It wasn’t until the phenomenon that was the very first Guitar Hero that music games really became one of the driving forces of the gaming industry. The advent of Rock Band fleshed the genre out a bit more, adding vocals and drums, but there hasn’t been much to change the game since then. Until now. Admittedly, I was skeptical of DJ Hero when it was first announced. Guitar Hero managed to capture lightning in a bottle, and even though the market has since been flooded with follow-ups, I wasn’t sure the masses were ready for a game devoted to such a niche aspect of the music industry. I felt like Activision was going out on an extremely fragile limb. After setting up my faux turntable and starting the game up, I can unashamedly admit that not only is DJ Hero a good game, but I’m also enjoying the hell out of it.
Eschewing traditional controllers for a unique peripheral that emulates real DJ equipment, DJ Hero provides you with a scratch pad and mixer. The two parts are interchangeable to allow players to adjust the controller according to which hand they’re more proficient with. On the scratch pad, there are three colored buttons located on a turntable that rotates a full 360°. This is where you’ll be doing most of the work during any given song. Responsible for both the simulated record scratching and highlighting key phrases on either of the two tracks you’re currently mixing, the scratch pad is both fun and frustrating to use. It’s not that it’s difficult to work, it’s that there is just not enough resistance on the turntable. Even when your fingers are pressed down hard on the buttons, scratching feels very loose. Don’t get me wrong, it in no way ruins the fun you’ll have pretending to be a mix master, but during more difficult scratching sections where you’re switching back and forth between the two tracks, the amount of slack in the wheel becomes more obvious.
On the mixer you’ll find your fader, pitch modulator, and Euphoria activator. Cross fading is a crucial skill for a DJ, and it’s also an important part of the gameplay in DJ Hero. The fader has three positions: centered, all the way left, and all the way right. While there is a bit of leeway in regards to pushing the lever all the way in either direction when crossing back and forth between the tracks, there are times when the switch can be a bit sensitive and won’t register the fact that you’ve flicked it to the correct side. Again, this issue only really happens during more hectic moments, or on higher difficulty settings, so it doesn’t mar the experience much. The pitch dial isn’t required for use; during a mix, an orange indicator will appear over a track lane, and you have the option of tuning the pitch to modify the sound. It adds slightly to the DJ experience, making the track more unique, but doesn’t really do anything to differentiate multiple plays of the same songs. The Euphoria activator is simply a button above the fader that glows red when you’ve earned the ability to use it during a song. It’s easy to locate when in the middle of a complicated mash-up, and thankfully the game doesn’t make you do something silly like tilting the table in order to activate Euphoria, DJ Hero's version of Star Power.
Once you’ve got your equipment set up, it’s time to start up your single player career. The game opens with a mandatory tutorial that teaches you the basics of freestyle and directional scratching, cross fading, changing the pitch, Euphoria, and the Rewind feature. Rewind is a special ability that opens up when you’ve played perfectly for long enough. Once you’ve earned a Rewind, spinning the turntable backwards a full 360° activates it, allowing you to replay a brief section of the song. Doing so also gives you a temporary 2X multiplier, which doesn’t stack on top of other multipliers like Euphoria, but really lets you rack up points if you Rewind during a particularly scratch intensive portion of a song. I like the feature, as well as the idea of multiple aspects of the game activating multipliers, rather than just relying on Star Power in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Strangely, the game doesn’t allow you to use Rewind when playing with a friend, online, or during the guitar team-ups. It seems like there could have been a way to allow such a cool feature to be implemented in those aspects, and the lack of Rewind in those modes actually makes them less interesting to play.
If you’ve ever played a Hero game, you know that the main aspect of the game comes down to hitting the colored buttons in time with when their onscreen indicator reaches a particular point on the note highway. Here, not only will you have to hit the buttons in time, but you also have to pay attention for key sections where you’ll be asked to hold either the green or blue button down and scratch. Freestyle scratching allows you to flick the turntable in whatever direction you choose, as long as you scratch for the duration of the segment. Until you start playing on Hard, the only scratching you have to do is freestyle. Once you step up to either Hard or Expert difficulty, directional scratching comes into play. Scratch segments will require you to spin the record up or down, depending on which arrow indicator is showing. Longer scratches become more complex, asking you to work the turntable in the desired direction more often, and more rapidly, which really puts your reflexes to the test. When it comes to scratching, the difficulty scale between the first three tiers and the two hardest seems a bit skewed. Directional scratching should have been introduced gradually during Hard, but that difficulty also tasks you with more button presses, a faster pace, and more crossfading. I’m not saying that the difficulty should have been toned down, but the jump from Medium to Hard is much greater than that of Hard to Expert, or any other change for that matter.
Fortunately, there’s no way to fail a song in DJ Hero. Unlike either Guitar Hero or Rock Band, which end a song if you’re not performing well enough, DJ Hero simply drops the music out for a few seconds before picking a track back up again. Not ever failing a track is both good and bad. DJ Hero scores players on a five-star system. No matter what, you’re always guaranteed to get at least one star. Your progress in the game is tied to how many stars you’re able to earn. Unlocking anything in the game, be it set lists, new characters, costumes, or decks, is done by earning a set amount of stars. Continually doing poorly, and earning only one or two stars on songs, not only means you won’t be earning any of the unlockables, but it also prevents you from getting very far in the career. Not failing a player out also means players won’t learn which parts of a track are giving them trouble. There’s not a true practice mode in the game either, but since you can’t fail, I guess the devs figured there would be no need to practice. I can understand that not everyone will be able to get acclimated to the controller, and that some people may get turned off to the game if they’re continually failing out, but it should be up to the player to determine what his difficulty limit is. The game should provide a challenge with consequences, not hold your hand the entire time.
For the most part, when you’re playing a set list, DJ Hero is incredibly enjoyable. Just about everyone I know has pretended to scratch imaginary turntables at some point in their lives, and this game does an excellent job of conveying the feeling of DJing without having any actual skill. There are more than 90 mixes utilizing more than 100 different songs for you to orchestrate, some of which are more interesting than others. Like any music game, there are going to be some songs that you don’t care for, but with the overwhelming amount of songs in the game, there’s probably something for everyone. While it’s true that a fair amount of the songs reappear in later mixes, each track has its own identity, and will feel completely different from the last time you heard one of the two songs a given track consists of. What you will most assuredly get tired of are the sound effects you can use. There are around 10 different sets of effects you can interject into tracks when the game allows you. By hitting the red button during one of these cues, you can hear some of Flavor Flav’s signature calls, a generic “Hey!,”or silly space sounds, to name a few. They’re all pretty pointless, and don’t really do anything except add to the illusion that you’re actually in control of the mixing.
My only true gripe with DJ Hero’s gameplay is that every single aspect of a track is predetermined. There’s hardly any improvisation allowed in the game whatsoever. In a musical genre that’s as much about mashing up unexpected songs to create something new and different as it is about improvising scratches and fades, it’s strange to see that the game doesn’t share that sentiment. Yes, you can use the Rewind and change pitches, but only when the game says you can. Repeat plays of the same mixes are going to play out nearly identically to the last time you played them. It really is cool getting to scratch a record, but once you realize that scratch happens because the developers thought it would sound good in that spot, and not because you just felt like scratching, a little of the magic disappears. Granted, it’s probably pretty unrealistic to expect a company to release a game that relied completely on improvisation. There’d be no real way to track how you performed, and there has to be some sort of structure there to make it a game. But honestly, would it have been that hard to include a completely freestyle game mode? Just pick any track, and play it however you want. Hopefully that’s something that makes it into the inevitable sequel, but it still remains an odd omission.
Once you’ve had your fill of the single-player, there are a few different ways to play with a friend. If you know someone who also bought the game, and he wants to come over to your house, you can play against one another on any of the game’s set lists, or on a custom list you put together. Whoever gets the highest score wins. It’s pretty standard, and you’ll have the exact same option for playing online. I’m not sure what other types of modes they could have included, but by only including versus mode when using two turntables, the multiplayer feels a bit barren. The only other option you’ll have when playing with a second person involves a guitar peripheral, pending you or someone you know having one. Considering just how popular music games are at this point, it’s a safe assumption that you’ll have no trouble getting your hands on a plastic guitar. There are 10 songs in the game that allow one person to play DJ, while the other plays along with the guitar part of the rock song being mixed. The results are so-so, with many of the guitar tablatures not feeling as tight as they do in Guitar Hero, which is odd considering Activision publishes both titles. I’m not sure how much incentive there will be for people to continue to go back to the multiplayer for this title considering how sparse it is, but there’s enough there to get a little more mileage out of the game when you’re done with the single-player mode.
There’s actually much to be said about the game’s presentation. Playable characters are nicely rendered, and come with a multitude of different looks. Even the characterized versions of the real-life DJs like Grandmaster Flash and DJ Jazzy Jeff look great, fitting in perfectly with unique style of DJ Hero’s world. While it would have been nice to create my own DJ, there’s enough to work with that I didn’t mind using the game’s DJs one bit. The different locales at which you’ll be violating vinyl are brought to life with music video camera angles, eye-popping light shows, and go-go dancers galore. Pretty much everything on screen looks great, provided you’re not looking at the crowd. Full of generic shadows moving their arms in sync, the fans on the floor bring absolutely nothing to game. Playing to empty venues might have been a better idea. When everything else looks so good, any one aspect that looks terrible is magnified by how out of place it feels. Obviously the sound mixes are spot on. I didn’t notice a single section where something didn’t sound right, or wasn’t in the right place.
While I won’t go so far as to call DJ Hero the greatest thing to happen to music games since the first Guitar Hero, it certainly is one of the more exciting things to happen to the genre. DJ Hero explores the one avenue left vacant since Beatmania, and not only provides a game that breathes a bit of life into a genre that had started growing stale, but one that’s also a hell of a lot of fun to play, in spite of the steep price tag. There aren’t really a lot of places left to take music games, and outside of actually teaching you how to play, I’m not sure how many more new aspects we’re going to see in music games. Right now though, I’m not really worried about it. I’ve got a Daft Punk set to play, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.