DJ Hero

BY Jace Proctor  //  November 2, 2009

Challenging controls, an awesome soundtrack, and we have a winner.


hen the original Guitar Hero hit the scene, I was skeptical. I had long avoided rhythm games like SingStar and DDR, preferring to stick to "true" video games with "real" controllers. I said things like "It's nothing like playing a real guitar," and "How hard can it be?"

Then I played Guitar Hero at a friend's house, bought it the very next day, and I haven't looked back since. My living room is host to all sorts of plastic instruments now, and Rock Band inspired me to pick up actual drums, which are even more fun.

Despite all the skepticism in the world, I've learned that these games are just fun. They're also challenging as hell and perfect for parties, and together, Rock Band and Guitar Hero have ushered in a new social type of video gaming that provides a nice, tidy counterexample to the cave-dwelling, sun-hating, social pariah gamer stereotype. That's why we're on the fifth iteration of Guitar Hero, and why The Beatles' first video game was a Rock Band title.

The controls are not only challenging; they're brutal.
This time around, I learned my lesson. When rumors of DJ Hero hit the scene, all I said was, "I'll give it a thorough try." After playing through all the Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles and getting through expert on all the instruments, I have complete trust in the rhythm game formula: put together a challenging set of controls and an awesome soundtrack, and you've got yourself a winner. That's exactly what FreeStyleGames has done with DJ Hero.

The controls are not only challenging; they're brutal. Expert DJ Hero is multitudes harder than expert drums, guitar, bass, or vocals, with several different and completely independent elements to control at blindingly fast speeds. Combined with the game's excellent musical selection, which features mash-ups of some classic (and unexpected) songs and the kind of bass-driven club vibe you'd expect from the title, you're looking at the rhythm game formula in near-perfect form. DJ Hero is a huge success, and the only thing it suffers from is a few first-generation hiccups.

Playing DJ Hero is more complicated than any Guitar Hero or Rock Band instrument, with a much wider variety of elements and movements making up the gameplay experience. Not only do you have to hit the familiar note-buttons as they come at the screen (called samples in DJ Hero ), but you have to scratch and crossfade while you're doing it.

Using these three basic elements in tandem can get pretty nuts. At higher difficulty levels the game throws a few curveballs at you to make things even harder: crossfader spikes are quick snaps of the crossfader bar to one side, while directional scratching is scratching in a specific direction, not just back and forth as you please. When these elements are all combined with a fast-tempo song with lots of crossfading on the high levels of difficulty, the result is something to behold. I would say that expert DJ Hero is way beyond any of the instruments in Rock Band or Guitar Hero in terms of sheer difficulty. It's insane. I imagine it's going to be quite a while before we start seeing the full-clear videos popping up on YouTube, and I can't wait to see what the rhythm game community does with this game.

Playing DJ Hero feels very natural.
Playing DJ Hero feels very natural. Scratching feels like I imagine scratching a real record feels, and crossfading is intuitive once you get the hang of what it actually does. Very quickly I found myself getting into the music, tapping my feet and bobbing my head despite the frenzied job my hands were doing. DJ Hero sucks you into the music just as well as Rock Band or Guitar Hero, if not more so.

Menu navigation is smooth, the interface is polished and aesthetically pleasing, and the game sports a host of intuitive and appreciated features, like being able to change the order of your next set list challenge to put your favorite song first. The game's tutorials, narrated by none other than Grandmaster Flash, do an excellent job of introducing you to the mechanics of the game. Rock Band or Guitar Hero veterans can probably jump into medium with no problem, but expect a steep jump in difficulty when you try hard and don't even think of jumping up to expert. There's no way to fail performing a song in DJ Hero, but it's going to sound pretty awful if you aren't hitting anything. Frankly, having all the music drop out and hearing nothing but scratchy record needle static is punishment enough.

Being a DJ isn't quite as accessible as being a rock star, and likewise, the music in DJ Hero isn't for everyone. It definitely has a "club" feel to it, which is to be expected given the nature of the game. If you aren't into club beats, techno, or mash-ups, you might not click with DJ Hero as quickly as, say, Rock Band.

That being said, it's hard not to love the soundtrack. It's clear that Activision and FreeStyleGames enlisted the help of talented professionals when putting this game together. Artists like Marvin Gaye, Gorillaz, Daft Punk, Queen, Gwen Stefani, Black Eyed Peas, and Rick James should be familiar to just about everyone, and DJ fans should recognize names like DJ Shadow, Tiësto, and DJ AM. Some of the mash-ups are absolutely fantastic, and in my opinion, are much better than the songs themselves. My favorite so far is "Ice Ice Baby" by Vanilla Ice mixed with "Straight Up" by Paula Abdul. I have no particular fondness for either of these songs by themselves, but I'd listen to the mash-up in my car.

DJ fans should recognize names like DJ Shadow, Tiësto, and DJ AM.
Despite being a very solid and polished release, the game isn't without its flaws. Most of these flaws are the kinds of first-generation flaws that the original Guitar Hero or Rock Band had when they first hit the scene. It took several iterations of the games, and their corresponding hardware, to iron out these kinks and get to the fairly impeccable state we're in today with Rock Band 2, Beatles, and Guitar Hero 5. I would bet that DJ Hero is going to follow a similar progression. The crossfader slider on the DJ Hero turntable can very difficult to use. It has three settings — left, center, and right — but the hardware lacks a definite center point. It would be excellent if the center point had a much more satisfying "stop" to it, but it doesn't. This makes it very easy to overshoot the center and go from one side to the other. It's something that most people will probably get used to, but I still feel like it's a deficiency in the hardware.

The placement of the controls is a little frustrating, too. The turnable wheel is very close to the crossfader knob, euphoria button, and effects knob, making extended play a little hard on your wrists. It feels kind of like trying to play a whole song on the tiny little solo keys on the Rock Band guitars — you're just a little too cramped. Making the hardware bigger by maybe 20-30% would alleviate this; given that the Rock Band 2 guitars are a little bit bigger than the originals, this isn't out of the realm of possibilities for the inevitable DJ Hero sequel.

The rewind feature is also a little awkward to use. Once you build up a streak long enough and power up the rewind, you actually spin the turntable backwards to activate it. This causes the song to rewind and lets you play the last 10 seconds or so over again for more points. It's an interesting feature and I admit that it feels really cool to do. It makes you feel like a DJ, it's slick, and it allows for some visual flourish to your playing. However, it's pretty hard to do without breaking your streak. You have to wait for a big break in the song, spin the turntable just right, then get it back to the natural position in time to start hitting the notes again.

The problem with this is that the parts of the song you want to replay for the most points have the most notes, and you can't spin the record back in the middle of all that without screwing up your multiplier. On top of that, you have to spin the record just right to get the buttons back to your hands in time to start mixing again without missing anything. If you spin too hard or too softly, you'll be scrambling to adjust the buttons before the mixing starts up again. It just doesn't have the natural, ergonomic, and relatively risk-free feel of tilting a guitar to activate star power, and though I'm reluctant to give up the cool-looking backwards spin, having it mapped to a button would be a lot better.

Rewinding makes you feel like a DJ. And it's pretty slick.
The biggest flaw with DJ Hero, though, is the absence of robust multiplayer modes. The game offers two-player DJ duels like the guitar duels of yore in the early Guitar Hero games, or a weird DJ-and-guitar combination for a small selection of songs with good guitar parts. This would have been awesome a few years ago, but these days it just doesn't seem to compare. I can get six other friends together and play Rock Band: The Beatles with all of them, so getting one friend to play DJ Hero just falls short.

The DJ aspect of the game doesn't lend itself well to large groups of players, and to me, it feels kind of like trying to push a silent film in the days of surround sound. There's definitely value and fun to be had with DJ Hero, but when I have friends over, it's just not going to get much play. Neversoft has mentioned that the possibility exists of incorporating DJ Hero's turntable into future Guitar Hero titles, or possibly incorporating the guitar/drum instruments into DJ Hero. I really hope this happens, because it would really round out the game and open up the turntables to parties and multiplayer settings.

DJ Hero might not appeal to everyone. I have friends who eagerly jumped into Rock Band who are giving me the stink eye when I mention DJ Hero, and that's to be expected. The world of the DJ hasn't quite opened up to the mainstream yet. If you can get over the slightly esoteric nature of the game and just give it a try, you'll probably have a really good time. I can easily see this game having a sequel, and because of the mash-up nature of the game, we'll probably see some really cool DLC coming out for DJ Hero in the future. The genres of pop, rap, R&B, hip-hop, and techno, which have huge audiences but haven't really been represented in the Rock Band or Guitar Hero franchises, are perfect for DJ Hero. It's definitely not going anywhere, and it's absolutely a solid, unique entry into the rhythm game arena that breathes a breath of welcome fresh air into the genre.

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