(First Published at Ace Gamez
) The past few years have proved to be a wild ride for Neversoft and Harmonix, respective developers of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, with each studio releasing a new title and subsequent rebuttal in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. The resulting market saturation is unlikely to have a significantly negative impact on sales, but you really have to feel for Neversoft right now. The studio’s latest effort, the superb Guitar Hero 5 is confidently the developer’s best attempt at the series since Harmonix passed the torch, yet has been slaughtered by the endless press assault for The Beatles Rock Band. Now, the relatively unknown UK developer Freestyle Games has launched the exemplary DJ Hero, a brilliant diversion from the overly-familiar Guitar Hero format that is sure to steal the limelight as soon as the outrageous price point falls down a bit.
The disc boasts an impressive tracklist made up of 95 expertly-crafted remixes from the best DJ talent around, backed up by a functional and weighty turntable peripheral. Bear in mind that many of these mixes are exclusive mash-ups of two separate tracks, rather than remixes of individual songs, meaning that a lot of the music does repeat throughout the career mode. As a result, playing the fifth variation of Rhianna’s dross-soul hit Disturbia can prove a tad grating, but it is interesting to hear many of the named DJ’s personal takes on the same song.
Career mode is broken down into themed set lists that get progressively more complex. Some sets are presented by a particular DJ, housing a series of mixes composed by the likes of DJ Jazzy Jeff, Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, and DJ Yoda. At the end of each mix you are awarded a star rating and, depending on your star total, you can unlock new venues, characters, decks and setlists. Because this is quite a different experience to Guitar Hero, you may find that hitting five-star ratings is initially a tall order. Therefore, a trip the gameplay tutorials, hosted by the brilliant Grandmaster Flash, is most definitely advised.
The gameplay itself is best-described as a hybrid between the superb Harmonix PS2 title Amplitude and the familiar track and timed button press mechanic of Guitar Hero. The aim is to keep the audio track flowing by hitting key presses, scratching elongated notes and cross-fading. Similar to Amplitude, elements of the audio track will drop off if you miss a note, requiring you to quickly recover to keep the music flowing. However, instead of just incorporating a vertical note track, there is a horizontal element thrown into the mix to simulate cross-fading that will take some getting used to, but adds a layer of depth and skill to the system. Perhaps the oddest decision by the developer is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot fail a mix. Your only punishment here is a lower star tally, essentially locking you out of the more advanced sets.
The deck platter houses three coloured buttons; green simulates the left deck, red is used for playing samples and blue simulates the right deck. Single notes flow down all three tracks signifying timed button presses while longer notes on both the green and blue tracks require you to hold down the correct button and scratch by swivelling the platter back and forth. Scratching is particularly good fun, but on hard and expert difficulty settings you are required to scratch in specific directions, which can be incredibly difficult to grasp at first. When the track bends to either the left or right you have to quickly flip the cross-fader lever in the correct direction, letting you mix in and of each of the two songs.
Similar to Guitar Hero, your note streak will award you with a score multiplier that maxes out at 4X, rising to 8X whenever you unleash Euphoria, which is DJ Hero’s own brand of star power. To bank Euphoria you must strike all of the blue glowing notes without missing any and, by pressing the big red button above the cross-fader, you can use the power to boost your score for a short time. Another neat feature is Rewind, which is awarded after you hold a 4X multiplier for a certain amount of time. By spinning back the deck platter you can rewind a section of the track to re-play it and double up your score. Whirling back the deck is great fun and looks cool at the same time, just make sure you catch it again correctly and with enough time to get the cross fader back into its correct position.
Unfortunately, there are no options to remix songs yourself, which is a crying shame because it would have added even more meat onto DJ Hero’s already generous bone. However, you can throw an assault of sample effects into the mix by hitting the red button over elongated notes on the middle track. Using the effect knob, you can pre-select your effects ranging from vocals (‘Yeaaaaah boyeeee!’ is a sure-fire favourite), synth stabs and more. You don’t gain any points for these sections but they do offer a scant degree of track customisation. Perhaps the inevitable sequels will house a freestyle mode similar to GHTunes but for now it seems that Freestyle Games has missed a trick with this one.
The sturdy peripheral and engaging control system are backed up by an impressive collection of tracks that spans several decades and genres. The mixes are all expertly crafted and highly enjoyable despite many of the songs being re-used three or four times throughout the career mode. Notable stand-outs are a superb mash-up of Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Fix Up Look Sharp’ and ‘Genesis’ by French electro duo Justice, as well as a stupidly infectious remix of Gwen Stefani’s horrendous single ‘Hollaback Girl’ made better by blending it with Rick James classic ‘Give it to Me’. Guitar mixes let a second person join in by using a Guitar Hero controller to provide the backing track. There are only a few of these mixes and for the best part they work well, although things do get notably difficult for the deck-handler when the note track reduces in size. You can also connect a microphone to throw in a freestyle vocal track if you’re feeling incredibly ambitious, but this has no effect on your score.
There is a true party vibe running throughout the career mode, with dancers, glow stick spinners and a massive crowd going wild in each of the varied and larger than life venues. The only thing letting the atmosphere down is how pixelated and horrible the crowd looks up close. While not a major issue, the characters do look pretty shoddy in contrast to the slick appearance the venues and DJs. In addition, the menus and loading screens are alive with superbly-drawn original art work, cementing the colourful street art style running throughout the game.
Launching a new, peripheral-based franchise like DJ Hero will always bring with it a number of teething problems. For starters the online mode is less the high volume, high attitude DJ battles you might have hoped for. Essentially, this is just two DJs playing the same track while competing for the highest score. Again, sequels will likely expand the wealth of modes on offer, but for now, online enthusiasts will have to make do with this for the time being. Guitar mixes are also the weakest element of the overall soundtrack, with many sounding too busy or not busy enough. At times it feels as if these particular mixes were coined as an afterthought, a tenuous way of linking the franchise back to Guitar Hero.
While not perfect, DJ Hero is still a worthy addition to the rhythm-action genre, brining many fresh ideas to the table, but still not realising its full potential through the absence of creation and freestyle elements. However you slice it, Activision has another certified money-maker on its books and it will be interesting to see how the series evolves or indeed becomes convoluted after a few yearly instalments. Ultimately, the main issue is the price point, making the game feel more like an investment that a piece of solid entertainment and this will be perhaps your biggest consideration when deciding whether or not to take the plunge.