DJ Hero - hands-on

The problem with Guitar Hero and Rock Band is that the games are slaves to the music. Neversoft, Harmonix and anybody else who develops a band-centric game is at the mercy of their soundtracks – and all the licensing woes these give rise to. True, music games are all about the music and the subsequent appeal of ‘playing’ a track. But when a song fails to be interesting, there’s little a developer can do save for adding phantom notes and ruining the simulation they were originally striving for.

DJ Hero developer Freestyle Games has bypassed this. Their DJs are the wizards behind every mash-up track featured, and if there’s a weak part of a mix the creative team in Leamington Spa can ring the London music studio where each track is assembled and request alterations. They do this because the music in DJ Hero doesn’t just inform the game; it is the game. The DJ’s actions on the decks are fully replicated in Expert mode, so you aren’t just playing as a DJ – you are the DJ.

We weren’t brave enough to sample Expert mode, but we did give both normal and hard a try. The team is well aware that DJing is a new skill for most, and so the different difficulties account for this. Kicking off with Easy, DJ Hero asks you to press the three buttons when prompted and hold them during scratch bars – nothing too taxing. Medium then introduces the crossfader, bringing your other hand into play.

The step up to Hard adds another layer to the mix: directional scratches. Rather than scratching the platter any way you choose, the up and down arrows must be followed to keep streaks alive. That’s not all. Crossfader spikes (quick left and right flicks of the crossfader) are also introduced, albeit sparingly. Expert of course mixes all these elements with half a pound of insane powder to really sort out the DJs from the NoWays. Ahem.

For a game with relatively simple controls, there’s an awful lot going on at once in DJ Hero. We found it difficult to use the dial – the deck’s equivalent of a whammy bar – to any degree of success, and between the Euphoria button, the Rewind mechanic and on-the-fly sample swapping there’s a lot of info to juggle at once. Party people and casual types beware!

Adding to the confusion is the deck itself. While it’s comfortable to sit with the platter on your lap, scratching the ‘inside’ track is sometimes tricky. Standing up gives you the leverage, but then you’ve got to find a surface high enough for the decks to sit at a reasonable height. The trick, we later found, is to rest your thumb on the textured rim of the platter and use that to spin the vinyl, not your fingertips. Even so, sitters are at a major disadvantage.

Despite all these distractions we survived the Hard mode with a fairly respectable score. We trounced Medium our first time out with a four-out-of-five star rating to boast about and a chorus of cheers from the crowd to savour. More importantly, we ended the day not just with expectations intact, but elevated.

One DJ Hero mode we also sampled was the DJ vs Guitar mash-up – Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’ linking with The Foo Fighters’ ‘Monkey Wrench’ on guitar. The finished Guitar Hero 5 highway style is included, so experts will slot right in (if they can block out the noise of ‘Monkeytage,’ that is).

A ‘revolution’ (excuse the pun) in music games? The price is hard to gobble down, but the sheer wealth of content is tough to fault. The novel difficulty system guarantees there’s always something for everybody, while we’d say that Expert mode goes as far as blurring the lines between game and reality more than ever before. Can DJ Hero really expect to command attention as much as a Guitar Hero or a Rock Band? You bet your ass it can. And then some.

Sep 17, 2009