Guitar Hero: Van Halen Review

By Andrew Pfister - Posted Dec 21, 2009

Van Halen have long been on everyone's wishlist to play in 'Guitar Hero,' and, finally, they have their own game. 'Guitar Hero: Van Halen' is chock full of golden oldies, but also comes with some other artists of questionable taste, and is missing some key elements.

The Pros
  • Lots of really good early Van Halen songs
  • Note layouts that highlight Eddie Van Halen's guitar work
  • Details about EVH's guitar setup for each song
  • Excellent sound quality
The Cons
  • Missing Sammy Hagar's songs & Michael Anthony's presence
  • No drop-in/drop-out from GH5 (World Tour engine?)
  • Wolfgang's horrible 18-year old musical taste
  • Not exportable
  • Should have been DLC

As the result of some odd timing, Van Halen and video games have been linked together in my mind for years now. It was the release of Greatest Hits: Volume I that really got me into the band and their older catalog, which was also approximately the time I was heavily invested in Super Mario 64. So what would happen is that "Unchained" would be the musical backdrop to me working my way up Tick Tock Clock and the game's most challenging stars. Don't ask me why, but it worked. So the idea of Guitar Hero: Van Halen hits my sweet spot.

Guitar Hero Van Halen

Why Can’t This Be Love?

The execution? Frustrating, to say the least. Learning prior to release that the entirety of the Sammy Hagar era, aka "Van Hagar," instantly disqualified it as a tribute to the band's entire history, and while the group isn't really worthy of a Beatles-esque reverence, chronicling the in-fighting and drama of Van Halen would have made for some interesting window dressing. Sadly, the egos involved wouldn't have allowed for it, which is also why long-time bassist Michael Anthony is replaced by current band bass player and 18-year old son of Eddie Van Halen, Wolfgang. The Anthony omission is purely visual, but no Hagar means no "Right Now," "Why Can't This Be Love?", or "Poundcake."

So This Is Love?

And instead of Van Hagar, the set list is filled out with some truly, truly terrible musical choices. Alter Bridge (i.e. former members of Creed). Yellowcard. Blink-182. Fountains of Wayne. Bands and songs that have absolutely nothing to do with the spirit or sound of Van Halen (or even the late 70s/early 80s era of music in general). Even the respectable artists that were included like Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World, Weezer, and Queens of the Stone Age don't make sense within the context of the game. Billy Idol's "White Wedding" and "I Want It All" by Queen are great songs that are fun to play, but we are here for Van Halen.

To further illustrate the point, go to the iTunes Store and listen to the sample from "And the Cradle Will Rock," followed immediately by "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind. It's been reported that the person responsible for these selections was actually Wolfgang Van Halen. If that was the case, perhaps the game's producers would have been better off lying about being unable to secure the licensing rights.

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

Feel Your Love Tonight

The upside is that you can skip right past these songs in Quick Play, and if you're working through the Career mode, you'll only find yourself short of stars a few times, and you can pick the lesser of the available musical evils to get what you need to progress. And of course, the biggest upside is that the selection of early Van Halen tracks included in the game is really, really good. Few bands justify a stand-alone experience, but when it comes to the original essence of Guitar Hero, you'd be hard pressed to find chords, licks and riffs more appropriate than those of Eddie Van Halen. The sound quality of the recordings is excellent at louder volumes (a requirement, really), and the note layouts do their best to replicate/imitate/provoke Eddie's creative and unorthodox playing style by making liberal use of the touch-only notes and sustained notes. Michael Anthony's bass lines (as unfortunately played by Wolfgang) are equally as interesting, though obviously not as complex as the guitar leads. Not being a proficient drummer, I couldn't accurately evaluate the percussion part of the game, but Van Halen's combined rhythm section has always been the backbone of their catalog.

Personal favorites such as "Dance the Night Away," "Panama," and "Jamie's Cryin'" were as enjoyable as expected, while I developed a newly-found appreciation for songs I was less familiar with like "Somebody Get Me A Doctor," "Spanish Fly," and the power drill-generated "Intruder" as the intro to "(Oh) Pretty Woman." My Greatest Hits itch was definitely scratched.

Guitar Hero Van Halen

Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

It's disappointing that even though GH: VH is shipping after GH5, it doesn't use that game's engine, which means no drop-in/drop-out play. The return of the creepy "Chuck E. Cheese" animatronic character models is also sad to see, and is particularly disturbing when a deformed and aged David Lee Roth starts whispering about his legendary promiscuity to the camera. The signature toe-touching leap from the drum riser during "Jump" is significantly less cool, and given DLR's age, also fairly unrealistic.

Cosmetic affronts can be mostly ignored, but the inability to export the tracks in Guitar Hero: Van Halen to your collection in Guitar Hero: World Tour or Guitar Hero 5 is unacceptable, and raises the larger issue here: this should have been downloadable content packaged with a Van Halen aesthetic. If you're not going to make the experience about the full history of the band -- sordid and ego-laden as it may be -- then cut out the junk filler and give us "Best of David Lee Roth era" to download directly...or even sell on a cheaper disc, as $60/$50 (as of retail release) for the package as it currently exists is too much to ask.

It's a shame that the music has to suffer as a result of decisions made in a board room, because these songs truly are rock-and-roll classics and perfect for the Guitar Hero treatment. But like the band itself these days, there's way too much baggage attached.