Activision gets a lot of grief for releasing what often feels like dozens of Guitar Hero games each year. Thanks to games like Band Hero, Guitar Hero: Van Halen and Guitar Hero Smash Hits, even a stalwart fan of the series like me is starting to lose interest. There is definitely an argument to be made for the milking of the "Hero" franchise. But while all this is true, I'm struck by how much I enjoyed DJ Hero. It's not a perfect game by any means, but at least it shows that the company is willing to try something brand new.
DJ Hero is exactly what you think it is, a game where you play a fake plastic turntable. It's like Guitar Hero, but with a turntable instead of a guitar. It's like Karaoke Revolution, except there's more scratching than singing. Okay, you get the point. But what makes this game so exciting is that it uses an instrument that as far as I'm concerned hasn't been successfully duplicated on the home consoles. Activision definitely does a good job of getting the ball rolling and, assuming they stick with the series, I can see this being one of the shining stars in the music genre.
DJ Hero trades rock 'n roll for electronica, hip hop and dance music. This means that you'll hear a lot of familiar bands that haven't been represented in the Guitar Hero franchise. I'm talking about DJ Shadow, Daft Punk, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Q-Tip, Public Enemy, Eminem, M.I.A. and so on so forth. These artists make a strong argument for why this product should exist, there's clearly a lot of music that is completely ignored in many of the other popular music games.
Most of the game's 93 original mixes are mash-ups between two disparate artists. The idea is that if you pair Jay-Z with Eminem or Gwen Stefani with Indeep, you'll automatically come up with something cool. The results are decidedly mixed. There are definitely some stand out tracks in the bunch, including just about everything paired with DJ Shadow, Daft Punk and Herbie Hancock. There are a bunch of surprises in the mix, including a stellar mash-up that pairs Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" with MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." Who knew that combining these two mediocre talents would result in something so beautiful?
Unfortunately there are a number of real stinkers in the mix. There are a lot of bands that simply shouldn't go together, such as The Killers pairing with Rihanna or 50 Cent paired with David Bowie. One of the more offensive mixes include Beck and Third Eye Blind, two bands that definitely don't go together. I also found that pretty much everything paired with the Black Eyed Peas is worth skipping, which goes for real life as well. Still, while there are plenty of terrible mixes found in the package, I am happy that they at least tried something different. There are more than enough good tracks in this collection to make it worth owning.
While there are 93 original mixes in the game, don't think that it means that there are 93 different songs to choose from. You'll find that a lot of the songs are used multiple times, paired with several different artists. For example, Daft Punk's "Da Funk" is used in three different mixes, paired with the Beastie Boys, Queen and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. You'll find the same thing with Rihanna's "Disturbia," which is married with Kid Sister, The Tramps and The Killers. Thankfully these mixes are different enough to warrant a play through, but those expecting almost a hundred different songs will be sorely disappointed.
Of course, none of this music would matter if the game wasn't fun to play with the fake plastic turntable. The good news is that Activision's newest accessory is a lot of fun. Maybe it's not as intuitive and exciting as the guitar once was, but it still offers a thrill that is completely different from what I've seen in other music games. Be warned, there's a steep learning curve that veteran guitar heroes may not be ready for.
Here's how it works, the basic concept is that you are spinning two records at the same time (just like you would be in a real discotheque). All of this is represented using a three line note highway that resembles something you would see in the Guitar Hero franchise. The blue line is the turn table on the right, while the green line is the left. There's a straight red middle line that never moves, it generally represents the sound effects. These three lines will show you what you need to do, it's up to you to use your plastic turntable to recreate what it's asking for.
The reason that DJ Hero feels so different from the other popular music games is because you're not actually playing a specific musical instrument. Your job is to lay down the records, mix the music together, drop beats, add sound effects and generally make the whole thing exciting to listen to. Sometimes this means that you will need to silence one of the tracks, which is done by using the fader on the turntable. The fader is a small horizontal sliding bar that has three positions, right, left and middle. From time to time the note highway will jet to the left and right, showing you that you need to move the sound exclusively to one of the records. Doing this is as simple as moving the slider. The good news is that you don't have to be exact when returning the sliding bar to the middle, the game is forgiving enough that you rarely need to divert your eyes from the TV screen.
Along with using the slider, you will also have extended notes that require you to "scratch" the record. Everybody has seen somebody do this move in a music video; the idea is to quickly move the rotating carousel up and down. Occasionally you will need to do this while using the fade button. Hard and expert players will discover that some notes will need to be hit while moving the carousel in a specific direction. This adds to the already challenging gameplay, creating a sometimes flustering experience that is not for the faint of heart.
Like Guitar Hero, this game offers a number of ways of customizing the sound. Throughout each song you'll find a bunch of extended areas that you can tweak using your effect dial. This dial can also be used to add various shouts whenever a freestyle section comes up. And of course the game features a type of "star power," a bonus mode that allows you to extend your multiplier up to 8x. This mode is called "euphoria" and it works almost exactly like it does in Guitar Hero.
I was surprised at how satisfying the actual turntable gameplay is. I won't say that the gameplay is intuitive, but once I got the hang of it I found that I was having a really good time. I've never tried DJing in real life; I've only seen it on TV and in the movies. However, even with that limited exposure the game ending up feeling just right. The game does a good job of setting down a new set of rules that work well with the turntable, and it all feels about as natural as you can expect from a DJing simulator.
The problem is that it's not as interactive as games like Guitar Hero 5 and Rock Band 2. Sure you can bring on a second playing with a turntable, but that isn't as much fun as rocking out with a guitarist, singer and drummer. What's more, the game isn't very interesting to watch. Watching an avatar stand behind a bunch of electronics spinning records isn't as compelling as watching people play guitar and sing. To make matters worse, the graphics are kind of dull and the art design isn't very attractive. I found most of the characters to look more creepy than inviting, and some of the female avatars are simply appalling. Throw in only a handful of levels and you have a fairly boring game to observe.
Activision has done one thing to bridge the Guitar Hero and DJ Hero divide, and that's allowing a very limited crossover where you can bring a guitar into the mix. There are exactly ten songs in the game that allow you to pair a guitar with a turntable. Sadly these rock songs are the weakest of the bunch, featuring a downright offensive combination of the Foo Fighters and Beastie Boys. The fact that only 10% of the game's soundtrack allows guitars makes it an almost insignificant gimmick, but it's nice to have. I hope that future Guitar Hero games will try and incorporate this turntable control.
It's clear that a bulk of the development time went into making the turntable device work and creating the music. The sad truth is that there isn't a whole lot for you to do in DJ Hero. The "story" mode is basically you traveling from one challenge to the next taking on a bunch of songs. From time to time you'll have to play as a celebrity DJ, such as Grandmaster Flash, DJ Shadow, Daft Punk and the late DJ AM. Oddly enough these aren't the kind of battles we've come to expect from the "Hero" franchise, though a DJ battle wouldn't be completely out of the scope of things you might expect. Personally that kind of sounds like fun, but alas it's not meant to be. Instead you basically just play a batch of songs that represents that celebrity.
Once you've completed the various challenges you can either choose to move up in difficulty or make your own set list in the quick play. That's about all you have left to do. You can try to earn five stars and the achievements, but don't expect a world tour or anything more substantial than a list of songs you need to play through. I'm sure that these additions will come in the inevitable DJ Hero 2, but for now I'm disappointed that the actual package is so limited. Even the multiplayer feels like an afterthought.
It's hard to compare DJ Hero to the more robust games like Guitar Hero and Band Hero. This is very much in line with the start of a game series, which is unfortunate given the game's $120 price tag. Outside of the price, the game is a lot of fun and should be experienced by anybody who likes the music game genre. I can only hope that Activision will continue this franchise and add much more value to the product. There's a lot of potential in this package, enough to lead to a solid recommendation. DJ Hero proves that there's still a lot of new avenues to explore in the music genre.