I’ll say up front that reviewing DJ Hero threw me for a loop. I went in expecting another derivative entry in Activision’s seemingly endless musical “hero” stable, similar to the numerous and tiresome Guitar Hero single band spin-offs. I got something altogether different. DJ Hero might have the same general styling and branding as the ubiquitous Guitar Hero series but the gameplay is an almost entirely new animal, referencing and imitating a (largely) different musical scene.
You might not believe this when taking a cursory glance at the game’s new peripheral. The DJ Hero turntable controller has the same clean black finish and colored button design of RedOctane’s guitar controllers, and even the same font is used for the “DJ Hero” lettering at the center of the platter. The platter itself spins freely like the real thing, but has green, red and blue buttons reminiscent of every plastic guitar since the Guitar Hero 3 Les Paul. The platter is textured like a vinyl LP and the buttons have a moiré pattern engraved in them to keep your fingers from slipping off.
Accompanying the platter is a control deck with an effects knob, a button for activating “euphoria,” the DJ Hero equivalent of star power, and a crossfade slider. While the PS3 and 360 turntables have a control panel with the respective console’s buttons, the Wii turntable has a pop-open compartment for plugging in a Wii remote, just like all of the RedOctane Wii guitars thus far. The Wii turntable has no power source or wireless communication on its own—the Wii remote handles all that once plugged in—so make sure you have a fully charged remote on hand. The control deck itself can be removed and attached to either side of the platter, making the turntable fully ambidextrous.
The similarities to any of the Guitar Hero games end once you take the turntable for a spin. The gameplay uses a note highway of sorts, represented as a rotating LP, but the way you play takes a different approach than Guitar Hero. The three colored buttons correspond to three mixed music tracks: green for the first record, blue for the second one and red for samples and effects. As the trademark “skittle” notes come down the highway, you must tap the buttons in time to recreate the mix that’s playing.
Long patches on either track mean that you have to hold a button to scratch, and on hard and expert these patches have small arrows that dictate the precise direction you must scratch and at what time. Once your multiplier is high enough from tapping and scratching you can rewind through a small section of the mix at will, by spinning the platter backwards. Doing this strategically can let you replay a portion with a lot of notes, so it’s important for getting high scores. The whole setup is quite different than holding a fret button, waiting for a note to arrive and then strumming, and took me about an hour to get used to.
The basic gameplay is pretty simple, but the effect controls turn complicate things quickly. Certain portions of the track are bracketed by a yellow bar and this is your cue to rotate the effects knob, which skews the sound high or low and doubles your score multiplier. The knob also selects which effect you add to the freestyle portions that show up on the red track. Certain lengths of the track are also highlighted blue, and if you complete these portions perfectly you gain euphoria. Once euphoria is ready, the euphoria button next to the effects knob glows red; a nice indicator for when you can throw it on and double your score.
The crossfade slider is used when the blue or green tracks shift to the side—you have to slide it in the right direction right when the track jumps position, and then slide it back to the middle when the tracks realign or switch to the other side. On the harder difficulties you must flick it in and out quickly to hit crossfade spikes.
Pulling off all these techniques is decidedly different than the guitar, drums or vocals in past music games. When playing guitar hero my left hand did most of the “thinking,” per se, by working the frets, while I could pretty much forget my right hand because strumming was second nature and didn’t require much conscious thought. DJ Hero requires accurate coordination of both hands with a lot of thought divided between them, something that I could never get completely comfortable with.
My issues with DJ Hero come from the sheer precision it requires even on medium, when it isn’t even going that fast. You must time the scratches perfectly, pressing down and letting off the button at just the right time. The crossfader also gave me problems because the track shifts are so abrupt, and the slider is pretty loose. It’s too easy to shift back to the middle and accidentally push it to the other side; it doesn’t “grab” hard enough in the middle to prevent you from slipping over. These two complications kept killing my score multiplier and making it difficult to get anything more than a 3-star rating when playing above medium difficulty. Like in Guitar Hero 5 each new gig, character, and secret item is unlocked with the stars you earn, so needless to say I wasn’t unlocking much.
DJ Hero isn’t as brutal a teacher as Guitar Hero or Rock Band though. As you work your way through the ladder of gigs you’ll never fail out of a song, no matter how many songs are in the gig or how badly you perform on each one. The music just keeps going, even as you stumble through the incredibly complicated mixes on hard and expert. Sure, you might not even get a 2-star on most of them but it lets you practice without kicking you out of the gig after a streak of missed notes.
As with any of Activision’s music games, DJ Hero includes a multiplayer mode. If you own two turntable controllers you and a friend can go head-to-head on the same mix. It’s kind of simple but it’s a tried and true setup and a callback to face-off mode in the old Guitar Hero games. Alternatively, one person can scratch out on a turntable while another plays guitar accompaniment on any compatible guitar controller, using the exact same gameplay from the Guitar Hero series. I thought this was a pretty cool feature to include, but only some of the songs have a guitar part so your options in this mode are somewhat limited.
DJ Hero has a total of 93 mixes, and while they aren’t all unique—some of the songs repeat—it’s a healthy selection with a little something for everyone. Pop, funk, rock and alternative styles are all represented, much like Guitar Hero 5 or the family friendly Band Hero, and it’s only a matter of time before the DLC starts dropping every week.
Still, I’m not sure if I’ll buy as much of DLC as I have with Guitar Hero or Rock Band; DJ Hero just didn’t hook me the same way. Maybe it’s because jamming on an air guitar or beating the skins is a more natural fantasy for me—like most people I’ve always wanted to feel like a rock star, but DJing doesn’t hold that kind of wish fulfillment for me. I still fire up Rock Band now at then and run through my favorite songs, and Guitar Hero 5 is my new mainstay for parties, but I just don’t have much incentive to go back to DJ Hero. In fact I’m still trying to figure out just who asked for DJ hero; what audience is this game trying to cater to, the club scene? Maybe I’m just boring and don’t go to a lot of clubs; I'm are more likely to watch obscure horror films with a small group of friends than hit the nightspot circuit.
In any case, if you have an interest in DJing then DJ Hero offers a decent glimpse into the lives of the humble heroes of the nightclub. The style and culture of the DJ scene is well represented in DJ Hero’s visual design, art and attention to detail, so people familiar with the genre will find the game authentic in many respects. It is obvious that the developers either did a lot of research or spent their college days living it up after the sun went down, so the intent is genuine and appreciated. It will take a while for ardent guitar heroes to shake off what they’ve learned about music games and the turntable’s flaws don’t make it any easier to adjust, but otherwise DJ Hero is a solid product with good intentions and a lot of franchise potential.
DJ Hero is tough to quantify. The gameplay is unique and engaging for those interested in it, if marred by some control issues. There's a lot of content and personality here and a well built game, but guitar heroes probably won't fall into the groove right away.