Review: DJ Hero

Even though I’ve been known to hoard music games like they’re going out of style, even I have noticed a severe discrepancy in quality over the past couple of years. While most games go out of their way to avoid bringing new styles of play into the field and head straight for the fastest way to make cash, luckily there are still minds out there who think creatively. While DJ Hero isn’t exactly the first game of its kind (Beatmania IIDX, anyone?), it manages to capture the feeling of being a real DJ settled right in the heart of the hottest night clubs and bumpin’ joints where the real greats mixed it up. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly on the right track. We need more of this kind of innovation, and I’m proud to say that DJ Hero is the start of a revolution — and not one involving karaoke.

The idea behind DJ Hero is to provide gamers with the very same adrenaline rush that big-time DJs undoubtedly feel when they’re buried in a crowd of people bumpin’ and grindin’ to the tunes they’re spinnin’. Though everything about DJ Hero is prerecorded, prerendered, and premade, the feeling as if you’re creating something new, raw, and inventive is absolutely astounding. Though the game can become a nightmare to master, it can start you off nice and easy with some easy-to-understand maneuvers via the brand new controller.

As you unbox the relatively light peripheral, you can practically feel the tides turning in favor of the true music and rhythm game fan. A sturdy turntable is provided with which to play the game, though it’s completely unlike what you may be used to had you been following the Beatmania series. Activision has opted for a more realistic look for their latest blockbuster music title.

Basic gameplay is quite simple to learn and class is headed by Grandmaster Flash. Just like in every other Hero title, you’ll need to rely on twitch button presses and reflexes in order to be the best DJ you can be. A turntable decked out with silver studs on the edges will be where you spend most of your time. The game will require you to scratch quite frequently, and you’ll need to be able to deftly maneuver the spinning disc quickly if you ever want to be like the true DJ heroes of the past. The “disc” is sturdy and functional — not too hard to turn, as you’ll often rely on Rewinds (full turns of the disc in order to rewind a song and play at full combo multiplier). Gamers familiar with Beatmania will appreciate the looseness of the disc in that you have much more freedom to keep moving it around while laying down tracks. It’s no picnic to get scratches, rewinds, or simple sections in-game perfectly right, but that’s where the real challenge lies.

Three note buttons are perched on top of the disc — a far cry from Guitar Hero‘s five frets that many cannot master. You’ll be using these in combination with scratching in order to hit and hold the notes that will be rounding the bend on your note paths. It’s the same idea you’re used to. Simply hold down the grooved and ridged buttons (they feel great) when the icons arrive at the indicators at the bottom of the screen. Often, you’ll need to couple button presses and scratches together so it’s prudent to memorize their order. The weighted buttons feel wonderful under your fingers and much less like cheap plastic than grooved inlets. A vast improvement over the buttons used on the Guitar Hero controllers.

To the left you have a flip-up panel that reveals the Xbox 360 guide button, as well as face buttons and a D-pad for navigation. Connecting wirelessly was effortless, and took only a few seconds. Below the panel you’ll find the crossfader and an effect dial. Since every song included within DJ Hero is comprised of two songs — mashups, if you will, you’ll be making great use out of the crossfader. Though you won’t get a taste of it until the medium difficulty and up, you’ll need to master it if you want to get anywhere, and figuring out how to charm the crossfader was my biggest hangup the entire way through my first playthrough. It has three positions: left, right, and center.

Rigorous gameplay requires you to move the crossfader back and forth very quickly, and it’s built in such a way that it feels as though you’re going to damage the controller if you jerk it around too much. Because of this, my skill suffered tremendously. I didn’t want to break this pricey peripheral, and it’s one negative strike against the product: the crossfader is entirely too flimsy for a game that absolutely necessitates its use if you’re going to be moving up through the ranks in difficulty at all.

Fortunately, the dial is much less finicky. You’ll be using it to freestyle through various sections, implementing voice samples from Grandmaster Flash: “Yeeeeeeeah, boyeeeeee!”. It does grate on the nerves, using the same samples over and over, but they’re a fun touch and it really does feel as though you’re dropping specific vocal cuts into the music you’re cutting together. To the left of the effect dial is a button to be used specifically for the DJ Hero version of Star Power: Euphoria. It’s a large red button that lights and flashes as soon as Euphoria is ready to go. Euphoria will build when you successfully hit the appropriate segments and build your combo meter up appropriately. Euphoria can be quite helpful when deployed, as it will keep you from failing out (something that will happen quite often if you don’t practice), and can be used in conjuction with Rewinds, one of my favorite aspects of the game. In all, the DJ Hero peripheral is a solid and sturdy one, though the crossfader could use a lot of work, as it’s arguably the part that takes the most abuse.

An impressive song list is presented, with the likes of Queen, Daft Punk, Rihanna, and even Beck. While most of the artists are unique, some songs and artists are used twice to be paired with different tunes in order to create new musical odysseys. Those of you hoping to enjoy one song in full might be a little disappointed, but trust me — there’s nothing but raw energy in these tracks. The musical pairings seem somewhat bizarre at first (Gorillaz and Blondie together? Atomic!) but are mixed together masterfully to get you boppin’ in your seat. Even if you’re not a big fan of hip hop, rap, or similar genres, there’s enough music here to cover a broad spectrum of tunes to please anyone. Unless you’re into bluegrass.

The difficulty is quite unforgiving when you decide to come out of Medium, and it will hit you like a ton of bricks. It’s much more challenging than anything Guitar Hero has ever concocted, but at the same time it feels decidedly more realistic as well. Rather than simply playing along with what’s being presented, you actually begin to feel as if what you’re doing outside of the game directly correlates with what’s onscreen. I haven’t felt like that in quite a long time, and I appreciated that DJ Hero made me feel that again.

Even considering the flimsy feel of the crossfader divot and the absurd difficulty curve for new players, I can honestly say that DJ Hero is a shining step in the right direction for the music game. It’s evolving faster than we realize, and I am hoping with all my might that eventually they will grow into something even more respectable, perhaps leaning toward teaching us skills we can take into the real world to actually create music. I’m quite proud of this release, and even though it’s not perfect, it’s taken substantial strides forward. Now, anyone wanna DJ battle?

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