Last fall's DJ Hero was a critical success, but not so much a commercial one. Released as a high-priced bundle amidst a packed holiday season and surrounded by Activision's overloaded Guitar Hero release schedule, the game was initially overlooked by many consumers who simply assumed it was a Guitar Hero knock-off because of the name. It wasn't until word of mouth spread that 1) the game was quite unlike Guitar Hero and 2) it was pretty damn awesome in its own right that sales of DJ Hero started to pick up steam. Now, nearly a year later, the original is considered a success and the second iteration is getting ready to drop. We recently met up with Activision to give it a spin.
Sitting down with DJ Hero 2, the first thing that you notice is the clean lines of the interface. Everything has been trimmed down with a minimalist bent, focusing on efficiency over flash. This is a good thing because it allows you to get right to what's important: the music.
Multiplayer is big for DJ Hero 2, and as such, the multiplayer modes behind the original game have been expanded upon. Top of the list is battle mode, which is designed to mimic a classic DJ battle. Jumping into a battle, each DJ takes turns spinning. When one is active, the other is merely biding his time. Over the course of the song, the active player will flip back and forth multiple times, giving both a chance to prove their skills as well as take in their opponent's performance. Sadly, the game can only score you based on the spinning action, but we can already imagine some of the freestyle hijinks that are going to ensue when groups gather around this one at a party.
Aside from battle mode, the game also offers up accumulator, checkpoint and streak modes. Here both players are playing at the same time, with each song broken up into chunks. You are scored individually on each chunk, with the winner being whoever mastered the most sections. The difference between the modes is how those chunks are won.
In accumulator mode, it's all a matter of knowing when to "bank" your points. Every time you mess up, the score resets, but if you've banked your points, they're safe. With a limited number of banks — you start each song with three — you can't just constantly slam on the euphoria buttons. It's a matter of knowing the song as well as knowing your own ability. If you've got a good multiplier going and a tricky part coming up, do you play it safe and bank, or do you risk it all for a massive score?
Checkpoint scores your performance across time-based checkpoints. He who wins the most checkpoints wins the match. Meanwhile, streak mode has you focusing on combos. There's finally a more traditional head-to-head mode that is much like the competitive multiplayer in the original game. Just play the song, and the winner is whoever performs the best overall.
For casual players, party play mode is going to be the big one. No score, no stress, no worries. You can pick your mix or just let the song auto-cycle. Play if you want. Or don't. Just let the music go. It's slick, smooth and designed to allow for just about anyone to hop in and hop out. Assuming the full music selection holds up as well as the few songs available in the demo build (Activision is still keeping the final list of mixes close to its chest), party play could be a sweet way to mix things up at a gathering.
We weren't allowed to dive into the single-player campaign, but after spinning more than a few mixes in both multiplayer and solo runs, there are a few notable changes to the core gameplay that are worth mentioning.
Foremost on the list is the freestyle mixing. One of the more commonly requested features from the first game, freestyle mixing allows you to slide back and forth between your two tracks at will. Scoring is based on how effectively you bounce back and forth (simply slamming the fader left and right isn't going to help much), so there is an element of beat matching at work. You can also freestyle sound effects.
When flying solo, freestyling is all yours, but in multiplayer, it's all about who triggers it first. Since the game can't support two separate mixes (and it would also sound pretty crappy if it did) whoever makes the first move when a freestyle section comes up gets control. The player who misses out just has to wait it out.
The guitar support present in the first game was persona non grata during our demo, but the vocalist option was front and center. A vocalist can jump in and play in all the modes, complete with lyrics, pitch meter and an individual score. The vocalist doesn't directly help either of the DJs, but the option is smoothly integrated and allows for another player to join the action without having to use a turntable.
Perhaps our one disappointment walking away from the demo is the fact that the turntable controllers have not been updated. For the most part, this isn't an issue as the hardware is generally solid. Our gripe here has to do with the plastic slider that makes up the fader. There is very little feedback when returning to center, which makes it easy to miss that neutral point. Given that fading is such a core element of play, we were hoping to see a revised controller option with a sturdier slider. In the grand scheme of things, though, it is a minor point.
With Guitar Hero undergoing a complete redesign this year, DJ Hero 2 has quietly poised itself to be the marquee music title from Activision. We can't wait to play more.
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