This may have just been a nightmare I had, but with the release of Guitar Hero 17: Hanson and Rock Band: Nickelback, I have been wondering where the music genre can really go from here. The shredding of plastic guitars which only a few years ago seemed so novel and exciting has gone exceedingly stale. Sure, there have been a few innovations (like drums and vocals) and enviable track listings for favourite bands, but the "hero" and "band" games have had a serious lack of forward thinking in recent times. Fortunately, someone at Acivision and Freestyle games was listening, because DJ Hero is here, and it gives the music genre a good defibrillator shot to the chest it so desperately needs.
For the uninitiated (which included myself), the turntable and mixing board have come together to create an instrument just as real as a guitar or piano. Coming from someone who never really gave much thought into what that DJ up high was doing with those records beyond moving them back and forth creating that awesome wikka-wikka-wikka sound, DJ Hero has educated me in a big way to the intricacies and challenges that are faced by real DJs who can actually create music with these tools.
Before you can begin your record spinning education, you'll have to familiarize yourself with the new DJ Hero turntable accessory. Yup, DJ Hero requires you to purchase yet another fake plastic instrument to play, and if you're anything like me, you'll already have a stack of them sitting in your closet as it is. Still, the new turntable is a joy to wield, and doesn't even take up that much room compared to some other peripherals. The peripheral includes a fully spinnable turntable with three buttons (green, red, and blue), a cross-fader switch that goes left and right, an effects knob, and a few other buttons. The controller is built very solidly and seems to stand up well to abuse and overzealous play styles. The button portion can also be detached and flipped around to accommodate lefties and righties. Playing the game with the turntable on your lap is both comfortable and intuitive. It's a well designed piece of kit, as evidenced by the game's $120 price tag.
DJ Hero obviously takes a few cues from other well known music titles, but rearranges them in a way that makes it feel refreshingly new. Gamers who have long grown bored with music games could very well find themselves sucked back in. At its heart, you're still hitting notes and gestures coming at you from an endless highway, warping notes to add your own vibe, and activating star power (which is called Euphoria here). But there are big differences this time around. There are only three tracks to the usual five, and hitting a cue can mean more than just pressing the right button at the right time. The biggest obstacle is getting the hang of cross fading. The left and right tracks represent two records, while the centre one is your sound effects. Since every track in the game is a mash-up of two separate songs, the cross fader determines what songs are heard. Moved to the left or right will only play samples from one of the two songs, while having it set in the middle will play both. It's tricky to get used to, and hitting the centre position is not as intuitive as it should be, but I managed to get the hang of it. Just make sure to go through the tutorials hosted by Grandmaster Flash himself.
The meat and potatoes of the experience is scratching the record. The feeling of holding down a button on the turntable and vigorously moving it back and forth is incredibly satisfying and fun. It simply never got old for me.
The rest of the mechanics are expected, welcome, and can be quite challenging. Rewinding is probably my favourite mechanic of the game. If you play enough notes successfully in a row, you'll earn the right to spin the record back and replay the last section, the more you spin, the further back you go. Euphoria is earned by hitting certain sections perfectly and also takes care of the cross-fading for you, which is essential for some of the tougher sections of the game.
I say tougher sections, but DJ Hero is not really a challenging game. There's no way to fail out of a song, and it likely won't take more than a day or two of practice before you'll be ready for hard mode, especially if you have past experience with the genre. The no failing mechanic is a double edged sword. On one hand, it makes the game infinitely more accessible to any player, and it makes trying the harder difficulties out less of a chore. On the other hand, you'll have no real incentive to better yourself other than getting a high score and unlocking the myriad of trinkets available. I personally found that not being able to fail a song took out a lot of the satisfaction I got from games like
Guitar Hero II, when I finally managed to conquer Hangar 18 on expert. Getting through to the end of the song no matter what is nice, but not nearly as fun as the former option in my book. With that said, hard and expert mode can have some positively befuddling sections that have you scratching, cross fading, flicking the cross fader switch quickly to hit spikes, hitting three buttons at once, and turning the effects knob all in a ten second span. It can be overwhelming, and mastering this game will take an insane commitment from even the most dedicated music gamer.
No music game, no matter how unique its mechanics is worth playing if the music sucks, and that's definitely not the case here. Instead of playing master tracks from a variety of artists, DJ Hero includes 93 different unique mashups of a huge variety of artists and genres. That's right, every track you hear in this game isn't available anywhere else, and has been put together by a plethora of talented DJs including Daft Punk, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Shadow, and the originator of DJing himself, Grandmaster Flash. Most of the mash-ups are impeccably put together and are simply a joy to listen to. While the game clearly favours the hip hop, rap, and techno ends of the spectrum, nearly every genre of music is represented in one way or another. No matter what your taste in music, I'm sure you'll find at least a few tracks that suit you. Artists such as Black Eyed Peas, Eminem, The Killers, Jay Z, Blondie, Third Eye Blind, The Jackson 5, Gwen Stefani, Queen, Beastie Boys, 50 Cent, Foo Fighters, Motorhead, and 2pac are all present and accounted for, and you've never heard them quite like this. You haven't lived until you've heard "Feel Good" by the Gorillaz mashed together with "Atomic" by Blondie. If all that isn't enough for you, more music is already available through DLC. DJ Hero even includes a party mode that simply plays the song with visuals from the game without any input.
It's too bad that multiplayer is practically a throwaway feature that not likely given much thought. You can have DJ battles both in person and online, where you compete for the highest score… and that's about it. There's also a DJ vs. Guitar mode included, which is exactly as it sounds. This mode had some more potential, but only ten tracks in the game support this mode. There's some online leaderboards as well, but they don't differentiate between difficulty level played, so unless you're a whiz at the game, expect your scores to be buried under all the prodigious gamers who can actually wrap their turntables around expert mode. Unfortunately, much like the DJ standing alone at their turntables at the club, most DJ Heroes will find themselves spinning solo.
Presentation is very good, but not without a few faults. The menus, while looking nice, are clunky and unintuitive. There's no quick play option just to play a single track. Everything in the game is done through set lists. You can either create your own set list of up to 8 songs (which can be frustrating to put together through the turntable controller), or progress through the main game playing pre determined set lists that tend to be grouped by theme or difficulty. The option of creating your own DJ and dressing them however you like is also disappointingly absent. On the plus side, there are tons of characters, costumes, accessories, and digital turntables to unlock. The more stars you earn on any given song give you more and more unlockables. You may not be able to create your own DJ from scratch, but you can likely find one to suit your own taste.
While graphics in music games are usually a moot point due to the player being focused on the oncoming notes, DJ Hero still looks great in action. The developers have really captured the club vibe. The clubs are packed with backup dancers spinning glow batons, shaking their booties, and crowds that are numerous. The levels are nicely varied, and well rendered with lots of little details. Your DJ looks fantastic in action and is superbly animated. I only wish that the DJ animations corresponded to what you were doing in the song. There were a few sections where I was furiously keeping up with onslaught of scratches and cross fades, only to see my DJ pumping both arms in the air. That small nitpick aside, Freestyle games has truly nailed the in game presentation.
After playing the game nonstop for days now, I think it's safe to say that DJ Hero has me excited about music games again. While there's clearly some room for improvement in future instalments, this initial foray into the world of DJ'ing is one well worth making. With its unique angle, attitude, and presentation of an unexplored medium of music making coupled with an absolutely sublime track list and well put together peripheral, DJ Hero is simply a joy to play. Shove over that dusty drum kit, because it's well worth adding this one more fake plastic instrument to your game collection.