Though Harmonix and Neversoft weren't the first entities to introduce rhythm based gameplay to the world, it's hard to argue their impact and influence on making something like a 'note highway' a well-known bit of pop culture outside of Japan. Since its release in 2005, Guitar Hero has spawned not only sequels, but spin-offs and clones, and has become a sought-after platform for fledgling and famed bands alike.
Where Guitar Hero helped popularize a gaming culture through rock music and accessible-yet-challenging in-sync button mashing, FreeStyleGames and Activision aim to emulate that success with the hip-hop scene and the art of mixing. Bundled with a new turntable controller, DJ Hero exudes the same amount of novelty fake guitars did years ago, while further cluttering living rooms and closets. The game and hardware may have some shortcomings, but for what is most inevitably the premier of a new franchise, there is plenty of fun to be had here.
Those familiar with the structure and mechanics of other contemporary rhythm games won't find much different in DJ Hero. Color-coded actions stream toward the bottom of the screen and it's up to you to exhibit your DJ skills by matching beats, scratches, flicks of the cross-fader and turns of the effects dial in-time with on-screen cues. If you manage to do these well enough in specific sections and in succession, you then have the option of activating Euphoria—a way to double your score multiplier for a limited amount of time. With certain cues, you can also unleash a number of preset sample effects, even if they sound oddly out of place when employed.
As you master your skills, your main goal is to do well enough in 94 mixes of songs from various genres to earn stars and unlock new characters, accessories for these characters, and additional mixes. This feat isn't too daunting on the easier difficulty settings, with a forced tutorial and a gentle learning curve, but you'll find more than a challenge in the harder settings.
Nowadays, this all sounds pedestrian, right? It's a formula that has worked well for Activition's guitar-based products, but it turns out that it also lends itself just as well to the DJ variation.
Similarities extend into the game's presentation and visuals as well. Most of the attention while playing is paid to the highway of cascading actions, but from menus to venues, you're catered to a hip-hop inspired theme and club settings. Adding to the various DJ pulpits are bright, flashing lights and hiccuping camera effects, which play well to the atmosphere—albeit likely to induce bouts of epilepsy no matter your medical predisposition. If you do manage to steal a glance off to the space behind the on-screen vinyl, however, you'll notice repetitive animations for each DJ and crowd. However, the canned animations are done well and all of the characters are fun, stylized characitures.
The setup may be described as reminiscent, but it's the gameplay that really differentiates DJ Hero from other games in its genre. True, this may be self-evident due to the nature of the controller, but other factors than just the turntable help as well. Foremost is the soundtrack. Even with a number of repeated songs, and a few mixes that sound more like a cacophony than alternating rhythmic beats, many of the tracks fit together deftly, combing and covering the music's staples, from electronica to old-school hip-hop. While FreeStyleGames themselves contributed many competent mixes, you can't overlook the original work done by the art's biggest names, like: Daft Punk, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and the one credited for perfecting and innovating the craft, Grandmaster Flash.
If you don't feel like playing through the unlockable set lists, you can create your own of up to eight mixes. The opportunity to tailor your music selection also works well for the Performance Play option which turns the game into a limited digital jukebox: instead of competing for a score, the music plays itself. Really, the only thing missing is a quick play option.
Cutting together artists like Jurassic 5 and Herbie Hancock make for some stellar mixes. What's disappointing, however, is despite these skillful compositions, it's hard to enjoy them with other players. The lack of unbundled turntables at launch aside, none of the multiplayer options really contribute well to a social experience. There are 10 tracks you can unlock for a second player to join in with a guitar, and you could add someone else to beatbox or freestyle on a microphone, but either way, your friends are going to feel left out due to guitar sections that are bland and overly repetitive, and a mic that sounds muted.
A second instrument isn't needed online, as a bare-boned competitive offering pits you and a randomly selected opponent against each other in a contest of accuracy on a host-chosen set list. Essentially, it's functional, but it's missing the draw of real life DJ battles: competitions of one-upping another DJ in cutting and mixing. You get the gist of these battles in versus play, but they're without the spectacle and essence.
No matter if you playing by yourself, with or against someone else, the controller itself can end up being your ultimate challenge. While the entire product feels like it will stand up to a good bit of wear, and works well for the easier difficulties of nondescript scratching, the positioning of the buttons on the turntable itself seems out of place and cramped. Just when you feel like you're getting in the groove of a scratch section, while holding down one of the corresponding colored buttons, it's entirely too easy to have the faux record slip from your tightly packed fingers. While we get making the game a game, trying to furiously twitch the turntable at the near-simulation Extreme and Hard difficulties is almost impossible at some points.
As a lifelong gamer, it's been interesting to watch a niche activity usually associated with introversion become a social, often times advertised public event. While there is much more to the contemporary popularization of gaming than a couple of rhythm based franchises, it's only been until much recently that we've seen mass, orchestrated attractions in bars, with Rock Band and Guitar Hero headlining. DJ Hero might not evoke such social activity, and it does have some lacking qualities, but with character and attitude throughout, and an impressive list of entertaining music, the game is a fun distraction from plastic guitars and drums.
DJ Hero isn't the first turntable game for home consumption, and it won't be the only to hit our current generation of hardware either. While sequels are bound to propagate, it will be interesting to see how it evovles and how competition like the upcoming Scratch: The Ultimate DJ stacks up to this novel foray.