DJ Hero 2 review: A mechanical masterpiece

DJ Hero was a profoundly innovative game -- spun off from a franchise and a publisher rarely applauded for their profound innovation -- tapping into new genres of music and methods of interacting with it. It was, for lack of a better term, lightning in a bottle and, for all its inherent freshness, an awfully difficult act to follow.

DJ Hero 2 manages to iterate on the series' debut outing not by introducing new modes or instruments -- okay, it tries to do both of those things with moderate success -- but rather, by polishing the very mechanics of virtual mixmastering to a near-perfect sheen.
Your bread and butter moves still involve using the turntable peripheral -- which is completely identical to the controller that came with last year's outing -- to tap, scratch and crossfade along three tracks. Two of these tracks represent the songs which have been mashed together to create the mix, while the middle track is reserved for errant samples.

These core mechanics are expanded by the addition of "held cues," which require the player to -- you guessed it -- hold down a tap or slowly prolong a scratch in a certain direction. Something that sounds so inconsequential actually does a lot to make you feel like you're actually playing the song, while adding a much-needed level of difficulty to the proceedings. (Those who decimated the original DJ Hero on Expert need to start getting their ego ready for the fact that they'll probably spend most of their time in DJ Hero 2 on Hard.)

While you're still not, you know, really DJing, you probably won't be able to tell the difference after mixing together a particularly savory freestyle crossfade.

The real highlight of the improved controls are the frequent occasions when the player is allowed to freestyle while sampling, scratching or crossfading. These sections, when performed with rhythm and creativity, are worth loads of points -- and, as a more intangible bonus, they sound completely awesome, and will make you feel completely awesome for playing them.

With the introduction of "Pro Modes" and controllers which are actual instruments, music games are making leaps and bounds towards emulating the performances they're mocking up. DJ Hero 2 has managed to do this simply by overhauling its controls. While you're still not, you know, really DJing, you probably won't be able to tell the difference after mixing together a particularly savory freestyle crossfade.

For all the do-it-yourselfishness inherent to the new mechanics of the game, there's not a lot of customization allowed in the single-player Empire mode. The prospect of creating a global DJ Empire is certainly a promising one -- however, after choosing a club name and logo at the beginning of the campaign, you just aren't afforded any opportunities to invest in your disc-jockey dynasty.

Empire mode sees you bouncing between a handful of different club scenes, each of which features a lengthy "Megamix" intro composed by DJ superstars like Deadmau5 and the RZA. From there, you branch off to themed setlists and adversarial DJ Battles, in which you can unlock new characters -- provided you can best your AI opponent, whose difficulty level has been set to "spirit-crushing."

Along the way, you'll unlock all manner of outfits and headphones for your characters -- not that any of these mattered once I realized I could also just play as my Xbox Live Avatar, who has never looked so cool in his life. Still, FreeStyleGames missed an opportunity, here -- Empire mode just feels like every other Career mode in every other rhythm game, when it had the promise to be so much more.

The game's multiplayer component is pretty massive, with six different competitive modes -- some of which make their way into the Empire mode in the form of DJ Battles. Going one-on-one against another player is still intense, particularly in the "Battle" mode, in which players go back and forth playing specially mixed, call-and-response portions of a song.

There's a load of titles, emblems and rankings to unlock by participating in the game's online multiplayer offerings -- though the best new online function of DJ Hero 2 is the ability to instantly send a message to an Xbox Live or PSN friend after completing a song, challenging them to try and top your score. If you've got friends who have the game, this could lead to some endlessly escalating rivalries.

Vocals are ... they're just silly. You probably expected that. That's not to say silly-bad, mind you. Karaoke by itself is embarrassing enough, but attempting to sing along to two songs simultaneously that have been mixed beyond the point of recognition is just ridiculous. Again, not bad-ridiculous -- for instance, trying to keep up with Janet Jackson's "Nasty" and also Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." is guaranteed to be one of the most delightfully humiliating experiences you'll ever have while playing a rhythm game.

The music this time around is probably a better representation of what DJs are actually known to play, with a heavier focus on Club, House, and more recent Top 40 jams. As a result, the constituent songs probably won't be as recognizable or kitschy to you as they were in first game (the tracks from which are tragically non-importable due to DJ Hero 2's new gameplay mechanics), but the mixes themselves are just as incredible -- especially once you figure out how to leave your mark on them with a well-executed freestyle.

In a genre where "improvement" is typically defined by how many new elements can be introduced between sequels, DJ Hero 2 relies on building upon the fundamentals of what made the first game so great. That's a pretty risky decision -- after all, it would be easier to sell the game on its newness if it came bundled with a theremin attachment -- but in terms of raw enjoyment, it's a decision that pays big, big dividends.

This review is based on a retail DJ Hero 2 disc and turntable for Xbox 360 provided by Activision.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.