There once was a magical yet terrifying time full of humongous hair, T-top convertibles and jeans so tight that you may as well have just painted your lower body denim blue and called it a day. This strange era was known as the ’80s, and it was also the heyday of arena rock: soaring anthems and screeching guitars with the sole purpose of driving listeners to the very brink of rock euphoria. Of the bands that dabbled in power chords and spandex, perhaps none was more successful or created a more enduring legacy than Van Halen. Now, over two decades later, the band is getting the Guitar Hero treatment, and while the music is just as powerful as ever, both the band and the franchise are beginning to show their age.
The Guitar Hero franchise is no stranger to band-centric games, as evidenced by earlier releases featuring the likes of Aerosmith and Metallica. Thus far, each entry in the franchise has showcased the headlining band, a number of other acts who have toured with or inspired the main attraction, and a bevy of bonus material to take players behind the scenes of rock stardom. It’s sort of like a VH1 “Behind the Music” special and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony all wrapped into one. For inexplicable reasons, though, Guitar Hero: Van Halen has none of the extra trappings of the other band-based spinoffs, instead offering merely a 45-song set list, a handful of pop-up trivia extras and nothing else. A big part of what made the other packages so appealing was all the nostalgia and inside information they packed in, giving players exclusive interviews and videos of the bands as they actively worked on the game; this edition serves as more of a cash-in, leaving fans wondering if the band had any interaction with the project whatsoever beyond simply licensing the songs.
This bare-bones approach continues into the mechanics of the game, as the developers have eschewed the graphical and organizational advances of Guitar Hero 5 and scaled back this game so that it looks and feels exactly like GH: Metallica. Gone are the instrument-specific and band-centric challenges, and once more new songs and venues are unlocked via earning stars. Even worse, the drop-in, drop-out party play feature is also absent, as is DLC support. Whereas the last full Guitar Hero sequel was robust and full-featured, this game rolls back all those advances and just sticks with the old standards.
Because Van Halen is the most drama-filled band this side of Guns N’ Roses, the other major problem with the title is that huge swaths of the band’s catalog are missing. You see, the game features David Lee Roth as the lead singer, so not a single Sammy Hagar song was allowed into the final build of the game. While many may argue that Roth was the vocalist on the band’s most iconic hits (tracks like “Jump” and “Hot for Teacher”), it’s still more than a bit unfair to completely write off the contributions Hagar made to the band in his time at the microphone. If you are a Van Halen fan who favors the Hagar years, be forewarned: disappointment lurks.
One other bit of band drama, which could potentially alienate fans, should also be mentioned. In addition to the Roth/Hagar feud, the band has also not-so-amicably parted ways with former bassist Michael Anthony and replaced him with Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. When you play through the Van Halen sets, it will be Wolfgang’s chubby face you see manning the bass rather than Anthony. This isn’t a big deal throughout the majority of the game when you’re playing as the current Van Halen lineup, but near the end, the title gives you access to “classic” Van Halen, and still Anthony is nowhere to be seen. Wolfgang is just given some teased hair and a loud outfit, and everyone’s just supposed to accept it. The whole issue might not be that big of a deal to most, but true Van Halen fans have every right to feel bitter about the slight.
Once you get past all the band drama, though, you find a game that is genuinely fun and may be one of the more enjoyable Guitar Hero titles to land in quite a while. Whereas Guitar Hero 5 tried to cast a wide net and appeal to the largest possible audience, GH: Van Halen hones in on a more specific sound and carries the hard rock feel all the way through. Even the songs that don’t fit genre-wise are still circumstantially appropriate, as a track like “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne makes good sense on the same game that showcases “Hot for Teacher.” Furthermore, it won’t take long for the game to remind you what a guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen is, and his fancy fretwork is among the best the franchise has seen in a long time. This ultimately may not be one of the biggest set lists we’ve ever seen in a rhythm game, but it is probably one of the best.
The unfortunate thing about Guitar Hero: Van Halen is that it really had the potential to shine, but there just seemed to be too much working against it. The ongoing band feuds have eliminated not only a large section of the group’s catalog, but a founding member as well, and laziness on the part of all parties involved means that there’s nearly nothing added to the game to give it the extra content we saw in the Aerosmith and Metallica editions. That’s tragic because the game is a great deal of fun and has a good number of tracks to shred to and belt out at the top of your lungs. While this is by no means a bad game, we’ve just come to expect more out of Activision, and this time, they let us down. While this title may throw you in a DeLorean and transport you back in time for a weekend, there just isn’t enough here to make you want to relive the ’80s forever. Then again, maybe that’s for the best.