DJ Hero Review
Review By Steve Farrelly @ 05:28pm 06/11/09
If I'm to believe playing DJ Hero is just like mixing a real set of 1200 Technics, then I'm going to assume real DJs have the strongest forearms on the planet. Seriously, my right arm, after an hour or so with Activsion and Freestyle Games' DJ Hero were burning, as though I'd just spent an entire day at the gym only doing forearm exercises.
It could just be that I'm new to this whole thing, and while my music tastes - over the last two years - have actually shifted from punk, hardcore and metal to old-school hip-hop, jazz and funk (seriously), it does not necessarily mean DJ Hero is right up my alley, or anyone who's into the aforementioned music or dance/house/electro for that matter, either. The reasons for this are numerous, and it'd be remiss for me to say there wasn't a huge amount of value to the new music game genre entrant, it's just that it negates almost everything actual Djing is about.
To set it all up though, DJ Hero, as you may have guessed, follows closely along the formula of Guitar Hero, in that it's a music rhythm party game featuring a simplified peripheral relative to its aural foundation. In this case, as its name suggests, it's DJing and thus you have a mini turntable with an effects dial and cross-fader added to allow for an in-game recreation of the physical act of DJing. Like Guitar Hero and its peripherals though, this is not an exact science, and so it's important to realise that you're ultimately playing a videogame, and while the game itself does a pretty awesome job of making you feel 'somewhat' in control of what's going on in your speakers, you're really only a slave to what has been presented before you.
It's in this case the game is less than representative of its base product. DJing is about an organic flow; an outlay of mixes, tweaks, samples and layers all dropped by the person behind the deck[s] in their own creative way. It's about flair and musicianship. But DJ Hero is anything but. You're forced to follow the on-screen prompts presented before you; all arranged through pre-recorded mixes which, while all original to DJ Hero (in that you'll never find them anywhere else), it's all still hand-holding and totalitarian in foundation, leaving you really only playing a game of Simon Says.
Now you might argue that this is the case already with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but bear in mind the differences between the genres. hip-hop, dance, house and electro are all about organic flow - it's a DJ backing an MC and they feed off each other, or it's a DJ feeding off the energy of a room to elevate the track to a new level. Everything happens on-the-fly (at least in a live sense) despite their being a bass foundation of structure, and it's in this freedom DJ Hero ultimately fails.
I've also found it's less of an inviting multiplayer game, despite being able to have someone play guitar alongside you. There are missed opportunities here, like, having a hip-hop freestyle mode that allows you to layer your own tracks and mix them while a friend plugs in a microphone and raps over the top, as well as implementing a music studio similar to that offered in Guitar Hero World Tour (which we learnt wasn't overly used in that game, but seems perfect for DJ Hero). And while there is a multiplayer mode offered, it just doesn't ignite or excite in the way it should.
So where does the game succeed then? Well, to be honest, it's really a lot of fun to play. The structure is also very good and even though you're locked into playing pre-mixed tracks, a solid percentage of them are absolutely amazing. The entire Jay-Z Mix Tape set-list, for example, is incredibly fun to play along to as are some of the mash-ups you probably wouldn't expect to work out. Grandmaster Flash's beats are also great to mix out, and his personality in the game is represented really well.
The game's progression works in unlocking set-lists through accruing stars, which are in turn collected during tracks based on how well you keep everything playing. You're given three layers with which to play - usually two tracks and a beat. You can then chime in samples (from a pre-set list that actually isn't all that good) and scratch. You use your cross-fader to focus on single tracks (dropping out one of the layered tracks), and your sample dial also doubles as a volume balance. All of these tools sound cool, but are only able to be used when your cued to do so on-screen, which in turn ends up becoming the aforementioned game of "Simon Says". It's not all that bad. You do feel like you're bringing in all the effects, layers and beats when prompted (provided you do it correctly) and in this sense the game offers a different sense of satisfaction over Guitar Hero where it's almost impossible to properly replay guitar tracks note for note due to the limitations of the Guitar hero controller. Not that the DJ hero peripheral accurately represents everything going on in the tracks you're playing, but you do feel like you're actually doing something with each change in the mix.
The controller is responsive, resilient and competent. But if I had to complain about something, it would be its size. It could definitely stand to be a lot bigger, and I found my fingers and hands cramping up pretty easily. Also, it's quit the anti-ergonomic arrangement in that you really need to be playing on a proper desk standing up. I found my back and shoulders really copping a beating resting it on my lap or the coffee table.
It's a bold move on Activision's part to dabble in this area, and to their credit, I actually think DJ Hero has done a pretty good job with a great set-list of pre-mixed tracks by some of the world's best DJs, it's just that it lacks in emergent gameplay; there's no ultimate sense of freedom thus culling any sense of organic creativity on the player's part. This is definitely a great first entrant into what will clearly become a new franchise for the world's largest third-party publisher, here's hoping next time around they focus less on party and more on the music and freedom side of the DJ.