Game Review: DJ Hero

October 29, 2009

Just when you felt like you had enough plastic in your living room to throw a Tupperware party, along comes DJ Hero-the latest peripheral-driven music game. This time you're tasked with mastering the wheels of steel instead of a six string, but we're willing to bet that these days the air scratch is just as popular as the air guitar. So is Activision apparently, as it boldly takes players into the club zone riding a stream of endless notes. Is it a broken record or should you give it a spin?

Like many young franchises, DJ Hero goes back to the roots of the genre with straightforward, no-frills design. There are over 20 gigs to complete, each with varying numbers of songs. You can garner a maximum of five stars per song and as you pile them up, new DJs, venues, gigs, and gear are unlocked. The game features a who's who of DJ culture, with appearances by Daft Punk, Grandmaster Flash, DJ Shadow, and many more. New content is handed out in gobs, making sure that there's always something to tinker with after finishing off a set.

Music is always integral to any game of this type, and DJ Hero surprisingly casts a wide net. Rock, rap, and dance are all mixed together with mostly glamorous results, creating some interesting mixes between unlikely matches. The guitar-laden mixes are definitely the weakest of the bunch, but it's understandable that they're included. Otherwise, it's a nice cross-section of top 40, hip-hop, house, and every beat in between. The game boasts 93 mixes, but many songs are mixed with multiple other tracks, so the total number of unique songs actually comes in a little south of the figure, but there's something here for just about everyone.


By now you've seen the turntable peripheral and can tell that it looks the part, but it also functions quite well. The platter has a very similar action to expensive CD turntables that fill the clubs these days, and so far the cross fader, buttons, and knobs have held up well under abuse. The Renegade Edition features a black deck and a metal knob and cross fader, but the actual build of the peripheral is the same. No matter which edition you buy, you can flip the mixing console to accommodate lefties, which is a nice touch.

Aside from going through all the gigs solo, you can pair up with a friend for a DJ battle using the same identical tablatures, or plug in a guitar to strum along to the beat. Undoubtedly a precursor to the turntable's inevitable inclusion in the Guitar Hero franchise, the guitar adds a nice dimension and provides something for others to do while you cut away. Online there's player match for duels, party play, and leader boards to compare your skills against the world, but the modes in DJ Hero are fairly bare bones when compared to its contemporaries. Luckily, the versatile and impeccable music selection easily carries the game.

The basic structure of DJ Hero is similar to its riff-laden cousin. Notes stream down an endless highway and you must press three buttons on top of the platter as they cross the bar at the bottom. This is just the beginning, though. When you encounter blocks with arrows scrolling up and down, it's time to hold in the button and scratch the platter, releasing the button when the block ends. The cross fader is basically a slider that allows you to cut back and forth between the two tracks in each mix, and there's a line that you must follow to do it correctly. These are the basics, yet at first, even this can feel like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.


The rest of the gameplay actually allows you to impart some character into your mixing. At certain intervals an orange arc appears above a note track. This is your prompt to twist the effects knob-effectively opening or closing the envelope on the track. Then there are red sections that allow you to fire off sounds effects in whatever cadence you choose. You can select the samples you trigger from a list, and between the two, you have some creative freedom to make each mix your own.

The flow of the game again follows Guitar Hero. As you pull of strings of successful inputs you can set off euphoria, DJ Hero's version of overdrive. The points will roll up, and if you keep your combo going you're rewarded with a rewind that asks you to spin the platter backwards and then replay the same section of the song again for even more points. If you're looking to score fives stars on a song, the rewind is essential, and you'll eventually be able to spin the platter backwards and catch it just as the buttons go full circle without even looking down.

It may sound confusing, and it definitely is for the first 20 or 30 minutes, but when you finally get over the hump and start scratching, cross fading, and shaping each song with your effects and samples the feeling is incredible. We've watched just about every type of player sit down and give it a go and every last one of them walks away with a smile on their face. Best of all, the game features a nearly perfect learning curve, layering on advanced techniques like cross fader spikes that can ramp it up to nearly impossible.

Just like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, DJ Hero is only a rough approximation of actually spinning music. Yet it's hard to imagine anyone playing it without gaining a new appreciation for what DJs do. They've made some smart cuts like eliminating beat matching, which can literally take years to master. But other missing elements of the scene are a little harder to swallow. While you can set up custom sets, the songs have a beginning and an end with awkward silence in between. DJs typically play non-stop, and it would have been nice if one mix flowed into another so that players could learn the basics of phrasing a set with peaks and valleys. In other words, if you're looking to rock a party with this game it's not happening. Another disappointment is the turntable itself. Sure, it feels like a real CD deck, but it isn't one, so freestyle scratch sections are out.


Playing DJ Hero is undoubtedly a challenge, but it's one well worth tackling. While it may outwardly look a lot like Guitar Hero, actually playing it feels completely different. Even people who have zero interest in DJ culture or the club scene will find it hard to resist, as it makes you feel more like a cutmaster than Guitar Hero makes you feel like a rock star.

By now you've undoubtedly realized that the graphics in games like this are somewhat irrelevant, but DJ Hero still does a great job of recreating the atmosphere of a club. You can tell that the people who created this game have spent a lot of time awake when most are asleep. The dance animations pull some of the most common steps straight from the dance floor and all the details like girls dancing with batons and eye-blistering light shows will plant you directly in the center of the action. Authenticity has also been addressed, with small touches like Daft Punk performing in the actual set they use if you go out and see them live. Audio quality is great, and the game doesn't punish you for mistakes by dropping out all the music and creating awkward silence.

DJ Hero is one of the most refreshing, original games we've played in quite a while. Its addictive gameplay mechanics help it transcend its music and setting, resulting in a game that everyone will enjoy. It can be a challenge at first, it's light on options, and there's a lot of headroom for it to expand, but those who see it through will be rewarded and possibly discover a new appreciation for the unsung heroes of the night life in the process.

Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.



Source: Activision