The obvious comparison to Guitar Hero: Van Halen is The Beatles: Rock Band. In the top-selling Harmonix game you have a chance to see the Fab Four play familiar locales (Shea Stadium, the Ed Sullivan theater, etc.) and watch videos influenced by the band's movies, music videos and lyrics. You also get short vignettes that put everything in context, from the early days in Liverpool to the point where the band was ready to break up and wanted to play one more concert. Well, that's not what you get in Guitar Hero: Van Halen. The venues you play in have no cultural significance and the game doesn't even attempt to show you the bigger picture; it is merely a re-skinned version of Guitar Hero. This half-assed approach may have been acceptable back in 2008, but this kind of product is not acceptable in a post-Beatles Rock Band world.
Anybody familiar with Activision's band-specific Guitar Hero games already knows what to expect, you get a couple dozen songs from the band and then another 20 songs from other randomly selected artists. This formula is in full swing in Guitar Hero: Van Halen. You get the hits from the band, including "Panama," "You Really Got Me," "Runnin' With the Devil," "Jump," "Dance the Night Away," "Unchained," and so on. On top of that you get selections as diverse as the Foo Fighters ("Best of You"), Fountains of Wayne ("Stacy's Mom"), Weezer ("Dope Nose"), Queen ("I Want It All"), Tenacious D ("Master Exploder") and even Queens of the Stone Age ("Sick, Sick, Sick"). Even though I'm a fan of a number of those bands, they feel a little out of place in a game about Van Halen. I would have gladly given up these extra songs to have a more comprehensive package featuring Sammy Haggar and Gary Cherone.
Interestingly enough, this Van Halen game is using the Guitar Hero World Tour engine. While this isn't bad on its own, I couldn't help but notice the dated look after playing both Guitar Hero 5 and Band Hero. The character models look flat and the visual effects from Guitar Hero 5 are nowhere to be found. You also don't get instrument-specific challenges and other cool additions that were made to Guitar Hero 5. Instead we get a list of songs to play and little else. Actually, I take that back, the songs have their own special feature section that lets you see the lyrics and other equally lame options. It all points to the idea that Van Halen is the red-headed step-child of the Guitar Hero franchise, an underwhelming entry that appears to not even try most of the time.
To further prove how disappointing the game is, it's worth noting that there is no downloadable content planned for the game and there is no way to export the songs into one of the other "Hero" games (such as Guitar Hero 5 or Band Hero). Much of the fun of The Beatles: Rock Band is knowing that you will be able to pick up a number of full-length Beatles albums, suggesting that at some point in the future we may have the full catalog playable in one single video game. Unfortunately there's nothing like that planned for Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Gamers will have to settle for the 28 songs found in this game and hope to get the rest in other Guitar Hero games. I hate to continue to harp on my issues with it not being a comprehensive package, but it really is the was blatantly offensive aspect of this release.
At this point I doubt I need to say much about the actual gameplay. If you've played any of the previous Guitar Hero games (or even Rock Band or Rock Revolution, for that matter), then you already know what to expect. You can use your fake plastic guitar to jam out on both the lead guitar and bass parts, or you can switch to drums and vocals. There are no changes to the actual note highway, all of the additions made in Guitar Hero World Tour (touch pad, etc.) are all front and center in this game. Not that I'm complaining, the gameplay is perhaps the only element of Guitar Hero: Van Halen that is actually consistent.
I make it no secret that the fake plastic instrument genre is one of my favorites, anybody that has read my reviews of previous Guitar Hero and Rock Band game can attest to that. Perhaps that's why I'm so offended by this Van Halen project. Here is a game with real potential, but it feels like everybody involved with making the game gave up halfway through the development. Guitar Hero: Van Halen is an enormous step backwards for both Activision and the music genre in general. This is a weak effort that seriously put into question Activision's seriousness about music games (or bands in general). No wonder they gave this game out for free and released it three days before Christmas.
This is not the game Van Halen fans have been waiting for. Not only does Activision's newest Guitar Hero game forget that Sammy Haggar and Gary Cherone were part of the band, but they also refuse to include any actual context or story to the music. Instead we get a re-skinned version of Guitar Hero World Tour with songs from bands that have nothing to do with Van Halen. This is a huge step backwards for not only Guitar Hero, but the music genre in general!
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