Review: Also known as Guitar Hero: Sammy Hagar apparently kicked someone's dog
It's been a long, strange journey for Guitar Hero: Van Halen. After being announced with little fanfare from Activision, the game was then buried into a corner of the Sony booth at E3 2009, like a shamed child sitting in the corner with a dunce cap on. The game resurfaced again during the early fall in an even more dubious fashion ? it was being given away for approximately zero dollars with the purchase of Guitar Hero 5, months before the official release... three days before Christmas. Games that ultimately get canceled don't get buried like this game has been. That's what makes it all the more surprising that this third attempt at a band-specific Guitar Hero game isn't all that bad; it's actually pretty decent, with a good selection of songs that are pretty fun to play, especially on guitar. Sure, it's about a band that hasn't been culturally relevant since Bill Clinton was president, and the game itself completely ignores all Van Halen tunes after 1985, making the game even less relevant to modern music fans. But it's still Guitar Hero, the franchise is still pretty enjoyable, and GH: Van Halen is no exception. Unless you're a Sammy Hagar fan. Then you're probably sad.
Like Guitar Hero: Metallica ? and the largely forgettable Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, yes ? this Van Halen specific game features 25 tunes from the popular arena rock band, and an extra 19 from other artists, such as Queen, The Offspring, Weezer, Billy Idol, Foo Fighters and Judas Priest, to name a few. These would be really nice additions to the music genre, except that a ton of them appeared in various Rock Band games or DLC, making them somewhat tired, though the stuff making its debut isn't bad. The Van Halen selection is, due to the narrow focus, weirdly limited. Sure, famous VH tunes like Jump, Hot For Teacher, Panama, Dance The Night Away, You Really Got Me, etc, are here and all are quite fun (especially Hot For Teacher, a vast improvement over the disastrously bad version in Guitar Hero World Tour), but there's a lot of filler here, with many songs only the major die-hards from the David Lee Roth era would recognize. This could have been rectified if they had bothered to include songs from the ?Van Hagar? era, but instead they went up to the 1984 album and stopped, making an already outdated band seem even more outdated. I'm going to guess that more people know Poundcake or Right Now than Ice Cream Man.
This is specifically the biggest problem with GH: Van Halen ? a weird lack of effort in making the game a complete experience for Van Halen fans ? and not just the annoying ones who hate everything about the post-DLR days. Given the game has been treated so poorly, it's not a surprise that it's a rehash, but it feels like half a game. Whoever is to blame for the severing of ten very good Van Halen years to preserve the days of David Lee Roth should be ashamed, because there's no reason why it couldn't have happened. Just get the license to use Sammy Hagar, and then we could be rocking out to The Seventh Seal or Top of the World. It can't be all that difficult to split the game into two eras (the Gary Cherone era was so short you can barely call it an era), and thus appease both the Roth die-hards and the Hagar fans. This is even worse than the fit of nepotism with the bass player ? longtime (and by longtime I mean he played bass on every single Van Halen song included in this game) bassist Michael Anthony is gone, replaced by Eddie's son Wolfgang. This can be tolerated given that Guitar Hero: Metallica used their current bassist over their two previous players, as lame as it might be. But completely locking out an entire decade of the band? That's not history, it's a cover up... a cover up that doesn't make a lot of sense.
While Guitar Hero 5 did the right thing and had one single career mode that spread to all the instruments, Guitar Hero: Van Halen features four different careers that are reorganized depending on the instrument used. The only unique career is the regular guitar career, as it features the famous solos of Eddie Van Halen, such as the great Eruption. Thankfully the career is more like Guitar Hero: Metallica than Smash Hits, as you don't have to finish every single song to ?beat? the game. In addition to the career, there's of course quickplay and local competitive play, along with the usual online options, which right now are painfully lacking in players. Obviously not everyone took advantage of the solid deal Activision presented with Guitar Hero 5, because nobody is playing it. Because the game is based on the Guitar Hero World Tour engine, it doesn't have the in-out party play, nor can you have four guitarists, drummers, etc. The reuse of 2008's engine really makes it feel like a step into the past, given how good GH5's engine is. Again, it's puzzling as to why this game exists sometimes, it's like they had an agreement with Van Halen and their lawyers made sure Activision didn't break the deal. Surprisingly enough, the ?Metallifacts? from GH: Metallica are here, and dish out info on every song in the game, not just Van Halen songs. This needs to be in every music game from here on out if they're not going to give us a ?jukebox? mode like Rock Band 2 initially promised.
Here's the rub though: even though Guitar Hero: Van Halen uses an outdated engine, features only the first Van Halen era, and is released in a post-Beatles Rock Band world... the game remains fun. On a base level, unless a rhythm game is technically incompetent with terrible note charts and a horrendous song selection ? yes, yes Rock Revolution, I'm looking directly at you ? it will be fun. GH:VH is especially fun on guitar (as it should be), which should be expected ? Eddie Van Halen is one of the greatest guitarists ever and thus anything he's involved in will be good. All 25 Van Halen songs are very playable with solid charting, but the guitar parts are the best. That said, playing bass is fun (not Beatles RB fun, but still a lot better than they could have been), and singing some of these classics? Good times. Also good times singing a MILF song, specifically Stacey's Mom by Fountains of Wayne. Supposedly Wolfgang Van Halen selected the ?opening act? tunes, and the competence on display in choosing them is admirable. It's just insane that we have a game that was buried, likely completed with a gun to Neversoft's head, and it turned out to be a solid enough game. Die-hard fans of the rhythm genre will enjoy it, almost despite itself. Especially if they got it free, which instantly boosts satisfaction. Well, unless it's Rock Revolution 2.