DJ Hero 2, coming only a year after the franchise launch, sets out to provide both an on-disc mix content expansion pack and a refinement to the gameplay of the original title. The game is not exactly what you'd call a "sequel," but it succeeds, falling short of the high bar set by the original title.
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, DJ Hero games expand on the music and rhythm game genre by essentially going backward in gameplay mechanics. The original rhythm games were tap-tap affairs played with a standard console controller, placing emphasis almost solely on striking beats in time with notes appearing on-screen. The included tracks were typically skewed heavily to electronica and dance/house music, to which DJ Hero's mixes and mashups are heavily related. From those roots, this contemporary franchise greatly diverges, most notably by including a durable turntable controller in the package. (DJ Hero 2 is also available separately for those who already have a turntable from last year and have no use for a second specialty controller.
The DJ Hero controller comes in two parts. By default, on the left is a very simple "mixer" and "effects box"; on the right is the turntable unit. Built into the platter, there are three uniquely colored, differently sized buttons for registering note taps and setting off effects without looking down all the time. The two controller pieces can also be connected the other way around to accommodate handedness or personal preference. Not looking down is important, especially on the higher difficulty settings, because, as with any modern music game, it's all about timing and watching for on-screen representations of musical notes or beats traveling down a "note lane" until they cross a virtual line where you have to operate the corresponding button or control trigger. DJ Hero 2 introduces held taps, which are this game's equivalent of held guitar notes in the familiar Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles. The held taps don't serve any particular purpose but enhance the gameplay by requiring the player to be more aware of a greater variety of interactive elements.
Though it's the most striking feature of the controller, the turntable does the lightest duty in-game. It's there for scratching and performing rewinds. Rewinds, as in the first game, become available after you perform perfectly through a discrete section of the mix. Spinning the turntable backward rewinds the track, allowing you to play a portion of the mix over to increase your score. Rewinds, though in theory uncomplicated, are essential to racking up the highest scores. You're essentially getting longer, more note-filled tracks than are in the mixes without rewinds; every time you rewind, you tack on a section of point-scoring gameplay that wouldn't exist without using the feature. Earn a lot of rewinds, and use them often.
Of note, unlike the original title, rewinds in DJ Hero 2 go back to the most recent checkpoint, addressing a common gripe about the first game. When you rewind, you have to spin the turntable backward a full turn; in the midst of heated play, that often becomes two or four revolutions. You then have to get your bearings on the tripartite turntable buttons and start playing again before you miss on-screen cues. By locking rewinds to checkpoints, DJ Hero 2 lets you know in advance what you'll be facing when you trigger a rewind. It's still a little tricky, and the higher the difficulty, the trickier it is, but at least you're not flying blind. Similarly, once you've practiced a lot and become accomplished at the game, you can intentionally trigger rewinds to the most difficult, point-filled section to really pump up those mix scores.
Once you're off the beginner and easy difficulty settings, DJ Hero 2 demands you crossfade the mixes a lot to highlight key parts of the track — much the same as you'd hear a real DJ do. The controller's crossfade slider is uncomplicated, with only three positions: full left, center and full right. As in the original game, crossfading takes some practice, but the game interprets slider position in a forgiving way. To come back from full left to an equally balanced part of the mix, you don't have to hit perfect dead center to get credit for pulling out of the fade. You can then leave the slider where you wind up until the next crossfade, but it's better for smooth gameplay to nudge the slider back to center during an easy run; there's a tactile notch to let you know you're there. Just don't over-nudge, or you'll register another crossfade, resetting your note-streak multiplier.
DJ Hero 2 revamps the old career mode with Empire mode. It's essentially the same thing as the first title's career mode but creates a vague backstory about building rep as the hottest DJ on the planet. Empire mode is not a robust career mode by any means, but it's an improvement over the similar scheme in the original game.
The new title also includes several unique battle modes that can be played online or with an additional turntable controller, side by side with a real-world friend. The latter option is a little more complicated than you'd imagine. The controller isn't particularly suited to being held in laps while stretched out on sofas; you really need the optional upright stand or a desk or table so you can sit and play. Standing all the time through the long mixes is probably a little too much like real DJing for most music gamers. It's a toss-up. For fun factor, it's a lot better to play against someone sitting next to you; for living-room ergonomics, it's easier to compete online. Perhaps the best option for local, offline play is the Party Play mode, which features a never-ending chain of mixes, allowing multiple players using one turntable to take over any time the current DJ wears out.
The most significant change in DJ Hero 2's gameplay is moving the focus away from rote performance to more realistic freestyling. The original game gave a nod to freestyling in many of its mixes, but those stretches were either excessively complicated and confusing — i.e., selecting track-appropriate samples in the midst of playing a mix — or really just not all that "free." The new game introduces freestyle scratching; these are scratch note runs during which you can scratch with the turntable, any way or no way. Freestyle sample lanes are still here, in similar form, but player-selected sample effects are replaced by appropriate samples built into the individual mixes. You don't need to fiddle with a sometimes-wonky knob to pick the best sample; just focus on the music and tap out the samples to the beat.
There's also a freestyle crossfade element in the mixes. During these runs, crossfading isn't dictated by on-screen cues; you have total control of the mix. Of all the freestyle elements, freestyle crossfading is the most natural and fun. It's the transcendent moment during which you ask yourself, "Am I playing a scripted game, or am I mixing this thing on my own?" To a somewhat limited degree, you are mixing the track yourself. In the music game genre, this is the sort of thing that makes the DJ Hero franchise stand out. Until the verdict is in on the exceptionally advanced and expensive guitar controllers for Rock Band 3, DJ Hero is the most realistic, simulative experience of the musical artistry from which these games draw their inspiration.
Overall, DJ Hero 2 is improves on the original, if subtly. Gone are the guitar-and-DJ co-op mixes, and they will not be missed. In their stead is a vocalist option, hopefully destined to hit the cutting room floor in as-yet-unannounced DJ Hero 3. The vocals feature isn't bad or poorly implemented per se; it's just not any fun. It lacks the giggly karaoke feel of singing options in other music games, where tunes manage to be suitable for players with a broad range of vocal skills or weaknesses. A DJ ad-lib rapping over a track is one thing, but have you tried singing along to a mashup mix? That might work out in the shower, but not in a video game.
A minor complaint is the way DJ Hero 2 starts up the very first time you insert the disc. The game cues you to the tutorials, but it goes straight there without suggesting you first calibrate the controller to your gaming environment. Practically my entire house is favorably configured for console gaming, but I still had to calibrate before the game properly registered my note taps. There's even a brain-dead-easy bronze trophy for first-time calibrating, so why the game's designers didn't see the wisdom in kicking off things with a quick calibration session, I have no idea.
Another issue music fans will have with DJ Hero 2 are the included mixes. It's certainly not the quantity because there are over 80 on the disc. It's not the quality, either; the new game has eliminated some of the more bizarre mix choices from the original tracks, like Daft Punk vs. Tom Waits — I'm kidding, but not quite as much as you might think — in favor of mixes that make more sense in the context of real-world DJing. This is strictly all-ages dance club fare. The track list is distinctly mainstream, leaving out the most innovative artists and performers in this musical genre. I love "American Boy" as much anyone else, and it's even aging pretty well, but there's no Girl Talk here, none of the mix and mashup stuff coming out of bedrooms and laptops today that makes you want to run, jump and tell everyone you know. There are reasons for this. Licensing issues, ESRB ratings and the fact the game must appeal to the broadest possible audience. Still there is a creative ceiling in the mix selection, whether on disc or available as optional paid DLC. There's a reasonable amount of headroom under that ceiling but little space for expansion beyond it.
The ultimate problem with DJ Hero 2 — and perhaps "problem" isn't exactly the right word — is that with such solid core gameplay in last year's original title, what were the game designers going to go? They've shown us what they've got so far. There are lots of new original mixes to perform, and some nice refinements to gameplay, especially in the area of freestyling, but, really, there was nothing wrong with the first title that needed fixing in DJ Hero 2. Will future games bring us a robust create-a-mix feature? Perhaps, but I don't see the point. You can do a much better job of that with free software for Apple iOS or Google Android devices or a $200 budget laptop. Should the DJ Hero franchise spark in you the urge to go after this type of music for real — and it may, for these are engaging games — you should save your money for that gear rather than spend it on numerous iterations of DJ Hero titles.
Even when considering the aforementioned caveats, DJ Hero 2 is a very good game, and it is surely a nice step up from the original title. This game won't change any minds, but if you enjoyed the original, there's no question you should invest in DJ Hero 2. The debate lies in whether or not developer FreeStyleGames can make a case for music gamers remaining loyal fans of the franchise in future editions. I'll be wildly impressed if they can, but for now, I have my doubts. FreeStyle is in clear danger of falling into the trap of a disc-based expansion pack at full price.
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