring and Jimmy Eat World. I mean, really, Stacey’s Mom in a Van Halen game? I’m sure David Lee Roth actively listens to that tripe on a daily basis and bows before his Fountains of Wayne poster prior to settling down to sleep in his retirement home.
Unlike Guitar Hero: Metallica and Beatles: Rock Band, which were lovingly put together tributes to the respected bands rife with extra material for the fans, Van Halen feels like a poorly conceived track pack that was cobbled together onto disc at the very last minute to make some cold cash. There are no discernible extras to speak of to give you further insight into the band and even the career mode feels similarly bare-bones, with a badly structured setlist that doesn’t make any chronological sense and none of Van Halen’s featured venues are present. Compared to the aforementioned band games, the distinct lack of compassion towards the band is striking.
Criminally, you can’t even export the tracks to Guitar Hero 5 and previous DLC remains incompatible, rendering this edition even more nonsensical to the series. It’s a real case of déjà-vu as, again, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why this couldn’t have been a harmless downloadable track pack. Van Halen was even offered for free to coincide with the American release of Guitar Hero 5 several months before it went to retail (and then the European release followed a few more months after this), which goes to show how much faith Activision had in their own product.
So, to sum up this latest entry to the Guitar Hero bandwagon fails at appealing to Van Halen’s limited fanbase and casual music fans alike, making for a wholly disjointed experience. The remaining songs are unarguably fun to play, but to label this as a game designed to provide fans with a definitive depiction of the band would be absurd. I’ll reiterate: it’s nothing more than a glorified track pack which shouldn’t have been conceived as a standalone game unless Activision were willing to put some effort in to make it worthwhile. Sadly, this wasn’t the case, which makes Guitar Hero: Van Halen about as relevant and fresh as the band it has disastrously demoralised.
Ropey character models and stilted animations make Van Halen appear as if they really didn't want to be in this game.
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Guitar Hero 5's improvements were stripped out and the career mode is a complete joke that Van Halen purists will scorn.
The Van Halen tracks translate well into Guitar Hero, but the failure to provide a comprehensive selection and unrelated filler tracks downplay things considerably.
47 songs for the same price as the more content rich band games, and of course the main Guitar Hero games, is nothing short of outrageous.
Guitar Hero: Van Halen serves as an ill-fitting tribute to a now fossilised band. Sloppy execution, poorly chosen tracks and a growing lack of public interest in both Van Halen and the music game genre make this a lackluster low point in the Guitar Hero franchise.