The battle of the band video games has raged on for over a year now with Guitar Heroâ€™s World Tour entering the fray against Rock Band. While Rock Band has been busy bringing powerhouse franchises like The Beatles to gamers, Activision have been looking to extend the boundaries of music games. As such, DJ Hero isnâ€™t exactly a step forward, but an impressive leap sideways into a new musical genre and an innovative gameplay mechanic.
Not being a DJ myself I called on DJ Ham on Rye, a reclusive but prodigal mix-master to give the game a thorough workout. (Check the image of DJ Ham on Rye below).
First off, the DJ Hero controller looks and feels the part. Its sturdy design features a 3-way cross-fader, effects dial, euphoria button and a spinning turntable plate with three coloured buttons (green, red and blue). Like previous Guitar Hero products, the controller feels solid and robust enough to take a beating and is cleverly laid-out to make the DJâ€™ing experience fun and authentic. It also caters for those left handed folk by letting the user detach and switch which side the turntable plate is on with ease. In fact the only area where the controller seems to have taken a shortcut is with the hidden standard controls that allow players to navigate menus without the need for a second controller. The enclosed D-pad, face buttons and sync / start buttons all work perfectly but they do seem to have been made on the cheap. Thankfully these can be covered up by a flip-down cover during play.
The gameplay mechanics are recognisable to Guitar Hero fans but only on the surface. With Guitar Hero, users had to press buttons and strum with the correct timing and generally were concerned with individual notes or chords. But with DJ Hero there is so much going on that it feels like that thing where you pat your head and rub your tummy at the same. You will be dealing with left and right fades, carrying the beat, improvisational scratching and even adding your own samples into the mix. It can be intimidating at first but after a series of brief tutorials you will be mixing phat beats like a DJ ninja.
DJ Hero is all about the music and the game wastes no time getting to it. There are 102 licensed tracks that have been mashed together to create 93 completely original songs that you wonâ€™t hear anywhere else. Artists are wide and varied and include Jay-Z, the Black-Eyed Peas, Motorhead, Weezer, MC Hammer, 2Pac, Blondie, Queen, Rhianna, Marvin Gaye and plenty more. Truthfully, not all of them are brilliant but there are definite highlights such as the Beck (â€śLoserâ€ť) and Eminem (â€śMy Name Isâ€ť) remix. DJ Hero does a great job of merging musical tastes with soul, rock, blues, rap, hip hop and pop all coming together to make a goulash of tasty tracks.
Each one you play is a mash-up of two original songs, for example Daft Punkâ€™s â€śDa Funkâ€ť combined with the Beastie Boysâ€™ â€śLee Majors Come Againâ€ť. On screen players are presented with a curved vinyl track that is almost identical to the standard riff board on Guitar Hero games. There are three grooves that follow the track, each corresponding to a button on the turntable and coloured appropriately green, red and blue. The green and blue lines on either side refer to the two tracks you are mixing letting you incorporate elements from each as the track plays. The red line in the middle is used for filler effects and your own custom samples. On the easier difficulties, simply pressing each of these three buttons at the right time will produce a decent score. However ramping the difficulty up starts to incorporate the more advanced techniques to achieving your mix.
Scratching plays a large part of the game and is probably one of the more recognised DJâ€™ing techniques out there thanks to Grandmaster Flash back in the 80â€™s. Scratching can be applied to either of the two tracks you are mixing and at certain spots in the track, players will be presented with a fatter green or blue line as an indicator. When this happens, players hold down the correct coloured button and literally rub and turn the turntable element as if you were scratching a vinyl record. Unfortunately these scratch effects are pre-recorded and donâ€™t correspond to your exact tweaks on the record, but the feeling is still spot on and makes for a rewarding control system. These two green and blue track lines will also switch grooves to the left and right forcing the player to flick the crossfader switch accordingly which isolates one track and muffles the other. The red line down the middle is the least important but allows you to make the track your own by throwing in pre-selected voice samples such as â€śCheck this Out!â€ť or â€śGet Down!â€ť. Each samples set includes five different phrases and these can be selected by turning the effects dial. Itâ€™s a nice touch but I was disappointed to see that your artistic flair doesnâ€™t get included in the scores meaning that taking the effort to throw a sample in is almost not worth the trouble.
On top of all of this, there are two more controls to take in while mixing up a storm. The effects dial is also used to manipulate sound at particular points in a track. You can make certain sections of a track weave from the left and right channels or make sections of a track sound like youâ€™re underwater. DJ Hero also incorporates a Star Power system called Euphoria which is triggered after successful mixing with a red glowing button on the turntable controller. Itâ€™s a lot to take in and quite a different train of thought than Guitar Hero, but with enough practice players will feel comfortable grooving down to the game.
For those who donâ€™t, you can still pick up a guitar controller and jam with your DJ buddies. With a spark of brilliance, DJ Hero allows for some tracks to be played with two people â€“ one on a turntable and the other on guitar or bass. The gameplay mechanics donâ€™t change for either side, with the DJ mixing just as they would normally. Except all of the guitar and bass riffs are supplied from the guitar controller alongside. The only issue is, with the dance style of music guitarists will find themselves playing the same riff over and over. DJ Hero also includes a DJ vs. DJ multiplayer option as well, but sadly this was a little disappointing as both DJâ€™s play identical parts of the songs at the same time. I was hoping for a DJ battle mode where you take turns and then gesture and taunt your opponent as they try and keep the beat going.
Itâ€™s a minor gripe though and with promised downloadable content coming to DJ Hero, this new spin (sorry for the pun) on the popular franchise is likely to grow a decent audience over time. I doubt it will have quite the same impact as Guitar Hero, but if they continue to develop this product then who knows where this could be in two year's time. I couldnâ€™t help but imagine a Linkin Park or Incubus â€śband packâ€ť that includes a turntable, drums, two guitars and a microphone. But with Guitar Hero sales falling over the past couple of years, perhaps gamers are tired of plastic instruments cluttering up their living rooms? Only time will tell.