The idea of creating a peripheral-controlled video game based on being a DJ isn't an entirely new concept. Konami released one for Japanese arcades in 1997 called Beatmania, which later came to the U.S. in 1998. While it got some moderate success in the arcades, that success and popularity weren't there when it was finally released to the PlayStation 2 in early 2006. Some attribute the lack of success to the track list, which consisted of songs very unfamiliar to most players. Others say that the time wasn't right for a peripheral-based game to come out, especially for a system that was getting long in the tooth. Whatever the reason, Beatmania became nothing more than an arcade success and a home console footnote. Three years later, Activision and FreeStyle Games are trying their hand at making a DJ game with a slightly different approach. The result is DJ Hero, and it is one of the fresher rhythm games to come out in some time.
The first thing to understand about this game is that you'll be playing a completely new genre of music: the mash-up. Also known as a bootleg in some countries, the mash-up is the result of mixing together two different songs, sometimes from two completely different genres. You can think of it like an ultimate remix of a song, where you can hear something like "Brass Monkey" get mixed in with "Another One Bites The Dust," and it all sounds like it naturally belonged together.
DJ Hero plays just like any other recent Guitar Hero game. Notes will come down a highway, and it's your job to hit them in order to get the song to keep playing. Once the song ends, you'll earn stars based on your performance before moving on to the next song in the set. Accumulated stars open up a large variety of things, including more set lists with new decks, DJs, outfits, songs and venues.
Because this game tries to emulate the motions of a DJ, there are enough differences here that will throw off veteran rhythm gamers for a short while until they get used to how things go. Button taps are the same as in other games, where you have to hit the colored icon at the right moment with the corresponding button on the controller.
That's where similarities end.
Instead of sustained notes, long note sections are where you scratch the record until the section ends. Scratching can be done in any direction, but the game asks for scratching in specific directions on the higher difficulty levels. Long stretches on the red note highway are used for playing samples, and while they don't add too much to the total points for a song, they do add in a touch of personal flair. The green and blue highways will experience shifts to the left and right, respectively, and this is where the player has to use the cross-fader to switch focus between the two tracks that are being mixed. Finally, orange arcs will appear over certain note highways, which means you can use the effects dial to place focus on either the bass or treble of the track. You have to pay attention to all of this on all difficulty levels. On both Hard and Expert difficulties, you'll be introduced to the aforementioned directional scratching as well as cross-fader spikes, where you'll have to jolt the cross-fader to the suggested direction before putting it back in the middle.
As stated before, the song selection is comprised solely of mash-ups. To help people get interested in both the genre and the game, the developers chose to make mash-ups of some pretty popular songs, both current and from the past. Want something you'd still hear on the radio? "Day 'N' Nite" by Kid Cudi and "Universal Mind Control" by Common are in here. Want some dance music? Several tracks from Daft Punk and "Genesis" by Justice can be heard. Is rock music more your thing? "Beverly Hills" by Weezer and "Ace of Spades" by Motörhead have you covered.
With the inclusion of tracks as varied as "Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard, "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. and "Poison" by Bell Biv Devoe, there's something for everyone to get slightly interested. What's more impressive is how well these songs mix together. Mixing "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice with "U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer would be expected and a rap fan's dream come true, but something unexpected like "We Will Rock You" by Queen mixed with "Robot Rock" by Daft Punk is equally as impressive.
The 93 mixes included in DJ Hero are all original pieces that fit perfectly for a rhythm game. If there is one fault that someone could find with the musical selections, it would be that some songs are used a bit too often. "Disturbia" by Rihanna, for example, is a great song, but hearing it in three different mixes is a bit too much. The overall soundtrack would have been better served with some different songs instead.
The title features a few interesting quirks that help pull in new rhythm game fans and confuse them as well. To date, this is the only rhythm game where a player cannot fail. You can perform poorly enough to earn zero stars, but the song will not prematurely stop if you can't play well at all. At most, all you'll hear is silence, which is something you don't want to hear, but at least new players won't feel the sting of failure time and time again if it turns out that a particular mix is proving to be a challenge. Unlike other rhythm games, there's no quick play or practice mode available. The only way to play a specific song or a specific set of songs is to go to the custom mix entry and manually add songs. Finally, like Guitar Hero 5, this game features a Party Play mode, where you can leave this game alone as it plays a list of songs that you've set up. Anyone can take control in the middle of the song and start playing from there, but with music this good for parties, you might want them to leave the mix alone for a bit.
The single-player mode may be excellent but the multiplayer, while varied, doesn't feel as exciting. Local multiplayer has you pitted against another DJ in your basic duel mode. You two may be playing the same song, but you'll never hear the song quality change if one DJ makes any mistakes, making it hard to tell who's winning until the song is done. Local multiplayer also requires another turntable, something that's hard to come by since the game and turntable aren't sold separately. It's easy to find guitar controllers, and the game uses them when playing co-op multiplayer, but very few of the 93 mixes employ guitar play along with turntable play; turntable/guitar mash-ups might not get played too much. Finally, the game has online multiplayer, but as of this writing, the quality of online gameplay couldn't be reviewed since there doesn't seem to be anyone playing online.
The sound is always paramount to any rhythm game. Aside from the music selection, the sound should not interfere with the gameplay or break the illusion that the player is playing said music. To that end, the sound for the game is excellent. The music selection has already been discussed at length, but it must be said that the manipulation of these mixes by the player comes out rather nicely. The use of the effects bar to amplify bass or treble in certain sections is about as intrusive as the whammy bar sections in guitar games. You'll hear the effect happen, but it won't dampen your enjoyment of the song at all.
Unlike Guitar Hero, the effects that you hear when gaining Euphoria and Rewind don't seem to overpower the music, ensuring that they won't interfere with the mix either. Missing any of the notes, scratches or transitions will cause the music to be dampened for a bit, and if you happen to miss anything on either the green or blue tracks, the appropriate record will be dampened while the other will remain fine, an impressive feat considering how much needs to be done just to get one song together. If there is one quirk for the overall sound, it has to be the use of Euphoria. For some reason, using it will cause the overall volume for the mix to be amplified. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're playing this at parties, everyone will notice when you hit Euphoria and when you don't.
The graphics do a good job of taking the modern Guitar Hero aesthetic and amplifying it to the point of feeling fresh. The art style for the character models of the crowd, the dancers and the DJ looks like it came from Guitar Hero 5, which is not a bad thing since those are some of the better-looking models in the series. What sets apart this game are the camera tricks and interaction with the given music. Each song has a myriad of different camera angles that the game uses to convey the fact that you're playing in a big party. These camera angles combine with neon filters to keep that party vibe alive. The angles and filters don't just randomly play, though. Each angle, camera pause, shake and flash is programmed to tune into the music you're playing, independent of your selected DJ and environment. Small stretches of scratches, for example, can cause the camera to stop zooming anytime the scratch happens and continue when it isn't. It makes the experience feel more interactive and more like you're in control of what can happen in the game.
You can't talk about DJ Hero's controls without talking about the turntable peripheral with which it ships. For the most part, the turntable is one of the more responsive music controllers out there. The record platter feels just like a real turntable with a record on it, complete with record grooves and the studs on the side. It spins rather nicely and easily, making it ideal when you have to scratch or initiate a Rewind. The three buttons on the platter also have the same grooves that the record does and are concave, making them easy to grasp and press. The Euphoria button is easy to press in relation to the effects dial and cross-fader, and it never feels like it's out of the way. Even the control panel hidden under a flap is positioned close to the other buttons, enabling you to easily use the d-pad there instead of the effects bar when you want to change your sample sound.
Left-handed players will appreciate the fact that you can easily set up the controller for left- or right-handed players with a few locks and panel removals. The controller, and by proxy the game controls, get hindered by a few minor things, though. For starters, the effects dial doesn't have an end point. This is fine when a new effects section comes in since you don't always have to reset the dial to get it in the middle, but it gets tricky when you're in the effects section because you don't get any tactile response that you've reached one end of the spectrum over another. What's more pressing, though, is the cross-fader. The game may be a bit forgiving when determining when you're in the center of the dial or not, but the notch for the middle of the fader isn't as pronounced as it should be. On higher difficulty levels when cross-fader spikes come into play, you have to hope you're sensitive enough to feel when you've made that click to the middle notch.
Despite all of the criticism levied against the company for its market saturation of music games, credit has to be given to Activision for being able to put out a game like DJ Hero to market. The usual graphical and sound polish that is expected from the Hero series is there, but it's the selection of music and controls that make this stand out the most. It may not be an excellent multiplayer experience, but it is a fantastic single-player experience that can still be played at parties. If you enjoy mash-ups, you will enjoy this title. If you are a hardcore rhythm game player, you will enjoy this title. If you even have a slight preference toward playing any type of rhythm game, all it'll take is one play of a song to make you a fan of this new entry in the ever-growing rhythm genre.
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