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Review

Review: Guitar Hero: Van Halen

Grab your axe and back-comb your hair.

Do you know how many music games have been released in the UK in Q4 2009 and Q1 2010? I’ll tell you: Guitar Hero 5, The Beatles: Rock Band, SingStar Motown, Disney Sing It: Pop Hits, Rock Band Metal Track Pack, Lips: Number One Hits, DJ Hero, LEGO Rock Band, Band Hero, SingStar Take That, Karaoke Revolution, Lips: Party Classics and now in Europe after a 3-month delay, Guitar Hero Van Halen.

If we take the international market you can add SingStar Latino (USA), SingStar Chartbreaker (Germany) and Lips: Deutsche Partyknaller to that list. After increasingly poor sales of Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero and Band Hero respectively, Activision’s brainiest had a stroke of genius and realised that another Hero game was exactly what was needed to solve this embarrassing cashflow problem.

Granted, we could level the market saturation complaint at the deluge of FPSs flooding the market in the last year as well, and some of the aforementioned games are actually good games, so we have to take each one on its individual merits. As mentioned, Activision owns the Guitar Hero franchise and here we have a half-baked, half-assed and mostly talentless product – but that is where the good points end. The game isn’t that great either.

Let’s check the target demographic. Raise your hands if you play Guitar Hero. Mmm, quite a few of you. Now keep your hand raised if you’re a Van Halen fan. Ok, quite a lot of hands disappearing there. Now keep your hand raised if you think 25 Van Halen tracks plus 19 apparently random selections from unrelated artists and no DLC access represents good value for money at forty quid. Uh oh, this ship is sinking fast.

So let’s cut to the chase. Guitar Hero Van Halen consists of 25 tracks from Van Halen, plus all the expected Guitar Hero filler from timeless inspirational bands such as Blink-182, Foo Fighters, Judas Priest and The Offspring. Seriously, if your only exposure to rock music was Guitar Hero you’d think that Blink-182 and Foo Fighters is all there is. The main problem with that in GH:VH is that the tracks feel totally out of place.

The disk covers only the Van Halen era from 1978-1984 when David Lee Roth was in the band, completely ignoring Sammy Hagar. For many of us we probably don’t really care – you’ve got the classics like Jump, Hot For Teacher and You Really Got Me – but the Van Halen enthusiast will likely be disappointed at the omission of some important songs. The filler tracks on the other hand start at about 1998 moving forward. It makes the experience feel completely disjointed.

I whinged quite viscerally about Band Hero’s career mode in an earlier review. The career mode in GH:VH makes that look good. It’s basically the same, only without the extra star challenges or cut scenes. It’s a one-page list. You plow through it and in about 6-8 hours you’re done. Going back to collect the stars I missed felt more like a chore than a joy. There were only a few songs I felt inclined to play more than once.

On the upside, the game does make very good use of the slider bar mechanic (where strumming is not required) and playing other notes while sustaining an existing one – both features that are still missing from Rock Band and underused in other Guitar Hero titles. There is a lot of variation in the note charts and that’s a good thing. The drum tracks are also more interesting and varied than in earlier titles. The box states “The most challenging Guitar Hero ever!”.

Perhaps not, but it certainly will present a challenge if you are used to playing on medium as the difficulty has been increased versus earlier titles. On hard it seems to be about the same, however the difficulty does ramp up towards the end of career, and there are 3 Eddie Van Halen solos (Spanish Fly, Cathedral and Eruption) which I must confess are exceedingly fun to play and master. All the songs are unlocked from the start for quickplay mode.

For reasons unknown the game appears to based on the Guitar Hero World Tour engine – not the Guitar Hero 5 engine – and while Beginner and Expert+ drum modes (with two drum pedals) are supported, the only local multiplayer modes are Pro Face-Off, Face Off and Battle – none of the new game modes from Band Hero are included. The character models are exactly the same as those in Guitar Hero World Tour with only the Van Halen characters added, which must be unlocked. Strangely, you start off with present day Eddie and have to unlock the ‘classic’ characters later. Eddie 2009 does not look very flattering.

The Music Studio is GHMix 1, not the GHMix 2 found in the latest games. You cannot access any DLC you already own nor buy new DLC. You cannot export the songs to other Guitar Hero games.

If you want a bit of Van Halen trivia, prepare to be disappointed again. The Aerosmith and Metallica disks were reasonably solid compilations (although Aerosmith was missing a few songs), with band video interviews and a career mode that loosely followed the rise and fall of the bands. GH:VH affords you no such luxury. The venues are simply city names. There are no video interviews.

Most insulting is that some – yet not all songs (Jump being one of those omitted) – have a Rock Facts section. This consists of the song playing as normal with 3 lines of text in a huge font appearing for 30 seconds or so before the next fact appears. You will require the patience of a saint and be very interested in some extremely mundane and somewhat obvious facts to sit through these.

I presume online play works fine, but I wouldn’t know because on the occasions I tried to get an online game for this review there was nobody online.

Finally, we have to wonder what on Earth prompted Activision to select Van Halen for a band-specific disk in the first place. How many people is this actually going to appeal to, as opposed to say Coldplay, Evanescence or Megadeth?

Pros:

  • Challenging and interesting note charts on some songs, especially the 3 solos
  • A bunch of mostly easy trophies to collect
  • Van Halen fans who are purists that don’t care about Sammy Hagar will probably love it

Cons:

  • Missing multiplayer game modes
  • Abysmal career mode
  • No access to downloaded songs
  • Only 25 Van Halen tracks, the rest is irrelevant and mostly uninteresting filler

It’s amazing how the opinion of the gaming press can differ from the actual users. Guitar Hero Van Halen scores 73% from its users on LivingSocial, which would seem to mean that some people do like it. On the face of it, this game is basically comparable to Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which was a good game, yet has very similar layout and structure to this one. If we were reviewing GH:VH in early 2008 we would probably applaud it and give it a 7 or 8, but in 2010 with the music gaming genre having advanced as much as it has, this game simply doesn’t cut the mustard. The fact it was given away in the US, as a freebie with Guitar Hero 5, for a while pretty much speaks for itself about Activision’s expectations for the product.

If you haven’t yet been summoned into the empire of plastic guitars, our recommendation remains the same: buy Rock Band 2 or LEGO Rock Band. Although Guitar Hero 5 is a little more feature-rich, Rock Band 2 remains the superior guitar and drumming game, especially when you take the price and vast quantity of downloadable songs into account, and the fact that Harmonix are not pumping out new disks every 3 months. LEGO Rock Band has a softer track list, but suffers from the disadvantage of only being able to access the family-friendly portion of the download store, which excludes you from a lot of good tracks.

Van Halen deserved better, and so did Guitar Hero fans. Avoid.

4/10

This review was written by Katy Coe. Full collection, score, trophy and achievement tracking, contests and social networking for SingStar, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Lips, DJ Hero, Band Hero and Karaoke Revolution players can be found on Katy’s own website at www.totalmusicgaming.com.

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