I take a bit of pride in being one of the few remaining Van Halen fans left on the planet who is younger than 65. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t rock out to Eddie’s amazing solos and riffs and Diamond Dave’s captivating vocals. I mean, sure, Alex can play the drums, but he’s not the reason you listen to Van Halen. Am I right? When a Guitar Hero game was announced featuring Van Halen, one of the most volatile bands in history, I’ll admit to getting a bit too excited. That excitement waned as soon as details about the game were released, like the wonderful plan to only include twenty-five Van Halen tunes. Needless to say, when the game finally came out, the sheer amount of disappointment in my heart could only be compared to the collective pains of all the band’s fans when they found out Sammy Hagar was taking over for the departed David Lee Roth.
One of the strangest parts of the Guitar Hero: Van Halen story is how it was announced as an afterthought at E3, had a release date, had that release date removed, was added as a mail-order incentive for purchasing Guitar Hero 5, and then was given a retail release date yet again. Activision either didn’t know what to do with the property, or they just didn’t care about the game. Even though they haven’t been tearing up the charts these last few years, nor have they been relevant to pop culture for nearly a decade, Van Halen’s still one of the most remembered and recognized musical acts around. I guess it’s only fair that their game got as much respect in the gaming industry as their current line-up earns from the music industry, which is to say, not much at all.
GH: Van Halen runs on the World Tour engine, which is strange considering the game was being developed at the same time as Guitar Hero 5. Unlike Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Metallica, which had you following the band around on tour as an opening act, VH separates the career into two types of venues: ones where you play as bands that aren’t Van Halen, and ones where you play as Van Halen. You also won’t be following the band’s history linearly. Instead, the set list jumps around, seemingly at random, unleashing many of Van Halen’s top hits right from the start. To me, that doesn’t make much sense. You would think there would be a build to the more appealing tracks in the game, or a mix of more obscure tracks like “Atomic Punk” with songs like “Everybody Wants Some,” but for whatever reason this isn’t the case, and you’ll feel like you’ve played all your favorites by the time you hit the second venue. The end of the career should be filled with tracks like “Eruption,” “Unchained,” or “Jump,” not little-remembered songs like “Cathedral” or “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” I mean, what kind of end reward is playing through songs you’ve probably never heard?
Never mind the fact that the rest of the career is filled with bands that have little to nothing to do with Van Halen like Third Eye Blind and Yellowcard. Yellowcard, people. Yellowcard. At least the other GH games based on a single band had the foresight to include bands that Aerosmith or Metallica had toured with, been inspired by, or just plain liked. I don’t know David Lee personally, but I can almost guarantee he doesn’t give a good Goddamn about Yellowcard. All together, the track list consists of just over forty tracks. Not bad for a thirty dollar expansion, but Van Halen is a full-priced game. Considering that Guitar Hero 5 retails for the same price, and comes with more than eighty songs, paying $60 for a game as lacking in content as this one seems absurd. Don’t forget, Activision also gave this game away for free less than five months ago.
Van Halen plays exactly like World Tour, with virtually no difference in the game other than menu skins and the inclusion of playable characters of the members of Van Halen. I never liked the way Guitar Hero handled singing. Compared to Rock Band, there’s just something about the vocal track that doesn’t sit well with me, and since this game is a carbon copy of that gameplay mechanic, it’s just as crappy here. Guitar and bass parts aren’t anywhere near as bad as they used to be in GH III or GH: Aerosmith, and actually give the feeling that whoever programmed the songs put a lot of care into making sure what you were playing on your fake guitar resembled how the song might actually feel were you playing on an actual guitar. Even though I like the drum kit for Guitar Hero more than Rock Band’s, how much I enjoy the drumming gameplay varies from track to track. For the most part it’s pretty decent, but there are songs that are just a straight up bitch to play no matter how talented you are, or what level you’re playing on (other than Easy). Playing with others is still as simple as plugging in another instrument controller, but considering that Van Halen is more well known for their guitar parts, it would have been nice for the GH5 element of multiple people playing the same instrument to be included, but sadly, that’s not the case.
I’m not going to bother complaining about the lack of Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, or least of all, Gary Sharone, but I will complain about only using the current day roster. Not that I don’t like the roster, but I like to remember Van Halen as an explosive late 70s/early 80s band with big hair, spandex, and wild stage shows. Seeing them on screen at their most geriatric for 99% of the game is not only disheartening, but it also kind of takes away from the experience for me. The game lacks GH5’s graphical polish and improved character models, but the actual band is animated well enough. The fictional characters look exactly like they do in World Tour, so if that’s something you’re excited about, you’ve got that going for you. It goes without saying at this point that all the sound mixes are excellent. Particular props need to be given to the man responsible for making sure David Lee Roth’s vocals stayed as true to the man as was possible. Though that does make it a bit of a pain trying to sing because nobody, and I mean nobody, sings like Diamond Dave.
If you happened to get Guitar Hero: Van Halen for free with your purchase of Guitar Hero 5, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. Even for absolute die-hard fans, I simply can’t recommend this game. The track listing is lacking, the gameplay is outdated (by its own predecessor), and the fun factor for this game just isn’t there. Had this game come out a few years ago, or even as a cheaply priced expansion, I might consider this game worth renting, but it didn’t. Guitar Hero: Van Halen isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to the franchise, but it should serve as a warning to Activision to tread more carefully with the Guitar Hero brand in the future.