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Hands-on: DJ Hero

As anyone who's ever seen me tickle the colorful neck of a Guitar Hero guitar or keep impeccable time upon a Rock Band drum kit will attest, I've got a knack for rhythm games. I've never placed my hands on a peripheral that I wasn't immediately able to mentally deconstruct and use to its fullest rockin' potential [I'm only allowing this catastrophic failure of modesty because it's true. - Ed].

My first few minutes with the Xbox 360 version of DJ Hero, however, initially left me flummoxed. That's not to say the turntable peripheral therein is poorly designed or difficult to use. No, my inability to pick up and expertly play Activision's newest bundle of musical joy is due to the fact that for the average rhythm genre veteran, DJ Hero is a horse of an entirely different color.

Gallery: DJ Hero | 9 Photos

We're all familiar with how guitars and drums work. The first time you pick up a plastic simulacrum of one of these instruments, you can recall the mechanics of their real-life counterparts. This mental comparison helps players of rock-based rhythm games understand what they're doing right off the bat.

A much smaller portion of the population is familiar with the tools of the turntablist -- that inherent sense of familiarity just isn't present when staring at DJ Hero's peripheral: A black ocean of buttons, knobs, discs, switches and sliders.

The demo I recently got my hands on -- the same demo that will soon be populating kiosks in brick-and-mortars across the country -- was kind enough to give me a one-on-one training session with Grandmaster Flash. He exuberantly explained that the means of interacting with the game are mostly tied to three functions: Tapping on the three buttons located on the record, scratching the record while holding down one of said buttons, and crossfading between the current track's two composite parts using a sliding toggle.

The first two functions are easy enough to understand, but I had some trouble wrapping my mind around the crossfader. Not only did I find it difficult to discern when I needed to switch tracks in-game, but the toggle's three positions (left, right and center) are difficult to accurately and hastily shift between.

It took a couple of tries, but once I finally understood how these functions translated into actual song interaction, my enjoyment of DJ Hero exponentially increased. I still can't play it on anything higher than medium difficulty (which might be due to the slight audio-visual delay present in the demo; and no lag calibration option to compensate), but I know that once I get my hands on the retail version of the game, I'll be eager to improve my mix-mastery.

I don't mind the game's somewhat steep learning curve. However, it does make DJ Hero less likely to become a smash hit at your social gatherings. This is alleviated somewhat by the DJ vs. Guitar mode (a brief glimpse of which is present in the demo), but I don't imagine my casual gaming friends will choose to take the time to learn how spin virtual vinyl when Rock Band or Guitar Hero 5, which will allow four of them to play at one time, is sitting in the same room.

Then again, it's just as likely that you and your compatriots are burnt out on the rhythm games of old, and desire something fresh. Rest assured, DJ Hero has freshness in spades, a fact that should be evident from its mashed-up track list.

Though the songs are presented in an unfamiliar manner -- further detracting from DJ Hero's instant accessibility -- they're spliced together brilliantly. As I learned to deftly shift between samples on the demo's four tracks, I could hear (and, eventually, anticipate) how each song's aggregate parts blended together. It may be too soon to drop such a statement, but for a few fleeting moments after this epiphany ... I may have felt like a DJ.

My performance during a mix involving Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" was particularly sweet. In fact, I'd say it was almost reminiscent of a curved, tropical fruit.

DJ Hero isn't just a shameless cash-in on one of the gaming industry's largely untapped cultures. It's a completely original and entertaining take on the rhythm genre with vast amounts of potential, and I can't wait to see what the full version of the game has to offer.

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