Whether you like them or not, the Guitar Hero series has done a lot to popularise the rhythm genre in contemporary gaming, and although the premise of hitting buttons to the beat isn't exactly new, you have to give them credit for the success they have garnished. However, after years of seeing essentially the same game repeating itself, players want something more than band-specific packs and DLC, and Activision has acknowledged this; enter DJ Hero, the latest off-shoot in the Hero brand.
DJ Hero is built on the same premise, but instead of holding a six-stringed axe approximation, your hands will be utilising a mixer and turntable setup. The turntable has a fully rotatable platter with three hit buttons on top, whereas the mixer features a crossfader, an effects dial, an analogue control stick, + and - buttons and the Euphoria button, which when activated will double your score multiplier just as Star Power does in the Guitar games.
The mechanics of the game is similar to all the other rhythm games available in that the player must "act out" each music track in a performance that will be scored. Each track has three coloured streams with hit points in various places that require the player to accurately press the corresponding button on the turntable. The middle stream primarily consists of samples, with the left and right representing different music tracks. Where the crossfader is on the mixer will determine which channel is audible, with the middle position bringing both channels into play. Getting used to controlling the crossfader takes a bit of time. It's easy to accidentally move the fader across one side too much and, also, not enough. After little practice, most should get the hang of it. The game's expert mode is definitely a challenge; with crossfader cuts in all directions, scratches more specific and intricate, and the overall tempo of the tracks increased, your fingers and hands will be performing actions on different time-signatures – despite not being able to fail out of a song, any assumptions that this game is a walk in the park are simply not true. There aren't any practice modes, but the game does have an extensive tutorial which will explain and have players go through all the necessary steps in preparation of what lies ahead. If all this scratching and beat-juggling is all a bit too fiddly for you, players can opt to play in more simplified structures; with the easiest setting requiring gamers to just tap the stream buttons.
DJ Hero features 103 songs mixed into 93 original mash-ups, comprised of remixed tracks that span several genres. Most of which are hip hop and that shouldn't be a surprise since that's the neighbourhood that mash-ups grew up in, but that doesn't mean it will only appeal to hip hop fans. People should be careful not to dismiss the soundtrack of DJ Hero to be simply a collection of instrumentals and a cappellas slapped together. FreeStyleGames has done an excellent job of recruiting talented DJs and producers to create a soundtrack that is unique and bursting with originality. Mixes have been specifically worked on for the game by people like DJ Shadow, Scratch Perverts, DJ Z-Trip, Grandmaster Flash, DJ AM, Jazzy Jeff, Cut Chemist, and J. Period; so you know the quality is up there. If a game can make Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" blend exquisitely with Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" and leave you with an end-result that you would proudly have blaring out of your car stereo, that is medal-worthy in itself.
One difference with this game and the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series is the recognition of the tracks. For the most part, what you're getting with the guitar-based games are master recordings of songs you will recognise; and thus, songs you already know may give you a slight advantage as you'll know what changes are coming up. With DJ Hero, even if the player is familiar with the original tracks used to create the in-game mixes, they won't know what to expect. This certainly adds another layer of difficulty, but a welcomed one. The game is so engaging, even though it lets you choose your character, equipment, venue etc, your eyes won't be paying attention to any of that, instead focusing on nailing those setlists as accurately as possible. As nice and detailed as the visuals are, this game is all about the music.
DJ Hero is an example of an old idea updated with new technology, thanks in part to the hardware. The turntable half of the controller has a nice weight to it and the platter spins smoothly. What feels unnatural is having what is essentially three trigger buttons on top. Using the second, third, and fourth finger, players will rub the deck back and forth with specific buttons being held to the relevant scratches, as well as pressing the buttons on the appropriate hits. All very well and good, but as the turntable isn't actually rotating by itself (as a real turntable turned on would), it becomes more of a challenge when trying to nail those scratches that require rubs in specific directions because you're carrying the momentum of certain strokes. For the turntablist-reader, imagine moving the platter back and forth without a vinyl record, slipmat, slipmat sheet, with the turntable off. It's only a minor thing though, and you soon get used to the whole setup. It's more of a highlight that even seasoned DJs should find the hard and expert difficulty settings challenging, which of course is a good thing.
This leads us onto the surprisingly flexible difficulty curve. The game is divided into 24 setlists; each containing from three to eight mixes played out and scored in your venue of choice. A maximum of five stars can be achieved for each mix, which unlock new setlists, characters, costumes, headphones, turntables, and venues. However, the way in which the stars themselves can be achieved leaves us with mixed feelings. The default difficulty is medium (which is fairly easy except for a couple of mixes, maybe) and it's not difficult to achieve 99% of the stars. Players can even lower the difficulty and still earn the stars that are proving too challenging on higher settings; opening the door to unlocking everything the game has to offer on easy, or the more preposterous combination of expert and easy. Coupled with the inconvenient way in which the only method of seeing the number of stars that have been earned in all five difficulty settings is to select the mixes individually in a custom playlist, this will annoy any gamer that has too much pride. Others won't care and will simply appreciate the ability to move on should they be stuck and enjoy the soundtrack.
Like the guitar peripherals, the mixer and turntable setup can be adjusted for left-handers. The mixer has a connection slot on both sides, and the symmetric turntable can be easily spun round to form a righty and a lefty setup. Players can even decide which half of the platter the default placement of the stream buttons are. Continuing with the theme of customisation, tracks will have, at various points, areas where you can trigger samples with the middle stream button. Samples come in sets of six; all of which can be selected by twiddling the effects dial on the mixer. There's even a set called Old Skool where you have classic scratch samples like the trumpet stab, fresh, and the buffalo gal. One thing that does puzzle us though, is the option of having the crossfader in "hamster" (reverse) is only accessible by entering a cheat code.
The game has to be applauded for bringing such a diverse and high-quality soundtrack to us all. However, the post-launch DLC provisions are not so impressive. The quality is not in question, it's the quantity. Oh, and while we're at it, the price too. Each track has a whopping 300 Nintendo Points price tag slapped on it. Now, we at Nintendo Life understand that to bring new content to DJ Hero, producers have to actually create the mash-ups and that doesn't happen over night. Plus, it's more difficult than simply acquiring rights to use master recordings of existing songs. Having said all that, the combination of sparse DLC and high price-tags means DJ Hero is a bit of a let-down in that department.
Another failure is the online multiplayer; or rather, the lack of available opponents. Players can go up against one another in online battles, where the setlist and difficulty can be chosen. Sadly, the lack of any available opponent is a reoccurring situation and means the online features in the game will hardly be used nowadays.
Despite these flaws, DJ Hero is a great achievement for the DJs/Producers,FreeStyleGames and Activision. Taking basic principals from mixing, scratching, and to an extent, sample triggering, the game combines all these elements together as a vehicle to enjoy the exclusively produced soundtrack that has the gravitas of several albums. Inspired by the turntablist movement, the Hero franchise has tapped into a new way for gamers to enjoy music and the game's biggest challenge is how the sequel will measure up. A desolate online community is out of the developers' hands, but one area that must be improved on is the game's DLC. Only time will tell if the impending DJ Hero 2 will fix that aspect, but with so much invested in the mixer-turntable controller, gamers will understandably want new content at affordable prices.
While the online play might be non-existent at times, the offline two-player mode is very fun indeed. Players can go head to head in DJ battles, and better yet, the game supports guitar controllers so a second player can chug out those riffs whilst player one spins the wheels of steel. The mash-up of Foo Fighters' "Monkey Wrench" and the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" is perhaps one of the greatest tracks to get the DJ/Guitar two-player on the go.
It's a shame that the rarity of playing someone online affects the replay value of this game, but the single-player mode will offer urges to replay tracks to a) enjoy them, and b) to obtain as many stars as you can across all difficulty settings. With strict scoring, players must tactically use their rewinds and score multipliers if they are to get the highest possible scores. With plenty of occasions when players will think "argh, so close, one more time," the game has tapped into that elusive vein that fuses perseverance with fulfilment. Time flies when you're playing through the setlists and that says a lot about how fun the game is.
DJ Hero is a new and fresh way for gamers to enjoy music. The mixer-turntable controller is very responsive and as a peripheral, it is of a high quality. The game is one that can be enjoyed by all types of players thanks to its flexible difficulty settings, and the eclectic soundtrack is one of the most original and dedicated in any video game available. DJ Hero can be appreciated by the solo-gamer, as well as by two-player efforts and whether you're a music fan, just a gamer, or both, there's something that satisfies everyone. It gets so much right but its only downfall may be its underlying niche. As soon as skeptics try the game, all preconceived notions are likely to fade away.