DJ Hero could end up being the most divisive video game ever created. It flies proudly in the face of certain qualities I've come to expect of the casual-aimed rhythm genre -- qualities such as accessibility, recognizability and general ease of play. Activision's latest possesses none of these characteristics: It's got a sheer learning curve, it exclusively features music that has been mashed into an indistinguishable pulp, and it's easily the most difficult peripheral-based rhythm game I've ever played. (Dance Dance Revolution notwithstanding, of course. These legs just weren't made to flail.)
Everyone who plays DJ Hero will either hate it to its core, eject the disc and toss in a more familiar musical standby, or, if they possess a certain collection of odd inclinations, they'll fall wildly in love with it. I fall into the latter group, though the small assembly of friends I recently had try their hands at the game fell firmly into the former. Yes, those people aren't writing this review, but I thought it important to note their existence.
For my part, I found DJ Hero to be fresh by every conceivable definition of the word.
The best way to describe my final impression of the game is also the least eloquent: It is like Guitar Hero, but with turntables. Though that observation hurt to write, it's impossible not to see the similarities between the two franchises. It goes deeper than just aesthetic and gameplay elements shared between the two games: After playing DJ Hero for the first time, I got the same pleasant sensation I had the first time I booted up the original Guitar Hero.
It's hard to tell exactly what that feeling stems from. Maybe it's that both games feature types of music that had never really shown up in a video game before. For Guitar Hero, it was the rock music, both popular and classic. For DJ Hero, it is the mash-up, which is a fairly barbaric compound word to designate what I now realize to be the product of meticulous musical surgery.
The completely original soundtrack of DJ Hero is phenomenal, tended to by the artisanal hands of Grandmaster Flash, DJ Shadow, the late DJ AM, and a number of other skilled turntablists. The samples that compose these songs include genres of music that have never been well represented in a mainstream rhythm offering -- categories such as funk, soul, hip-hop, techno, and the theme song from Shaft, which I realize isn't a genre, but I just got too excited about it to not mention it mid-sentence.
Then again, the aforementioned feeling could arise from the actual interaction with the wonderful soundtrack, which is aided by an extremely well-built peripheral. When it comes to designing solid, functional and visually appealing fake instruments, RedOctane's always cornered the market. The turntable controller clicks where it's supposed to click, spins where it's supposed to spin and never feels like it's one angry button press away from dissolving in your lap.
The gameplay mechanics that comprise, what I like to call, "up-mashing" are intimidatingly numerous. At various points during a track, you'll be tapping, scratching up, scratching down, crossfading, crossfade spiking, effect modifying, freestyle triggering, rewinding and, presumably, breathing in and out.
DJ Hero is fresh by every conceivable definition of the word.
That's a lot to take in -- though these elements are piled atop one another slowly as you move up the difficulty ladder. On Expert Mode, the commands come fast and ferociously, but like most other rhythm games, my enjoyment of DJ Hero increased exponentially as I moved on to the game's harder modes.
However, regardless of what difficulty you choose to play on, the note tracking is universally unforgiving. Miss a cue by a fraction of a fraction of a beat, and the game won't count it. This seems like a petty qualm, but it really does make it difficult to indoctrinate new people into the luxurious virtual DJ lifestyle when they can only manage to hit half the notes. Mind you, there's no "failing out" in DJ Hero, but missing notes deactivates the afflicted track for a moment, disrupting the musical flow on which DJs pride themselves.
And that's the unfortunate news about DJ Hero: as a single-player mixology simulator, it's an overwhelming success; however, it's not a party game, and anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't been to a party in a long, long time.
I find it difficult to believe that attendees of a social gathering would put their cavorting on hold for a half hour as they learned how to effectively manipulate a plastic turntable -- an activity which a maximum of two of them may do at one time. (That's assuming you have two turntables, which at $120 per bundle, is unlikely.)
As you probably already know, there's a DJ-guitar multiplayer mode, which, while functional, feels slightly tacked on. Sure, it may add a bit of accessibility to the game for the Guitar Hero fanatics in your circle of friends, but the inclusion of just ten guitar-friendly mixes ensures that this mode won't get too much prolonged mileage.
As I mentioned earlier, I tried introducing DJ Hero to a group of friends with whom I regularly play Rock Band, and it failed spectacularly. Though all of them possess a knack for rhythm games, most of them couldn't seem to grasp the basic gameplay mechanics. Those that could lost their interest quickly and began eying the drum set on the other side of the room.
Regardless of how Activision attempts to market DJ Hero, it's not for everyone, and it's certainly not a party starter. It's a single-player experience tailored to the crowd who grew up on Daft Punk, the people who experience potent fits of joy when Girl Talk appears on a shuffled iTunes playlist, and the people who idolized the guy who could show up at a local bar with a box of records and make everyone in the joint start tripping the light fantastic.
I am one of those people, and if you are too, I'd suggest with little hesitation that you buy DJ Hero. You -- unlike your stupid friends -- are going to love it.
A copy of DJ Hero for the Xbox 360 was sent to us by Activision. We played through every song in the game, primarily on the "Hard" difficulty setting. A second turntable peripheral was sent to us last month with a demo of the game, which we used to play the multiplayer mode. We also tested the online multiplayer mode. (It worked.)