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Avatar ImageGamer Limit Review: DJ Hero
By: | October 31st, 2009 | Xbox 360
Review |X360

DJ Hero screenshot

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:

DJ Hero turntable

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 screenshot 2

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!

DJ Hero screenshot 3

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.

Rating Category
8.0 Presentation
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.
How does our scoring system work?
9.0 Gameplay
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.
9.5 Sound
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.
8.0 Longevity
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.
9.0 Overall
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.

  1. It really does have an eclectic assortment of music. This is probably speaking to a very small population of people, but Paul van Dyk’s song – Nothing But You – in the game is really overshadowed by Sandy Rivera’s – I Can’t Stop, which is a shame cause the song is so good. Despite it, I do like the mash-up.

    • avatar Ratmir

      a good blues guitar solo?ive heard a song celald mud pie its in a book at my school and htere are vids of it on youtube and i relli liked it is there any other solos or songs like it i can play? just sumthing that is blues music or an easy solo for an average guitar player?

  2. Best rhythm game of all time, in my opinion, given my time with it.

    • avatar David

      Natural Minor and Harmonic Minor are good for metal. Check out Marty Friedman’s work with Megadeth for some fine examples. For Rock, dpeindeng on the style (hard rock, southern rock, blues rock, etc), you can use Natural Minor, Dorian, Pentatonic, Major or Mixolydian. You improvise solos well by practicing within the particular style of song you want. For metal, you’re generally going to be soloing in natural minor, so practice that scale, and do it all over the neck of the guitar. If you have a sequencer, you can set it to just pedal on a certain chord, and practice your scales over that chord. Also practice bending notes. If you can already play the blues, you should be able to play metal. Pentatonic scales also work for that.For Rock, do the same thing, but with major, pentatonic and minor scales. If you want to play something that sounds a little jazzy, or like the Allman Brothers Band, throw a Dorian scale in the mix. If you want to play something like an Eagles song in a major key, try some mixolydian (also good for country). Just make sure to keep practicing everything, and you’ll get it fairly quickly.

  3. I was similarly mystified by the lack of character customisation. Especially in a game that had so much clothing product placement. I’d have to agree that this is one of those “innovations” that will conveniently get included in DJ Hero 2 as “amazing new content!”. Bless your evil marketing masterminds, Acti :P

    Also, why no fully unlocked setlist for quickplay? They spend so much time learning lessons for GH, and now they forget them all on a semi-new IP?

    Other than that, I do love the game. Nice review, Nick :)

  4. I’ll wait for the inevitably better Harmonix version with a better setlist more true to the Beatmania heritage.

  5. @Jordan
    It’s hard to top this setlist, and it’s hard to say whether or not Harmonix will even make one. While I’m equally as cynical about Activision products, this is the real deal.

  6. I really wish people would stop calling this an “Activision” Product. Activision has only been involved with this game a very short time. They most likely had very little say so over the developement of it, since they only came into the picture in the last year or so.

    Great review Nick. I hope to be getting the Renegade Edition of this for my birthday in a week. I’m extremely excited. :-)

  7. @ Jordan
    I actually played Beatmania again before this came out to compare, and DJ Hero blows it out of the water in every way imaginable. Despite the pop and rock songs, the mash-ups make them sound very techno, if that’s what you’re looking for. And the end-game is nearly all hardcore DJ techno (Paul Van Dyk, Tiesto, Scratch Perverts)… it just works, trust me.

    The first time I saw the game, I thought, “Meh.” Then I played ONE song at a GameStop demo kiosk and knew where my rent money was going this month… Luckily I talked myself out of the Renegade Edition, Shawn. The 2 CD’s, case, and metal knobs just isn’t worth the extra $80 to me. Even though it’s so, so pretty. Didn’t you just get a PSPgo for your “other” birthday a few weeks back??? No wonder you’re so old, you have 10 birthdays a year! :D

    My dream would be to get Harmonix and Activision to work together for a bit to mash-up the Frequency and Amplitude soundtracks as the greatest DLC of all time.

    Oh, and one point I didn’t make, because I didn’t know yet. The downloadable songs are $3 a pop (up from GH’s and RB’s $2 each), presumably due to having double the licensing fees. Luckily, there are so many songs – and every one a blast to play – that you won’t even need DLC for quite a while.

    I don’t see how Scratch (the other DJ game due out soon) will ever be able to top this.

  8. Well I still think the gameplay and overall challenge of DJ Hero still dwarfs the original Beatmania games… and anyone who claims that this setlist is true hardcore techo really need to check themselves at the door in my opinion.

    I think Harmonix will come out with their own version eventually, though, like Rock Band, they’ll probably do it in a more logical and overall better way (like making a turntable just an addon instrument for the overall band in Rock Band 2?)

  9. Really good review, Nick! I love Guitar Hero, but I’ve never got into it as much as my friends because I’ve never really been into the whole ‘rock’ theme. Musically, this has much more appeal to me – no doubt us English folk have pay through the nose for it, though!

  10. I want to buy this, and no doubt does it look impressive, but the need for an additional peripheral just to play with my brother is putting me off.

  11. Hrmm… high price tag. But it looks so cool!

  12. @Jordan
    I’d consider myself an electronica aficionado, and I don’t think DJ Hero really gives us a pure hardcore electronica setlist (it’s more like Paul Oakenfold’s “Faster Kill Pussycat” days than his underground ones), but the overall track quality is just killer in general.

    The Motown tracks, along with some classic R&B, Daft Punk, and not half bad pop tracks really make it for me.

  13. Yeah, perhaps “hardcore” was the wrong adjective choice. Still, the songs are all great and there’s something for everyone. Even the ridiculous pop tracks (Hollaback Girl? Boom Boom Pow?) are meshed into something – not only listenable – but also thoroughly playable and head-bop-able.

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