…playing Guitar Hero for the first time again. Don’t get me wrong, I still dig the Guitar Hero franchise, Rock Band too, but we’re up to the fifth installment of the former, the second for the latter, and that’s not including all the track packs, band-centric expansions and spin-offs that have stemmed. Guitar Hero and Rock Band lost their virginity long ago. For them it’s about fine-tuning the experience, coming up with killer set lists, and trying just enough new things to keep the formula from getting stale. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are the veterans of the rhythm scene while DJ Hero is the new kid on the block, aspiring to put a fresh spin on the genre with its spanking new turntable peripheral and diverse musical style.
Thumbs way up to the gameplay, which blends the tried-and-true rhythm formula with fresh elements put forward by the turntable controller. Like other rhythm games, DJ Hero measures your timing against a number of colored icons inexorably scrolling towards a timing bar. Obviously you need to hit the corresponding button as it hits the bar to continue your progress on the song, but that only scratches the surface of the DJ Hero experience. With turntable controller in hand, players will “scratch” by holding down a button and shifting the turntable back and forth, and use the crossfader to fade right or left to highlight a single track. There’s also an effects dial that allows you to manipulate a stream of music during various sections of songs, and you can pre-load a selection of freestyle samples - like a collection of Flavor Flav’s signature expressions - to improvise within a mix. Yeah Boyee!
Euphoria is to DJ Hero as Star Power is to Guitar Hero. When you successfully complete highlighted sections of a mix, the Euphoria button on the turntable controller lights up. Press it and your score multiplier will double just as it does with Star Power. Unique to DJ Hero, however, is a Rewind feature. If you can keep an 8x combo going long enough (using the effects dial will also double your multiplier), a green rewind icon will appear on the screen. When it does, you can spin the turntable back all the way around to rewind a section of a song to replay, while gaining a 2x multiplier bonus in the process.
Solo play is pretty similar to Guitar Hero. Once you complete the tutorial (voiced by none other than Grandmaster Flash), you’ll gain access to the first set list. Before you jump into that, you’ll have the opportunity to pick and outfit your character, select a deck and skin, and choose your freestyle sample set. Then choose a venue and away you go. As you earn stars you’ll unlock new set lists, venues, characters and gear. DJ Hero sports 93 exclusive mixes created from 102 songs and divided into 28 set lists. Do the math and you’ll realize most of the songs are used multiple times over, however the mash-ups are so unique and distinct, you’ll never feel like you’re playing anything resembling the same mix twice. In a video game genre dominated by rock, it’s great to see music styles like hip hop, pop, soul, dance and rap finally get their due. The track list is the star of the show and it’s backed by a number of world renowned DJs that lend their likeness and/or mixing skills to the experience, including Daft Punk, Jay-Z, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Shadow and the aforementioned Grandmaster Flash, just to name a few.
What Doesn’t Work
One of the areas DJ Hero comes up lacking is multiplayer (not dissimilar to when Guitar Hero debuted). It doesn’t make for a great party game the way Guitar Hero or Rock Band does, and that’s because DJ Hero works best as a solo experience. There is the ability to scratch one-on-one, if you have a second turntable controller, and if you hook up a guitar controller from the aforementioned Guitar Hero, you can co-operatively play through one of ten mixes as a Guitar and DJ duet. While I certainly appreciate the attempt to fuse the two franchises, it feels tacked on. Why? Because the Guitar/DJ mixes are some of the absolutely worst mash-ups on the entire set list. They’re awful. Even as I played through them in the solo campaign, I could not wait to get them over with.
When you play Guitar Hero, no matter the difficulty level, you feel like a rock star. The difference between playing on Expert as opposed to the Medium setting is simply the pace at which the notes scroll towards the timing bar, as well as the number of buttons you have to press. That’s all. It’s no less an immersing experience. The same can’t be said of DJ Hero. Until you’re able to play on the Hard difficulty level (some might argue the Expert setting), you’ll be missing out on more than just an increased pace and more button presses. You’ll be missing out on advanced DJ techniques like directional scratching and crossfade spikes. The good news is the gap between Medium and Hard, or Hard and Expert, isn’t as wide as Guitar Hero (where if you’re not adept at using your pinkie finger, you don’t stand a chance to become an Expert). In DJ Hero, with a little practice, most players should at least be able to play on Hard. Fair warning though, if you can’t get past the Medium difficulty setting, the virtual DJ experience might not be as engrossing for you.
Last but not least, while the turntable peripheral is generally well designed, it does have a couple of issues. For starters, the three buttons located on the turntable itself can get quite slick during lengthier sets, and that can make scratching, particularly with the inner-most button, more challenging. The other issue is the Euphoria button, which is located above the crossfader, to the left of the effects dial. To activate Euphoria you have to take your hand off the crossfader. You risk losing your score multiplayer if you activate Euphoria at the wrong moment during a mix. I don’t know if there’s a better solution (perhaps turning the crossfader into a button itself, one you press down like you would an analog stick on a regular controller, that way you don’t have to take your hand off it), but it’s simply far less convenient than the ingenious method in which you activate Star Power in Guitar Hero.
The Bottom Line
I haven’t had this much fun with a rhythm game in awhile. DJ Hero doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made Guitar Hero and Rock Band into household names, but it has a fresh quality about it that the former titles expended long ago. It’s the kind of game you’ll lose nights and weekends to as you say to yourself, “just one more mix, one more set list.” When the inevitable sequel drops next holiday (this is Activision we’re talking about), fingers crossed developer FreeStyleGames will include a feature along the lines of Guitar Hero’s Music Studio, whereby players can create their own mixes and mash-ups. A practice mode wouldn’t hurt either. In the meantime, if scratching vinyl appeals to you, or you enjoy this style of music, you should absolutely give DJ Hero a spin.