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Review

Review: DJ Hero

Activision's latest 'Hero' game puts you behind the wheels of steel.

The unboxing ceremony of Activision’s latest ‘Hero’ title was an event in itself. After handing over £100 to the understandably delighted sales assistant in HMV I walked back to the car with a bizarre sense of guilt and excitement: I’d just spent £100 on a game that I only assumed I would like based off my younger years of live DJ’ing and my current interest in creating studio produced mash-ups, the art of blending two or more tracks together to create a brand new one and the central premise for DJ Hero.

Opening up the box on the living room carpet brought an odd feeling of deflation: the ‘turntable’ portion of the controller feels about as plastic as I’d feared, with a rather loose deck that reminded me of my first belt driven KAMs.  The three stream buttons felt a little cheap too, with the larger red one capable of sticking if pushed hard enough.  Regardless, the ‘mixer’ part felt much better, the crossfader a little stiff for a scratch mixer but the effects knob, the Euphoria trigger and the d-pad section were fine.

It feels odd remarking on hardware for a video game review but if you assume you’re paying £40 for the disk then 60% of your bill is going on the wireless black plastic.  Overall the DJ Hero controller is a decent enough impression of a real turnable and mixer pairing and although I was hoping for something a little sturdier I guess that the Renegade edition, weighing in at an additional £70, would have provided such reassurance.  The thing connects to a small Bluetooth dongle just like Guitar Hero does, is simple to set up and comes with batteries.

So, onto the game.  Voiced by Grandmaster Flash, the introduction and tutorial is a great way to start your DJ Hero experience – he’s obviously the father of scratching so it’s good that he’s given some weight to the game because it all helps to add to the authenticity of what the developers were aiming for – Flash goes through the basics and then takes you through the elements mostly only found in the game’s ‘hard’ mode and above (although this isn’t conveyed) which for the purposes of explaining the game’s mechanics are worth reiterating here.

Much like Guitar Hero (and other games of the genre) you have a ‘hit zone’ at the bottom of the screen and elements come down three streams of what is meant to look like a vinyl record.  The three streams correspond to the three buttons on the controller and what the elements look like determines what you have to do when they reach the hit zone.  A single circle means you just need to tap the appropriate button – this is normally to signify the start of a track or looping some portion within the track, and is obviously the easiest to perform.

On top of this are scratch elements, either freestyle - in which you simply hold down the correct stream button and move the record back and forth – or directional, which requires you to match each part of the scratch exactly – either up or down – in time with the elements.  On the easier levels you’re mostly asked to scratch freestyle and only on the harder levels do the scratch motions bear any resemblance to the scratching on the mix – the directional scratches are much harder, especially when they get peppered with additional complexities like timing.

Next up is the crossfader – with the two tracks of each mix approximately mapped to the two outer streams the theory is that at some parts in the mix you’ll want to drop one of the two tracks out, and you do this via the crossfader.  As with everything else in the game though you’re not in control of when this happens – DJ Hero is a rhythm game not a music production tool and you have no control over how the pre-recorded mix actually sounds outside of a part going mute if you miss a cue.  So, if the green or blue stream moves to the side, you must slide the crossfader that way too.

This can be a little confusing at first but repetition soon trains your brain to knowing where in the stream is ‘central’ and only a cursory glance will allow you to know where the crossfader needs to be allowing the rest of your concentration to remain on the scratching and triggering.  Crossfader spikes (quickly flicking the fader to one side and back) are tricky because they’re poorly highlighted and not always easy to see, but are only difficult to perform when there’s loads of other stuff to be doing too, and don’t feature on all but the harder levels anyway.

Other tricks of DJ Hero include the Euphoria button – DJ’s version of the Star Power in Guitar Hero and activated when the player has successfully aced a small portion of the mix – press the button (which actually flashes red) and the vinyl ‘highway’ will glow blue and all your points will be worth double for a small time.  Similarly, getting your multiplier combo up high enough will unlock ‘rewind’ – a nice little gimmick that, once you’ve spun back the record, effectively lets you re-do a few seconds of the track assuming you’re quick with the crossfader when it starts again.

Finally, there’s some portions of the mix marked with little gold bridges which tells you that this is an effects section – grab the effects dial above the crossfader and you’ll be able to change the music slightly, although to be honest this is little more than a band pass so you’ll either be muting the bass or the treble portion as you tweak the knob.  The effects dial is also used to select a sample for the middle, red stream which you can trigger when the red lane is highlighted.  There’s a few sample setsto pick from but they’re all a little bit cheesy and don’t really add to the mix at all.

To be honest, I found medium mode much easier than medium on Guitar Hero, but that’s because with the guitar controller I couldn’t use my little finger for the fourth button so had to constantly move my remaining three fingers back and forth.  With DJ Hero that’s not a problem – there’s only three streams to worry about and so with the right hand on the buttons (and the right thumb on the side of the deck to make scratching easier) the left hand is free to manage the crossfader, Euphoria button and the little effects dial.

It does all work rather well, and on the harder difficulty settings, when FreeStyle Games were able to map most of what the mix is doing into button prompts (much like Guitar Hero’s upper levels) the game is complex, challenging and a lot of fun – getting a tough sequence right is an achievement highlighted by a big score and an even bigger smile – and when the music’s good everything clicks nicely together.  The 4/4 dance tracks worked best for me with the slower hip-hop mixes not nearly as exciting but that’s just personal preference and you might feel differently.

The game is broken down into unlockable set lists – a pack of 5 or so mixes vaguely grouped into genres (but not mixed together – the long pause between tracks is baffling) which can be played alone or with a friend.  Chances are most gamers aren’t going to buy two controllers, the price is too prohibitive, but if you can find a friend with the game on the same platform (or you hop online, of course) the multiplayer is a great way to play the game.  Activision have marked a few of the set lists as guitar-based, which means the second player uses a Guitar Hero controller instead of a turntable – a nice idea but there’s really not enough guitar tracks available.

Visually it’s a mixed bag – the game runs at a lovely frame rate, as you’d expect, but the various DJ avatars are dumb (and straight from the Neversoft school of design).  The various venues are garishly designed, the audience often just 2D cut-outs (even close up) and the quick edits, flashing strobes and various cameras could well induce headaches beyond what loud music could ever hope to achieve.  Thankfully, it’s not about the graphics – the audio is mostly great – but an option to dial down the backgrounds would have been appreciated.

My overarching feeling is that DJ Hero is a success – it’s well produced, bug-free (apart from the game sometimes pausing for a split second during mixes, which throws your multiplier) and mechanically sound.  It’s disappointing to find that there’s no creation mode, especially given the direction Guitar Hero was going with that side of things, and some of the mixes feature the same a cappella tracks as others bringing the total down somewhat, but this is the first in presumably a series of games so a sequel may have a little more room to play with.

Pros:

  • Some of the mixes are great.
  • It’s great fun, especially with two players.
  • The Guitar-based co-op is a nice idea.

Cons:

  • Some of the mixes are dull and fall a little flat.
  • On any mode below ‘hard’ your actions don’t really represent the scratching.
  • Our turnable doesn’t feel like it’ll last constant hammering.
  • The visuals aren’t great, with 2D cutouts populating the audience.
  • There’s a few glitches, including mid-track pauses.
  • It’s £100.

Verdict:

DJ Hero could easily have been perfect – there’s a huge amount of potential in the idea but I can’t help feeling that a little more time would have evened out the poor mixes and given more in the way of a creation mode.  Sure, the music selection that you do get is pretty vast but then launching day one DLC just makes you feel that £100 wasn’t enough money to spend on a video game in this current economic climate.  Still, a brilliant idea, the controller is great fun and parties will never be the same again – bring on the sequel: 8/10

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