Activision hasn’t been #1 in a lot of people’s books in quite awhile. Between increasing the Modern Warfare 2 MSRP, using Kurt Cobain as a commercial tool, and milking their Guitar Hero license to the point of ridiculousness, they need to do something to redeem themselves.
Enter DJ Hero. Can a hip-hop-flavored booster shot inject life into the over-saturated music game genre? Or is Activision’s latest experiment merely a high-priced hip-flop?
The best way to describe the DJ Hero experience is through analogy. Remember the first time you played Guitar Hero? The very first time – before your friends had heard of it, before bands released forthcoming albums in playable form before they hit stores, before they had the means or influence to license songs and had to settle for covers played by Harmonix programmers?
The music game landscape was fresh, clean, new, exciting, and untarnished by the sins of the past. That’s how DJ Hero feels. The basic layout of the playfield is the same, but the new turntable peripheral and some incredibly well-crafted music mash-ups will make you recall why you fell in love with the genre in the first place.
First, the controller. Music games are all about the controller, of course:
Simply put: it’s solid. The turntable is (to my pleasant surprise) wireless, and it feels just as good on your lap as on a table in front of you. The gameplay consists of scratching (holding down the green or blue buttons while sliding the “record” back and forth), tapping (pushing the green, red, or blue buttons in time with the beat a la Guitar Hero), and crossfading (sliding the knob on the left side of the turntable to either side, adjusting the mix of the music).
Even if you are a Guitar Hero legend, this is a whole different ballgame. You’ll go through the tutorial, you’ll start on Easy, and you’ll ease yourself into the game like a too-warm hot tub. The five difficulty levels each introduce new play mechanics to the game, so a five-star performance on Medium doesn’t mean you’ll score any more than two stars on Hard.
Wait, two stars? Yep, DJ Hero utilizes all five grades because – and this is important – you can never fail a song. Just like real life, it keeps playing to the end even if you suck. Don’t worry, though – missing all the notes still has the power to make you feel like a complete failure, so don’t worry, purists!
Next: the music. When I originally heard of DJ Hero and their Eminem/Jay-Z pack-in CD, I naturally assumed that the entire game would be rap-focused, like the Karaoke Revolution wannabe, Get on da Mic. I was wrong.
DJ Hero samples songs from all across the past five decades, in a number of different genres, and then mashes two of them together to make a playable mix. With over 100(!) songs and 93 unique mixes, you have about 10-15 solid hours of music you’ve never heard before.
The Jackson 5, Isaac Hayes, Beck, Foo Fighters, Gwen Stefani, the Black Eyed Peas, Mobb Deep, Grandmaster Flash, Tiesto, and Daft Punk all make an appearance, and the mixes are obviously well-crafted by experts in their field. Some of the mash-ups sound ridiculous on paper, but Activision went out of their way to make sure there is something here for everyone.
To appeal to more people, there is still no swearing in any of the songs. I understand the reasoning, but they are attempting to recreate the club vibe with this game, and I have never noticed the absence of naughty language more than I do in a Top-20 Eminem song from my youth. Acitivision made a tremendous effort to get the support of many real-world DJs to add an air of validity to the game and the concept, and the lack of swearing (particularly in the rap songs) makes it feel a half-step off-base from the image they are attempting to replicate.
Also, despite the Hero moniker, this really isn’t a party game. It’s a game to play in the dark by yourself as you drift into your own DJ persona – you’ll find yourself bobbing your head and using unnecessary hand flourishes after successful scratch sequences, and it’s great.
There is the expected local and online multiplayer utilizing two turntables with/against each other, but they still haven’t updated the match-finding lobby. Is it too much to ask for a simple number telling us how many people are seeking a match in each difficulty level, so I don’t have to wait sixty seconds in the lobby only to be told, “No games found”? Amplitude could do it on the PlayStation 2. Improve the matchmaking, Activision!
One neat feature of the multiplayer is that a DJ and a guitarist can team up, so your Guitar Hero-loving friends can play too. Unfortunately, this option is only available on ten of the songs and the two instruments don’t seem to coalesce in any meaningful way (a lot of techno music doesn’t utilize the guitar, apparently).
There is also – according to the instruction manual – a way to have one player emcee with a USB microphone while the other scratches. However, the way to get a game going with a singer is so backwards and asinine that I was personally never able to figure it out, no matter how many menus I scrolled through. If it wasn’t for one of the achievements requiring a singer, I would never have known it was an option.
The menus in general are likewise unintuitive. Spinning the record should navigate the menus left and right – simple as that. Forcing me to use the crossfader /effects knob combination to make menu selections (outside of the tiny d-pad) just feels completely wrong.
Finally, DJ Hero suffers from a few “new franchise” issues, which will most likely be addressed in the inevitable sequel. There is no Create-a-DJ mode. Setting up a playlist and finding that particular song you like is an unnecessary chore. And finally, its $120/$200 price tag is sure to put off more than a few buyers. But please, if you have the cash, don’t let it.
Despite a few quibbles and a clunky menu, DJ Hero is the invigorating force that the music game genre needed. It’s fresh, it’s funky, and despite sharing a few visual cues with its guitar-based brethren, it’s refreshingly original. Once the gameplay starts, you won’t want to put it down.
Just don’t expect this to be a game that you can have all your friends over to play together. It’s more of a role-playing DJ game: you geek out alone in your basement and you wonder what all the allure of social gaming is after all. It can’t be more fun than this.
The graphics are crisp and believeable (just like the club!) and the characters are interesting. A cumbersome menu system drags down the front end, but the game itself looks great.
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It's a fresh take on the scrolling notes inherent in music games, you'll actually feel like a DJ as you scratch and crossfade two completely different songs into something unique and spectacular.
An eclectic sampling of songs across all genres ensures that there is literally somthing for everyone. Unlike every Guitar Hero iteration, I didn't find a single song that I actually hate; that's quite an impressive feat.
Getting good enough to play on anything higher than Medium difficulty will take some dedication, but it's worth the time investment and there are plenty of unlockables to keep you going. A weak multiplayer aspect is unexpected from a Hero game, however.
Despite some lacking multiplayer and an awkward menu screen, the actual DJ experience is as lifelike - and fun - as video games have ever achieved. Don't let the high price tag turn you off of the freshest music game since the original Guitar Hero.