Reviewed: December 22, 2009
Released: December 21, 2009
Just when you thought it was safe to stroll down the social gaming aisle at your local department or video game store Activision sneaks in yet another Guitar Hero game before the calendar flips to 2010. Are Activision and Neversoft milking a dying or dead franchise? Perhaps; but as long as there is new musical content to bring to the table and thousands of people willing to pay for it, I say, go for it! At least with Guitar Hero: Van Halen a majority of the Guitar Hero public (or at least the ones who bought Guitar Hero 5) is getting this latest installment for free.
Guitar Hero has already experimented with variations of their game that focus on a particular band, starting with Aerosmith in 2008 and more recently, Metallica. Frankly, I’m surprised that it took this long to bring Van Halen to the franchise. After all, this is “Guitar” Hero and Eddie Van Halen is arguably the world’s best guitar player, or at least one of the most influential. Van Halen is personally, one of my favorite bands from growing up, and I even managed to tolerate a few albums after Sammy Hagar replaced David Lee Roth as lead singer. Thankfully, there is no Van Hagar in this game; it is pure old-school Van Halen the way I remember – actually a bit better.
Van Halen ups the ante on several elements of the franchise. First of all, it is probably one of the more difficult games in the entire series when it comes to playing lead guitar, thanks to the impossible riffs and tapping techniques of Eddie. You’re going to be fingering those frets or tapping furious on the touch strip on over half of the Van Halen songs, and that’s on Medium difficulty. Step it up to Hard or Expert and prepare to have your dreams shattered. I can get almost 5 stars on the Eruption solo on Medium, I can barely finish it on Hard and I fail within 8 seconds on Expert.
Drummers will find the intro to Hot For Teacher rivals anything the dual-pedal drumming of Metallica offered and many other tracks will put your hand and feet coordination to the ultimate test. There is a nice selection of tracks with bass heavy beats that will test your bass playing skills and let’s face it, how many of us can hope to match David Lee Roth when it comes to vocals. I can jazz it up with Ice Cream Man (at least the intro) pretty well, but screaming out Panama or Jump has my throat crackling about halfway through.
If the members of Van Halen present too much of a challenge you might be interested in the guest artists who contribute an interesting selection of tracks ranging from classic rock to more contemporary songs. I’m still not sure the relevance of many of these choices. How exactly does The Offspring's “Pretty Fly For A White Guy” fit into the Van Halen universe. There are music facts for every song that you unlock along with lyrics once you finish that song in the career mode, so perhaps the selection process is explained there. I’ve only gone through a handful of them so far.
Guitar Hero: Van Halen offers up 25 tracks including 3 of Eddie’s signature solos that will leave your fingers tied in knots only a sailor can untangle. There are also 19 tracks from guest artists. Here is the complete track list:
These are all arranged in sets that take you around the world from smaller clubs to huge stadiums and outdoor arenas. As you complete songs you’ll earn stars based on your performance and these are used to unlock new venues with new set lists and new songs. It’s a fairly easy unlock system and if you get 4-5 stars on all the songs in the first three sets you pretty much unlock the entire game and are then free to bounce around to your favorite tracks. You personally rank up through the 30 levels of career mode based entirely on your cash earnings, and you will spend that cash on all sorts of clothes, instruments, and new guest rockers that you unlock throughout career mode.
The strongest aspect of Van Halen is certainly the music selection. There were some disappointing omissions – let’s face it; Van Halen has a catalog so vast and awesome that it could easily support its own game without guest artists. AC/DC did it with Rock Band. But the Van Halen songs we do get are excellent and even the guest artist selections are fun diversions that keep the career from getting too monotonous, although I did tend to find myself mindlessly plugging away through the initial warm-up selections, then finding new energy when Van Halen took over the stage.
Quick Play gives you immediate access to the entire song library without having to unlock anything in the Career mode. Career mode is still a bit flawed, forcing you to pick your instrument and a skill level and start a career using only those selections. I enjoy the freedom of Rock Band where you can switch off instruments and difficulties on the fly.
Of course the obvious question would be, why not just make Van Halen DLC, especially since GH5 owners are getting this for free. The game does offer a bit more than would be possible with a mere download. First off, you get some amazing visuals ranging from all new camera angles and moves, stage shows, lighting, pyrotechnics, and the best looking recreations of real-life musicians ever. While still a bit stylized due to the animated game engine, each and every member of the band looks strikingly like their real-life counterparts. There are song-specific and even lyric-specific animations so subtle that you will have to watch the replays to enjoy them, especially the close-ups of Eddie performing magic on his guitar or David Lee Roth hamming it up on the stage. There is some great band interaction that really makes the performances come alive.
Yes, you now have replays, although they aren’t actually recreating your performance, but merely replaying the song with the band performing using all those camera shots you would expect from live concert coverage. And while this is all going on you get some insightful Song Facts – usually trivia about the song, or the person or band performing it. I didn’t know that the video to “Pretty Woman” was the first video to be banned from MTV until I watched the Song Facts for that song.
Guitar Hero: Van Halen is based on the World Tour engine so you have the Music Studio included on the disc as well as access to GHTunes, so you can upload and download custom creations. The game will also bring in any previously downloaded DLC, but this can be extremely annoying since the game literally spends 10-20 seconds scanning for DLC for every profile logged into the game. It would be nice to toggle off this auto-search feature in the functionality options. On the plus side, each player gets individual settings for lag calibration – something Rock Band has yet to achieve.
Solo rockers can enjoy the career and quickplay modes in all the various difficulty levels, while two rockers can go at it locally or online in Face Off, Pro Face Off, and Battle modes or create a band and play cooperatively. You can also go online for Face-Off, Pro Face-Off, Co-Op Guitars, 2 vs. 2 Guitars or Band Quick Play or even challenge other bands in Band vs. Band for up to 8-player action.
The graphical engine hasn’t changed much from the previous games, but you still get some exciting visuals and camerawork. The textures are excellent and there are some awesome stage effects. As with World Tour, the game supports all the HD video modes but the HUD still resides in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which is still just as annoying as ever. There is plenty of signature Van Halen artwork and themes integrated into the menus and splash screens.
The sound quality for Guitar Hero: Van Halen is exceptional, easily the best Dolby Digital remixing of any Guitar Hero game to date. I listen to a lot of Van Halen my own CD’s, MP3’s and on Pandora Radio, but nothing comes close to the perfection of these high-definition mixes. Even the guest artist tracks are aurally awesome. I could feel the thumping bass line in Billy Idol’s White Wedding. Each instrument is pitch-perfect and clearly definable. You can even hear distinct guitar effects for the various pedals and amps that Eddie used to define his signature sound.
There are 46 Achievements, 10 of which you’ll get without even trying. Many of the Achievements in Van Halen seem to be targeting multiplayer activities, either online band play or local face off and battle modes. And then you have a dozen secret Achievements that you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
But when it comes to value for your buck, things get a bit more questionable. Obviously, if you bought Guitar Hero 5 you probably took advantage of the free offer for Van Halen. For everyone else, the $60 price tag for what is essentially a 44-song track pack is going to ruffle a lot of feathers and turn away all but the most diehard of Van Halen fans. If it were priced at $50 it would be a bit more realistic since music DLC is usually a buck per song. $60 just seems a bit greedy or perhaps Activision is punishing you for not buying Guitar Hero 5. The steep cost of admission is the only real downside to this entire package.
It’s rather interesting that I have to make almost the opposite disclaimer for this review that I made for Metallica. I’m not a huge Metallica fan and that fact reflected in my enjoyment of the game and my final review score. Conversely, I am a major fan of Van Halen, which probably tilts my score a bit more toward the high side, but even my love of the band and the song selection in this game isn’t enough to recommend paying $60. If you got Guitar Hero: Van Halen for free then enjoy your good fortune. Everyone else needs to wait for the inevitable price drop.