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Guitar Hero: Van Halen

13:3725/02/2010Posted by Zoheir Beig14 Comments

By now videogamers will be well versed not just in the mechanics of guitar-based music games, but the entire critical discourse that surrounds them. It’s almost as though this review doesn’t need to exist; here’s the introduction, there’ll be the odd paragraph on how this is just glorified DLC dressed up as a standalone disc, and a little bit on the odd changes that may have been made since Band Hero and Guitar Hero 5 were released just six months ago. The only section that betrays the shifting fortunes of this once dominant and financially phenomenal genre will be the one that focuses on falling sales and drifting consumer interests – a far cry from the notices of 2008, when Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero: World Tour were set to launch and everything was still so exciting.

Here’s a bit about Van Halen, a band who sit uncomfortably in something of a rock no-man’s land. Lacking the simple brilliance of AC/DC, the mythic quality of a Motley Crue, they’re arguably still more of a focus for ironic hipster appropriation than they are for genuine adulation. So the choice of them to front their own Guitar Hero game, given that the last band to be given the honour were the mighty Metallica, is in itself a little baffling (they may be significantly bigger in the US then Europe, but American first week sales of just under 80,000 across all the game’s formats suggest that the apathy with music games is stronger than any identification with the band could possibly be). That Van Halen appear in this bastardised form, with one entire era of their history excised, is even stranger. Contractual disputes and tangled histories have long been hallmarks of rock and roll, but the fact that this background has been allowed to intrude on the substance of the game – cutting out all the tracks that featured the group’s second lead vocalist Sammy Hagar, which means no Why Can’t This Be Love(!) – itself reflects on the lack of effort expended on the project overall. The desire to make a Van Halen branded Guitar Hero game, whatever its quality, seems to have been a bigger consideration than making a Guitar Hero game that, at the very least, Van Halen fans would reasonably enjoy.

The difference is striking when compared to the two most recent band-focused music games, the aforementioned Guitar Hero: Metallica and The Beatles: Rock Band. In all fairness Van Halen is also subject to two of the biggest criticisms that were leveled at those games – as mentioned this is far from an exhaustive trawl through the band’s back catalogue, something which Harmonix’s McCartney/Starr-approved classic was also guilty of (although it was very well balanced), while the blandly functional presentation of GH: Metallica is replicated here. However in the areas where those games did excel – Rock Band’s achievement in singularly reflecting the essence and story of the band, Metallica’s generous bonus material and wide spectrum of music, Guitar Hero: Van Halen comes up short.

The game’s career mode presents batches of songs split into various regions, with pure-Van Halen sets alternating with those of their chosen “guest artists”. Although there is this semblance of structure, any sense of narrative or momentum is lost – the Van Halen tracks are grouped together with no care for chronology, whilst the only way to play a bunch of tracks consecutively – outside of the scene-setting introduction – is to program them yourself in Quickplay. It’s all rather joyless.

The 25 Van Halen tracks are supported by a further 19 additional songs by these guest artists, made up of groups that were mostly picked by the band’s current 18 year-old bassist, the improbably named Wolfgang Van Halen. These range from the genius (Blink-182’s First Date) to the teeth-gratingly bad (Tenacious D in general) to the inevitable track you don’t realise you know until it starts (Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life). It’s unlikely that anyone would buy the game for these tracks, especially as their crossover potential with any existing Guitar Hero games you may already own is rendered useless by the fact that you can’t import anything across. As a self-contained music game then, Guitar Hero: Van Halen really isn’t substantial or appealing enough to warrant extended play.

Guitar Hero itself is still a fiendishly playable game, and the note charts here are of a high standard (this is one area in which the franchise has been steadily improving following Harmonix’s departure). But the central problem with Activision’s latest isn’t so much that music games are past the point of saturation, that familiarity has bred boredom (though there is that as well); it’s that Guitar Hero: Van Halen would fare better were it a budget release, or a modest little DLC pack with character models. As it is we’re left repeating the same old tired journalistic clichés, like one of those Eddie solos that go on and on and on…

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