Before DJ Hero's debut last fall, many critics were skeptical of its prospects. It was a brand-new music game scheduled for release in the packed holiday season, required the purchased of a custom controller and had to compete in a saturated market. While initial sales were slow, DJ Hero quickly picked up popularity via word of mouth. Innovative gameplay mixed with an impressive set list ended up propelling this dark horse to the top of many favored game lists. With the release of DJ Hero 2, Activision and Freestyle games are set to do the music genre one better as DJ Hero 2 bests its forerunner in every way possible.
The music was the star of the show in the original game, and the same holds true for the second outing. Because DJ Hero is now a known franchise, the developers were able to secure the participation of a number of known performers, including David Guetta, Deadmau5, DJ Qbert, DJ Shadow, RZA, Tiesto and more. Although the level of involvement varied, Tiesto not only created a new track for the game, but he also used the game to generate the entire music video for the song.
Songs that weren't mixed by one of the headlining mix masters are handled by the developers at FreeStyleGames, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell which was which without looking at the liner notes. As a testament to both the quality of the song selection and the mixes themselves, there really isn't a bad track in the entire game. Unless you absolutely hate dance music and mash-ups, chances are good that you'll be pleased with nearly every mix that you play.
Just like the original, mash-ups are the way to play here, though the variety of underlying tracks has increased a great deal. For DJ Hero 2, FreeStyleGames reached across genres as well as decades to pull together some unexpectedly brilliant mixes. A few of the more intriguing mash-ups includes Sean Paul's "Get Busy" vs. Rhianna's "Pon de Replay," Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" vs. The Crystal Method's "Busy Child," and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" vs. Edwin Starr's "War." As far as pure remixes are concerned, Tiesto's treatment of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" is a standout hit.
Gameplay follows the same three-track, beat-matching patterns as the original, with scratches, taps and cross-fades making up the bulk of game actions. The custom DJ Hero turntable controller is required to play, but support for the Guitar Hero guitars that was present in the first game has been dropped. It's a welcome change, as the guitar gameplay in the original always felt a bit tacked on.
In addition to supporting two turntables for competitive play, DJ Hero 2 also sports support for a microphone, giving a third player the ability to jump in on vocals. The game supports pitch tracking, but singing is actually a bit more difficult than in more traditional music games due to the mixing of often disparate songs. Hopping back and forth between two sets of lyrics can be harder than it looks.
New to the turntable play are the freestyle segments. Whereas DJ Hero contained mostly fixed mixes, the second iteration tries to open things up by featuring freestyle sections. Unlike the majority of the mix, where you have to follow the track as shown, the freestyle sections allow you to cross-fade and scratch as you see fit. You're scored on your ability to stay on beat while mixing it up.
The effects button has also gotten the freestyle treatment, though you no longer have the ability to choose your effect with the pitch meter. Instead, an appropriate effect is automatically chosen for you. On paper, it sounds like they've taken away something, but it plays out much better this way. Not every song needs cowbell.
DJ Hero 2's single-player mode is ostensibly an empire-building career mode, but there's little in the way of role-play here. Instead, it merely serves as basic window dressing for the game's unlocks. The majority of songs are available from the start, but to gain access to the megamixes and bonus tracks, you'll need to make your way through the single-player portion. Oddly, while there is a tutorial mode, DJ Hero 2 doesn't have any sort of practice mode.
Megamixes bring more of the club feel to DJ Hero 2 by giving you a set of songs to play in a single pre-arranged mix. Unlike most of the sets in the game, megamixes are scored as a whole. Nothing resets until the end of the set, which means a single mistake at the end of a multi-song mix can tank your high score on the entire thing. The only disappointment is that there aren't more of them in the game.
Multiplayer is a huge aspect for DJ Hero 2, with full support for Xbox Live, local battle mode and an extremely polished party play mode. Offering up a variety of modes, including star battle, accumulator, checkpoint, streak, DJ Battle and power deck battle, the multiplayer options manage to keep things fresh due to their distinctive methods of play. For example, checkpoint scores your performance on individual segments of a song and whoever wins the segment battle takes the game. Streak rewards the player with the longest unbroken streak, while accumulator allows you to bank your streaks. Bank too early, and you'll miss out on points. Wait too long, and you increase the chances of a goof and losing your streak entirely.
Going online with Xbox Live allows you to take the multiplayer battle to the masses, but it also allows for customization in the form of medals and tags, similar to what's been done in Activision's Call of Duty series. Battling other players online was a seamless experience, with nary a hint of lag.
Party play has appeared in a few other Activision titles and feels right at home in DJ Hero 2. Starting party play is as simple as hitting the blue turntable button on the title screen. As soon as you do that, the game starts playing a random tracklist. Players can seamlessly jump in or jump out at any time, without worrying about interrupting the tunes. As clichéd as it may sound, firing up party play when a group is in the house is a great option simply because of the ease of use. There are no options to configure, no profiles to load and no save games to worry about. Just play and have fun. Really, the only thing party play needs is the ability to set a custom play list.
Finally, while it's a small thing, it is worth mentioning the game's "Hero Feed," which feels like a game-specific RSS feed. Hang out on the title screen for any length of time, and the Hero Feed banner shows a combination of gameplay stats and game news.
Ultimately, DJ Hero 2 is a rare game that delivers exactly what it promises and does it exceedingly well. It's not quite perfect, but it does improve on the original effort in a number of noticeable ways. Visually polished, accessible to newbies and yet extremely challenging for the experts, DJ Hero 2 offers something for everyone. The only negative to DJ Hero 2 is the fact that there is no way to export all of the tracks in the original game for play in the second. Hopefully this is something we'll see in DJ Hero 3.
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