If you ask me, and since you're reading this review you are; DJ Hero last year gave the music genre a nicely needed shot in the arm. In a landscape dominated by Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands, it was a breath of fresh air to play a game that not only gave other genres like hip-hop and rap a starring role, but that also depended on an entirely new way to play the music, in this case a plastic turntable. DJ Hero 2 is a natural extension of the first game, adding new and exciting features, but unfortunately the novelty and track variety have been left behind for this sequel, potentially narrowing the target appeal of the game.
For the uninitiated, the DJ hero franchise has you spinning, scratching, hitting notes and cross fading your way along an endless highway of prompts. Different prompts will notify the player about when it's time to shift the track left and right, when to scratch the record, when to hit the coloured notes, and so on.
The game ships with a turntable or two depending on the version you buy, and the hardware is as solid as ever. The tables come with the crossfading switch, an effects knob, and the spinner plate with three buttons. While the act of playing DJ Hero has as much to do with actual DJ'ing as Guitar Hero has with playing real guitar, the entire act of scratching the record back and forth to some intense beats holds some significant appeal. The fact that the game has an entirely unique soundtrack of over 80 mash-ups only adds to value. This is a soundtrack you won't get anywhere else.
With last year's game, all the mash-ups were pre-recorded and there wasn't much room for creativity. This has all changed for this sequel. Now, certain sections of songs will allow you to choose which side the cross fader should be set to, conversely which song of the mash-up you'll hear. Also, the sound effect button on the middle track is now song specific, instead of the incessant "yeeeeaaaah boyeeee" sound effect that polluted the wonderful mixes the first time around. Finally, certain sections allow you to freestyle scratch, and the speed upon which you scratch is reflected within the game's audio.
The rest of the gameplay is much like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, including Euphoria which can pull your butt out of the fire like Guitar Hero's star power, and the ability to rewind the track for extra points by spinning the plate backwards.
With the new additions, DJ Hero 2 should be easily more fun to play than the original right? Well, sort of. The creative mechanics and greater player input definitely make the game more fundamentally fun to play, but the lack of track variety from the last game hurts. The original tried to be a jack of all trades, spanning nearly every genre of music like rock, pop, metal, hip-hop, rap, techno, and so on. DJ Hero 2's set list is populated (and polluted) by an excess of modern club music, hip-hop, and little else. If names like Chamillionaire, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, 50 Cent, Eminem, Missy Elliot, Nelly, Pussycat Dolls, and Flo Rida populate your iPod, then you'll be in music nirvana here. Unfortunately, if these tunes aren't your cup of tea, you're going to be caught Ridin' Dirty. That's the right connotation right? Even classic names in the genre like Public Enemy, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, and many more are left behind, let alone more eclectic acts that appeared in the first game like Blondie, Queen, Motorhead, and Blink 182. To put it simply, DJ Hero 2's soundtrack is excellent for the target audience, but the lack of variety in the tracks limits the appeal to club goers and top 40 hip-hop fans, and little else. If have to hear "it's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes" one more time, I'm going to throw my turntable through the TV. If there was ever a case study for just how misogynistic rap and hip hop are, it can be found here.
In another improvement over the original game, there's a new Empire mode, upon which you take you DJ from the streets up to a DJing sensation. The mode isn't anything you haven't seen in past Guitar Hero or Rock Band titles, but it's a welcome addition here. In Empire mode, the game will guide you through pre-determined set lists that flow together beautifully. In a nice touch, the next mix will begin right after the last one ends, making for a flowing and realistic DJ experience. You'll never hear a club DJ stop for half a minute in between songs, so it's nice that the gapless tracks made the cut here. The rest of Empire mode has you unlocking and purchasing new songs, clothes, turntables, venues, and accessories for your DJ to play around in, but the depth pretty much stops there.
To get through Empire mode, you'll also have to contend with DJ battles which are fun against real people, but infuriating against the computer. Battles are scored by checkpoints, and whoever has the higher percentage of hit notes in a given checkpoint will be awarded a point. Unfortunately, even on medium difficulty, the computer will hit 100% of their notes at least half the time, leaving you with a lost point even if you hit 97%. These battles are also longer and less interesting than the mashups on the main soundtrack. The idea that you're battling Tiesto and other well known DJs is a plus, but doesn't excuse the impassable brick walls that the battles cause, especially on higher difficulties. Against a real person, the battles are much more fun and a test of skill rather than attrition.
Of course, if Empire mode doesn't tickle your fancy, then there's always the quickplay mode. In a nice touch, the game ships with dozens of songs already unlocked for your perusal.
There's also a party play mode, in which players or party goers can just enjoy the beats and tracks, without anyone having to perform them. Players can jump in and out of the mode with a push of a button, making DJ Hero 2 a must-have for your next party.
New to the fray this year is also the ability to sing along with a USB microphone, but the feature is an afterthought and not much fun to play. In a technical sense it's entirely functional, but considering the exclusive mash-ups in the soundtrack, singing along requires a lot of learning on the player's part. Few will be able to keep up on a first listen, and the rewards don't outweigh the effort required.
Keeping with the party game atmosphere, DJ Hero 2 features a full suite of multiplayer modes, and this is clearly the way the game is meant to be played. Aside from the aforementioned DJ battles, players can do score competitions and streak battles. The streak battles are unique in that you only get a score once you've "banked" your streak. So even if you hit 100 notes in a row and your opponent only hits 75, only the player with the highest banked score will win. Do you bank early or do you try and get through that gauntlet of crossfades and scratches for a truly unbeatable score? It adds strategy and urgency, and is easily the most fun of the multiplayer modes. All the modes are available in single and multiplayer.
You won't see it when you're heavily focused on the notes careening towards you, but DJ Hero 2 is a very pretty game. The cartoonish art style and detailed venues come together nicely, and everything runs at a smooth framerate. Members of the audience are nicely varied and have some slick dance moves to show off. It's also nice that the DJ on stage corresponds to your actions, even moving the in game cross fader right or left as you do in real life, even in the freestyle sections. For a game so focused on party atmosphere, it's a good thing that the game looks so nice.
DJ Hero 2 is fundamentally more fun than its predecessor, but the single-minded track list leaves something to be desired. Those with tastes outside of modern club music will be left in the cold like scrawny nerds waiting to be let into an exclusive club by a burly bouncer. If the artists mentioned above are your cup of tea, or you're looking for an automated DJ for your next party, then definitely jump in with both feet.