Well, wouldn't you know it? Turns out Activision isn't devoid of innovation after all. After developer Harmonix parted ways with the publishing company following the release of Guitar Hero II: Rock The 80's, Activision quickly took the Guitar Hero franchise and ran it straight into the ground. Guitar Hero III was an embarrassing disaster and Guitar Hero: World Tour was a tepid attempt and stealing Rock Band's thunder. While Guitar Hero 5 showed some signs of life, it still was far from perfect. And that's not even including the relentless onslaught of one-off titles like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and Guitar Hero: Metallica, and handheld titles. Activision has further added fuel to the fires of fanboy hatred by making outrageous comments about Rock Band and other competitors, trying to crowd out the market for only their product.
Just when it seemed Activision was only in it for the money (an executive of theirs even said they were in the business of making games that make money, not making games that are good), the company tosses out DJ Hero. At first glance, it seems like the ultimate cash-in. Not only is it not a rock game, but it even requires its own unique controller shaped like a turntable that hikes the price of the title up considerably. And the track list contains recent pop sensations like The Black-Eyed Peas and Rihanna. Certainly not something that will appeal to the standard Guitar Hero player.
But, lo and behold, DJ Hero is actually a hell of a lot of fun. The secret behind it is that DJ Hero is not trying to be Guitar Hero with a vinyl skin. No, while DJ Hero uses the "falling gem" play mechanic, it's an entirely new game unto itself that does a great job of simulating the feeling of being a DJ. At first, the game appears simple. You've got a curved track, running three different lines. The line on the left is for one song, the line on the right is for the second song. The middle line is for freestyling. You press the buttons in time to score points. There are static gems, and scratch sections where you have to hold down the button and manually "scratch" (read: move back and forth) the record on which the buttons lay. If you do well enough, not only do you get a score multiplier, but you also get the ability to rewind a section and replay it with double your score modifier. Just like in Guitar Hero, if you play certain sections completely correct, you get Star Power/Overdrive/whatever they're calling it this time around that you can deploy to double your score modifier as well.
Seems simple enough, right? Well, there's one other major element. On the controller is a switch. It has three modes: Left, right, and center. This is your crossfader. During each song, you will have to fade between the tracks (fading to the left cuts out the track on the right, and vice versa on the other side). When there are no crossfades, the slider is in the middle. It can be tough at first to scratch and crossfade, and most new players (even hardcore Guitar Hero expert veterans) will want to start on medium. At first the crossfades are brief and infrequent. As the game progresses, they became faster, more hectic, more rapid fire. Generally this isn't a problem, but sometimes it's hard to tell when the slider is in the middle. This can become a problem when you rewind, because if the slider isn't in the right spot when you come out of the rewind, you lost your streak. Overall, though, it's a mechanic that works well and adds dimension to the game. In addition, there's also a knob that you can use during certain sections to increase your score, or to choose from preset freestyle samples that you can interject into freestyle sections of the songs.
And speaking of the songs, the tracklist is excellent. Aside from complete garbage like The Black-Eyed Peas, the vast majority of the tracks are a blast to play and even just listen to. Many throw well known songs up against obscure tunes, or take two well known hits and mash them up in interesting and exciting ways. At first I would look through each setlist and delight at seeing songs I loved, while despairing at ones I hated. But I quickly learned that just because I liked or disliked one (or both) of the original tunes didn't mean that those preferences translated to the new mixes. Given that the mixes were made by major DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, and more, it's no surprise that so many of them are engaging. I quickly became eager to try out each new mix to see how creative and different it could be. For this reason alone, DJ Hero is quite addicting.
For multiplayer you can either hook up a second turntable controller, or fire up one of your trusty plastic guitars for a few songs that offer tracks on both instruments. Truth be told, the multiplayer isn't terribly well implemented. The guitar parts feel throwaway, and the dual-DJ mode is just the same tracks doubled. Unlike most music games today, that work well with a group of three or four, DJ Hero is best played solo.
The only stumbling block I could find is the price. If I didn't receive a review copy, I never would have shelled out $120 to get a copy of DJ Hero. Now that I've played it, I feel a little differently, but that doesn't change the fact that I got it for free. So is it worth it to you? Depends on how much you love music games, because this one is up there with Beatles Rock Band as one of the best of the year.
Graphics have never been the strong point of music games. I still think Guitar Hero I and II did it best, with their wide-eyed character animations that felt true to the rock origins of the game. Ever since Guitar Hero III, the character animations have looked positively grotesque, and while DJ Hero doesn't go quite so far, it's still not the most eye-catching game on the planet. A lot of the characters look more like caricatures, especially the generic bikini dancers who gyrate around the stage while you spin. The playable characters look better, especially the ones modeled after real people (cue DJ Jazzy Jeff) look better. The best part of the graphics are the variety of turntables you can unlock, some of which are just awesome.
Any music game requires the best possible audio to really sell the experience, and DJ Hero does not skimp out. The game perfectly handles all the crossfading, scratching, and freestyling. It also offers up robust mixes and beats. The audio in this game really lets you get into the groove.
DJ Hero is the ace up Activision's sleeve, simultaneously reinvigorating their music game slate while opening up a whole new genre to the mix (pardon the pun). And unlike the assembly line feeling of the Guitar Hero sequels, DJ Hero really does give a fresh spin (I can't help it with the puns!) on the music game world. With 93 unique mixes, the game is a delight for mash-up fans and neophytes alike. The only question is whether or not you want to shell out $120 for the privilege of spinning vinyl at home without ruining your record collection. Highly Recommended.