The last four years have been good on the fake plastic rock front- Guitar Hero and Rock Band have blasted the music genre wide open, providing music aficionados with new and engaging ways to experience their favorite tunes. The main focus of these games, however, has been relegated to guitar or band based music, such as rock, pop, metal, etc., many other popular styles of music have been left out in the cold. Since these games are all rhythm-based at their core, the real hook has been the peripherals associated with them, the guitar and drum controllers that enable the player to feel as if they are actually playing the music. What is a gamer to do if their favorite music is hip-hop? Electronica? Club music?
Well, look no further, for DJ Hero is here. Boasting a soundtrack of 102 licensed tracks resulting in 93 original mixes made just for the game, there is literally something here for everybody: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” mixed with David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, Tears for Fears’ “Shout” with “Pjanoo” by Eric Prydz, Gwen Stefani with Gorillaz, Jay-Z/Jackson 5, Rhianna/Killers, Queen/Beastie Boys
If your gaming area is already cluttered with plastic instruments then you’ll probably breathe a sigh of relief when you take a look at the turntable controller provided with the game; Compact, solidly built, and easily configured for the southpaws out there, this wireless peripheral at first seems a much simpler implement than either the guitar or drum kits on the market with three colored buttons rather than the five colored frets and drum heads/kick pedal. The green, red and blue inputs are placed on the turntable itself, with green representing the right track, blue representing the left, and red acting as the trigger for samples and freestyle sections of the mixes. As the cascading ‘gems’ come down the arc on the screen, it is the green and blue buttons that are pressed during the scratch portions- easy and medium generally has you simply scratching back and forth, more precise scratching motions are required on higher difficulty levels. The red track consists primarily of single button hits, with the exception being during the freestyle moments where samples that are selected before gameplay can be switched between via either the d-pad or the effects dial (more on that in a minute). Possibly the most challenging component of the controller lies in the crossfader switch, which has three states- left track (signified onscreen by a shift of the green line to the left) which isolates the left music track, right track (signified by a shift of the blue line to the right) which isolates the right music track, and center, which is the default state and plays a mix of both tracks. The challenge really comes in with the centered setting, as it can be relatively easy to shift from left to right in rapid succession (which happens a lot in higher difficulties), but even with the notch that clicks the slider into place is hard to consistently achieve. As the cascade comes down you’ll see a fairly familiar sight of a glowing blue/white section that in other games has represented the ‘star power’ series of notes, called here a Perfect Region. When you nail these sections you can hit the big glowing button above the fader switch and activate Euphoria (star power), which predictably doubles your score multiplier but also puts your crossfader on autopilot, a very helpful feature to get you through the more difficult sections of a mix. Additionally, there is the effects dial, which, in addition to the previous functionality mentioned, is used during Effects Zones (think whammy bar), distorting the audio of the track or tracks highlighted. Lest you think this is a purely gratuitous feature a la the effect switch on Rock Band, tweaking this knob at the right time in fact doubles your multiplier as well. Finally, if you manage to nail prolonged sections of a mix, Rewind is enabled, a feature that again, at first seems gratuitous, but became extremely useful once I realized that I could go back and try Perfect Regions over again if I screwed them up. It’s almost a guarantee that leaderboards will be filled with players who exploit this feature to the fullest.
Alumni of Rock Band and Guitar Hero should pick up the controls pretty easily, but for those who are having trouble the two tutorials hosted by none other than Grandmaster Flash should get things going pretty quickly. The easy and beginner settings are definitely simple enough so that just about anybody can easily jump in and start cutting and mixing away, and even if they can’t, the mix doesn’t stop if you flub up too much. While there isn’t a practice mode, holding down the Euphoria button at the beginning of a setlist enables the Party Mix mode, basically an autopilot mode that enables you to watch the computer perfectly nail the mix, check out the flashy graphics, or just plain listen to the music. If you get tired of watching then you can join in at anytime while the mix is in progress. One nice little thing I noticed when playing the same mix at a different difficulty level is that there are subtle differences in the actual audio output, mostly in regards to the red track (samples). As your level gets more complex, so, too, does the mix itself.
Speaking of graphics, the visuals of the game are quite stunning and very polished, with the camera often syncing up with scratch motions during play. My one gripe is that the DJ movements could be synced up a little better, as it often seems a little odd when your character is fist pumping to the crowd while you scratch away on the turntable. Be sure to watch the intro video as it’s definitely over the top fun along the same vein as the Rock Band intros. There are several unlockable characters including Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, Grandmaster Flash and more, and further customization occurs with turntable decks, skins, outfits and samples. As with all games of this type, the graphics and characters are more for the spectators rather than the players, but they certainly don’t disappoint.
Multiplayer can consist of either two turntables going head to head or turntable vs. guitar, which is great for the Guitar Hero players out there who already have controllers and can jump right in on a selection of special tracks. The head to head turntables seems a little lacking, however, as both players are basically playing the same exact thing and there is no real competitive aspect other than the final score. I have always been critical of the trade-off nature of vs. in Guitar Hero but I think it would be quite appropriate here, as would a co-op mode. Online play is pretty solid, though the leaderboards are fairly rudimentary as the level difficulty isn’t displayed (which may be moot as they will soon be dominated by expert players anyway).