Last year's DJ Hero was a critical success but a sales flop. It sold more like an art game than the mainstream franchise that Activision wanted it to be. A fresh and fun twist on the rhythm genre, DJ Hero suffered from a $120 price tag, stores being more interested in selling the $250 Rock Band: The Beatles, and a hip-hop style that may have turned off many people. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision, swore to try again. At E3, we saw the results of this second attempt, and while it's difficult to say if this one will sell better than the first, the critics are likely to enjoy the update.
The game is still all about mash-ups, so don't expect the gameplay to switch over to something that's more like Beatmania, which is more about the sounds than the collected mix. There are no significant updates to the DJ Hero 2 controllers. For owners of the first DJ Hero, the game will be available unbundled. They'll also start selling the first title unbundled, for those who get into the game with DJ Hero 2.
The big theme of DJ Hero 2 is social gaming, and not in the Facebook sense. The original title was all about the party, and so is DJ Hero 2. Most mixes now have full vocal tracks that you can sing along to, using the same mechanical core as Guitar Hero. The only concession to the DJ Hero style is that the vocal lines change color based on which track is active. The goal is to make the game fun for a party, using the Party Play features from Guitar Hero 5 to great effect.
The one-on-one competitive play has also been massively evolved for DJ Hero 2. Two turntable players will find that rewinds are now available. When playing versus, instead of rewind areas having double score, the game only allows the person who made the rewind to play, giving him a significant scoring advantage. However, this makes the stereo sound like it's been turned off for a second, since the game uses one speaker for each side. The game also hides the direct numeric scores, instead placing a "star tower" in the center of the screen, representing each side's respective scores. While some may miss the precise numbers, the star tower looks far better and makes it easier to see who's leading at a glance. Finally, the new versus play is exemplified in the new DJ Battle mode, which removes the vocalist to provide a distinct set optimized for hardcore versus play.
Naturally, the game's 70 mixes have other changes as well, specifically in three new note types. Free Scratch zones let you go nuts on one record for a moment or two, messing with the sound more than before, while free Crossfade zones do the same for the crossfader. Free scratching sounds nicely realistic, while free crossfading could be a bigger question. The game also has long scratches, finally providing for true hold notes, which have been the genre norm since 2001's Dance Dance Revolution MAX and every Guitar Hero. (We don't know if the playable guitar tracks will be returning in DJ Hero 2.) Note bending has been cleaned up a bit, and the freestyle samples are now per-song; while I will admit that I'll miss the Flava Flav samples, this is probably for the best in making the best-sounding mixes.
The game's distinct hip-hop influence may have hidden the first entry's wide musical styles, so for DJ Hero 2, the entire interface has been switched to a cleaner style. Most of the screen is bare white with a gray floor, with real-world DJ equipment set about in clean lines and doing various things to keep the screen interesting. This new interface largely disappears during gameplay, which emphasizes the party environments that have always defined Hero series play. The goal is to make the field wider than the first and de-emphasize the hip-hop elements. How well this will work remains an open question, especially with the game's pre-order bonus being from the distinctly hip-hop brand, Puma. The soundtrack still features a large amount of hip-hop, though you can't really fault Freestyle for heavily using the most common genre of real-world mash-ups in a game about mash-ups.
The answer to the multi-million dollar question of whether or not the second time will be the charm for the DJ Hero series' sales numbers will be answered this October. DJ Hero 2 will be available as a stand-alone game, or in two bundles: one with a single turntable, the other with two turntables and a microphone. Those who snagged the first title should be quite satisfied with this follow-up.
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