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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Player’s Club: A Thorough Examination of the Music Games of 2009 (Part Two of Several)

band hero
guitar hero van halen

Last time I talked about Guitar Hero: Metallica and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, the first two high-profile music games released in 2009. Activision didn’t sit tight with just the two of them, pumping out a handful of additional Hero branded games as the year pressed on. And that’s without even getting into the Guitar Hero On Tour games on the DS, which are entirely not-getting-into-able. I abide by a firm anti-handheld music game policy, for a music game is not worth playing without a quality multiplayer experience or an interface that doesn’t cause intense physical pain. Even Rock Band Unplugged, a solid PSP remake of the Harmonix classic Frequency, feels completely unnecessary in the post-Rock Band era.

Guitar Hero 5 came out in September, and distinguished itself from GH: Metallica and Smash Hits by actually being worthwhile. It’s still ugly as sin, with infamously idiotic appearances from Kurt Cobain and Johnny Cash as in-game avatars. Other than the aesthetics it’s a notable step beyond all previous full-band Guitar Hero games. It even improves on Rock Band in one major way, with a simplified log-in system that gets you and your friends playing a song as quickly as possible. Between that, an unusually deep and diverse tracklist, and the crowd-pleasing ability to play any combination of instruments, Guitar Hero 5 makes a case as the current standard-bearer for the genre. That case is severely undermined by Guitar Hero’s anemic DLC catalogue, which comes nowhere near the volume and variety of Rock Band’s. These slim pickings lessen Guitar Hero 5’s usefulness as a party favor, but as a standalone music game it can’t be faulted. And Activision seems to getting serious about DLC; they released a new pack every week in December, including the music game debuts from indie-rock giants Pavement and Spoon. If they ever concocted a regular DLC schedule Guitar Hero 5 would be hard to beat.

Band Hero arrived two months later with candy-colored box art and a setlist full of saccharine pop music that only a 12-year-old girl would ever listen to. That’s not really true, of course, but that didn’t prevent that image from quickly suffocating Band Hero. Perhaps marketing the game almost entirely around Taylor Swift is to blame. In reality Band Hero’s setlist is a solid mix of pop and rock from the last forty years. It’s a little light at only 65 tracks, considerably less than Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2, and there is a notable slant towards the last decade, but Band Hero offers more variety than its rep would have you believe. It doesn’t mess with deep cuts and there’s nothing here for metal or indie-rock fans, but you’re fronting way too hard if you can’t find anything you like here. Still, there’s little aesthetic and no technical difference between Band Hero and Guitar Hero 5. Like Smash Hits Band Hero is just a trumped-up track pack that in many ways would make more sense as DLC. Not everybody takes their system online, of course, but the split retail track pack / eventual DLC route seems to work for Rock Band. In the case of Band Hero, shouldn’t consumers be free to choose how to best experience the supple emotion of Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul”?

The week before Christmas Activision dropped Guitar Hero: Van Halen unto a nog-fueled public overtaken by an unquenchable lust for toxic robo-hamsters. Van Halen wasn’t released so much as abandoned on the side of the road in hope that somebody, anybody would give the poor game a nice warm home. It can’t even satisfy hardcore Van Halen fans, completely ignoring the Hagar years and replacing long-time bassplayer Michael Anthony with Eddie Van Halen’s teenaged son. Sure, it’s an undeniable blast to rip through “Runnin’ With the Devil”, “Panama”, and other Roth-era hits (which is obviously the band’s heyday), but with horrible character models, nonsensical non-Halen songs, and egomaniac Eddie’s trademark historical revisionism, there ain’t nobody talkin’ ‘bout love when it comes to Guitar Hero: Van Halen.

Next time: DJ Hero! Lips! Other stuff! Believe it!

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