Activision might be an easy target for gamers who feel certain franchises have been milked beyond recognition (Tony Hawk: SHRED, we're looking at you) and with DJ Hero's first annual sequel out now, you'd be forgiven in wondering if this will be another franchise we'll get sick of seeing. Thankfully, the developers at FreeStyleGames have not let us down because for the most part, whatever you liked about the first game, DJ Hero 2 will provide along with more player interaction than what was previously on the table.
The single-player main game now plays out as the gradual rise of a small time disc-jockey with the ultimate goal of being a superstar DJ. Entitled Empire mode, the premise is fine, but the execution leaves us puzzled over the illogical chronology and repetition of events. After the player chooses their character, the DJ immediately starts off by playing at a packed venue in Ibiza, immediately followed by glamorous locations like London, Berlin, Shanghai, Las Vegas, finishing with an encore tour of Ibiza. Every now and again the player will have to battle another DJ in a showdown of accuracy and flair. Taking it in turns to perform a few bars each, players will take on icons such as DJ Qbert in a question-and-answer kind of back-and forth tussle to see who has the most skills. Aesthetically, all the venues are kitted out with light shows, lasers, and dancing punters, so it's hard for the player to suspend their belief and actually think they are working their way up from the bottom rung of the ladder. Instead of feeling like a small-time DJ having to earn their way to the top, the player just moves from setlist to setlist, city to city, and at no time feels like they are taking part in the construction of their own music career. In that sense, the Empire mode fails at what it sets out to do. Honestly, not the best of starts.
The way the game is played has largely remained unchanged from the first, in that three coloured-gem audio streams appear on-screen and it's up to the player to tap the corresponding buttons on the turntable in time to the beat. The crossfader on the mixer controls what can be heard: left position will bring the left stream into play, right will bring the right stream in, and the middle position will make both channels audible. During various parts of the track, players will have to fade between the two records that make up the remix/mash-up and make specifics cuts by moving the crossfader over to one side sharply and then back again. Scratch sections of the tracks will require players to hold down the relevant stream button and rub the platter back and forth, and on the harder difficulty settings, the platter has to be moved in a specific direction to count. The middle stream once again contains samples which can be triggered by tapping the middle button. The longer players can keep up their accurate hit streak, the more points they'll score courtesy of the score multipliers. If "perfect sections" of the track are performed without mistakes, Euphoria can be activated by pressing the specific button on the turntable controller, which will temporarily double the score multiplier ― earning even more points, much like the star power effect in Guitar Hero. Rewinds now take players back to specific checkpoints, meaning even more tactical use of these "second chances" are in order. Per usual, a maximum of five stars can be earned on each mix.
Last year's edition allowed gamers to pre-select the batch of samples they could use during the mixes, but this year, FreeStyleGames has removed that feature and instead implemented various "freestyle" sections of the mixes where players can trigger samples, crossfade, and scratch to whatever timing they want. This real-time input from the player really helps in separating the game from its predecessor, giving it a truly "freestyle" element of customization, which in turn engages the player as they know they can perform each mix slightly differently each time.
With no listed samples for the effects dial to cycle through, its sole purpose is to apply various sound effects when the corresponding sections appear. Instead of just the filter effect that was used before, there's now digital delay and a glitch-style effect that players can apply. Although you can't choose which effect will be in use, the intensity of the effect can be adjusted, allowing players to judge for themselves how much to apply. "Held scratches," where players have to hold down the corresponding button and swipe the platter in the direction shown for the duration of the hit, and "held sampling," very much the same thing but without moving the platter, are both minor additions but they go toward improving the overall complexity of the tracks and successfully offers something worthwhile to a gaming method that's already potentially stale.
The game's soundtrack is as eclectic as ever, with FreeStyleGames' in-house producers and musicians once again providing the majority of the mash-ups and remixes. Outside producers DJ Qbert, Jazzy Jeff, RZA, Diplo, Tiësto, DJ Z-Trip, Scratch Perverts, A-Trak, and DJ Shadow have also lent a hand in crafting a rather spectacular soundtrack that stands strong, proud, and side by side with that of DJ Hero. There's a stronger electro-dance presence than before, which mostly consist of tracks requiring more tapping than scratching. This is a huge plus if electro-dance is your cup of tea, others may wish there was more hip-hop and retro pop classics but with a music game like this, it's very hard to please everyone. If we're being picky, DJ Hero 2 could have featured more drum & bass and maybe perhaps some dubstep to mix things up a little more as the soundtrack ― as excellent as it is ― has a few too many tunes that mash-up songs from the same genre. Part of what made the first game so audibly exquisite was the blend of genres that many wouldn't have thought would work, and we feel DJ Hero 2 could have provided more of that. Don't get us wrong, there's still some wonderful mash-ups, but there's a slight over-use of dance tracks for the more tap-heavy mixes and this is one area that feels more prone to repetition than any other.
In a CVG interview, creative director Jamie Jackson explained that the demographic that gravitated towards the DJ Hero franchise was different from that of the Guitar Hero games, so the decision was made to remove the support for guitar controllers. What a shame, as the soundtrack could have done with a few more rock classics and the crossover support from the Guitar Hero peripherals reflects the merging of different styles perfectly. Instead, FreeStyleGames has implemented microphone support (a first for the Wii instalments), allowing a third player to join in on the action and actually score some points in doing so. The MC's task is to perform the lyrics in time to the beat, hitting the correct pitches and syncopating their words to fit the rhythm of the flow, and for players who are not afraid to step up to the mic, this provides an engaging experience ― although thankfully not a mandatory one.
The major improvements in DJ Hero 2 over the first one are the multiplayer modes and the online experience. If the first DJ Hero encouraged gamers to play along with each other, the sequel definitely turns the table and puts the emphasis on battling. Modes include Star Battle, where players compete to earn the most stars; Accumulator, where streaks of accurate hits have to be banked and at the end, the player with the most hits win; Checkpoint, where the player with the most checkpoints nailed takes the victory; Streak, where banking the highest single streak will win the game; DJ Battle, requiring players to win the most checkpoints using battle mixes; and Power Deck Battles, which allow players to use in-game turntables that have special power-up abilities. One of our favorites is the accumulator mode that balances confidence with pressure superbly and never fails at getting the heart pumping. A very nice assortment of modes to tuck into, both offline and online, and a selection of parameters are available to adjust, giving players a say in what kind of battle they want to take part in.
Online has a more robust feel to it than last year, and opponents seem more plentiful than before. This is probably because players now have more reason to challenge others online. With a wealth of tags ― titles and medals used to identify yourself ― that act as avatars, players now have more of an identity to distinguish themselves from others, and more incentive to join the online community as they battle each other and earn DJ Points that go towards their overall ranking. Scores obtained in the offline modes are automatically added to the online leaderboard and your place in the rankings is clear to determine and easy to browse.
It's great to see a relatively new franchise make a successful debut, followed by a great sequel. It makes us wonder what features (if any) were held back in this instalment that might pop up in DJ Hero 3. Although at the time of writing no such title has been announced, we'd bet money on one eventually being developed because what the DJ Hero series proves is that a lucrative and saturated genre can still produce compelling gameplay given the right approach. In the future, we'd like to see the guitar controllers brought back into play, possibly even support for dance mat controllers to let all the b-boys and b-girls bust some moves, and a return to the hip-hop vibe that fronted the first DJ Hero. How can you have a game that's based on turntablism and not have hip-hop as the front-man? More rock tunes. More pop songs. Don't create setlists that lump the same styles of mixes together, even them out a bit more. These are all minor improvements that could be made to make what's present in DJ Hero 2 one step closer to being the perfect package, but until then, there's still plenty of fun to be had with this game.
The Empire career mode fails at capturing the player's imagination and reduces itself to an arbitrary sequence of meaningless setlists. Luckily, players aren't going to be playing the game to imagine what it's like to go from an up-and-comer to a superstar DJ ― they're playing to enjoy the excellent soundtrack which, fortunately, has the gravitas to sweep minors issues under the carpet. The various difficulty settings once again do a wonderful job of offering players with varying skill-sets to enjoy the game whilst still challenging themselves and a revamped list of mulitplayer modes will offer friends plenty of fun in the living room. The improved online experience will keep players going back for more, whether it's for a quick 10 minutes or an hour-long session, because the battle modes are effortlessly fun and competitive no matter how good or bad you are. An impressive sequel that's well worth owning, but if you're new to the franchise and not sure which one to get first, DJ Hero 2's extra scratches, freestyle elements and online offerings make it the obvious choice.