DJ Hero is a game that really needs to be played to be truly appreciated. On paper it seems to be yet another ill-conceived concept bundled with a money-spinning peripheral to give it a novelty value – the kind of thing you fiddle with at Christmas and chuck into the spare room for the rest of the year. But when you actually place your fingers on the turntable and scratch out your first mix, you’ll lose all those nagging doubts or cynical thoughts, and – toilet breaks notwithstanding – you won’t stop until you’re wrestling with the wrist-snapping final tunes of the game.
The secret to DJ Hero’s success is in the presentation. There’s nothing fancy or pretentious about the game, even the controller is alarmingly minimalist with its lack of branding or unnecessary knobs and buttons. Everything about it oozes effortless cool, as the quality of the mixes and the way the game opens itself up to you does all the talking.
You start things off by familiarising yourself with the slightly alien peripheral. Grandmaster Flash walks you through the tutorial, and at first there’s a nagging fear in the back of your mind that it’s all going to be a bit naff. Flash does like the sound of his own voice, but his tutorial text is solid enough to give you a basic grounding of how the game works. It is, unsurprisingly, a bit like Guitar Hero.
Coloured blobs travel down the on-screen highway at you, and when they reach the bottom, you need to press the corresponding button to play them. So far, so familiar. The green line on the highway represents one track, and the blue a second, with effects assigned to the red line. Your job is to hit all the notes to mix these two tracks together. When long sections with arrows inside them appear, you need to hold down the button on the turntable and scratch them out. On medium difficulty you’re called on to use the crossfader to fade tracks in and out of the mix.
If that still doesn't make any sense, maybe this abridged video of the basic in-game tutorial will help:
That's the basic stuff, which is great to get warmed up. But real DJ heroes will be wanting to kick things up with the advanced techniques:
During Hard and Expert modes, when you’re furiously combining effects and scratches, the peripheral takes quite a battering. Thankfully, both the Xbox and the PS3 decks (which are virtually identical, save the face buttons, D-pad and respective ‘home’ buttons, which are hidden away under a panel in the top left) are sturdy pieces of kit.
What impresses most about them is the solidity of the actual turntable, the chunky buttons mounted on it, and the ease with which you can spin it and scratch it. And unlike many other peripherals that come bundled with games, you feel as if you’re getting value for money from the decks.
In fact, the whole game – despite costing a significant wedge of cash - is actually well worth the initial investment. There are a lot of mixes in the game, over 100, and with downloadable content confirmed, that number will grow and grow. During an interview with the devs a couple of months ago we were told that during the final few months of development FreeStyle were inundated with new artists looking to work on the game. And we can see why they were attracted.
DJ Hero isn’t some tool for teaching you how to become a real life Disc Jockey. If you think that, you’ll be sorely disappointed. What it does is give you an appreciation for the music and culture of mixing, by cherry picking the very best tracks and professionals in each genre and implementing them into the game. That’s why the likes of DJ Shadow, Z-Trip and Jazzy Jeff are all on board, all digging out some of the most revered tracks from their respective disciplines. The presence of these professionals, combined with the obvious passion of the guys at FreeStyleGames is what gives DJ Hero its appeal – that effortless cool we mentioned earlier.
There are a few stinky mixes in there, however. We’re not sure David Bowie’s Let’s Dance should be mixed with anything, or that Third Eye Blind really goes well with the Jackson Five. In fact, the majority of the rock tracks, which are available as part of the Guitar vs DJ mode (where one person plays on track on plastic guitar, while the other uses decks) aren’t much cop. It was a nice idea, but these mixes feel out of place and more than a little embarrassing next to the ‘proper’ mixes of the rest of the game.
We’re not convinced by the majority of the samples either. Being forced to play an air horn, or hear someone scream ‘Check dis out’ over the top of a haunting Cypress Hill/David Cross mix made us die a little inside, and wish that the ability to play samples was purely optional. If we really have to lay samples over these mixes, can we have some less embarrassing packs as DLC? Fingers crossed. It’s a shame because the rest of the unlockables are spot on. There are plenty of colourful custom DJs, loads of decks, and plenty of venues – all of which are bagged by winning stars for performing well.
Elsewhere, everything else is as it should be. There’s no lag between the decks and your on-screen actions, and when you’re actually DJing your character does an admirable job of aping your button presses. Celebrity DJs look very life-like in a caricatured kind of way, and their set-lists are all packed with character.
In all it’s a great package, and even if you’re only vaguely into the kind of music on offer, you’ll get weeks of fun out of it. DJ Hero does represent a big leap of faith – that £90/$120 price tag is daunting – but once you actually play it, you’ll get it, and there’ll be no turning back…
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