A few months ago, when I first heard that Activision was releasing DJ Hero in the fall, I was pretty much instantly consumed with the idea of owning. It had been a few years since I’d put on my gloriously over-sized headphones and stepped behind the decks with my crate of favourite vinyl. It was one of my passions for quite a while…twelve years ago. Unfortunately things like moving out of my mom’s house, owning a car, and food took precedent over getting up to Toronto to get some beats to add into my set. However, with the announcement that DJ Hero was coming out, my mind reeled at the idea of being to put my skillz to use once again and get back in the mix. I waited. My patience was rewarded when I was able to try it out at this year’s Toronto X’09 game showcase in September, and after about 5 minutes I knew I had to own it.
As with Guitar Hero, the genius of DJ Hero lies in the controller. This time you get a turn-table with a built-in effects knob and cross-fader (for the uninitiated, that is the switch that slides back-and-forth allowing the DJ to switch between two turntables, or in this case, musical tracks). On the actual turn-table you’ve got your 3 buttons; the left and right buttons are for the left and right musical tracks, the center button is for samples--sound effects or instrument strikes that range from drum sounds to…well…Flavor Flav’s signature “Yeeeeaaaahhhhh booooyyyeeeeee!”. As with Guitar Hero which buttons you are to hit and when is dictated by watching the screen and waiting for the “beats” to enter the “impact zone.” If you’re thinking that sounds exactly the same as Guitar Hero, you’re right. However, that’s such a small part of the game.
Hit The Deck
The real action comes into play once you have to start “scratching” (moving the wheel of the turntable back-and-forth) and using the cross-fader. As you increase in difficulty the button-pressing, scratching, and cross-fading all start to come together in a ballet (or maybe “break-dance” would be more appropriate) of movements over the controller. If you’re worried that this sounds a little vague, stop worrying: there’s a couple of really great tutorial modes that tell you how to do everything you need to know as DJ legend Grandmaster Flash walks you through all the motions.
For extra fun, actually play with a friend named DJ (as I did), as it makes the tutorial a lot more personal…if not mildly creepy. Once you get the hang of the controls, it’s just plain fun. As Guitar Hero isn’t the same as playing a guitar, DJ Hero isn’t the same as DJ-ing; but you are interacting with the mixes that you are given using the DJ controller, and being able to successfully navigate your way through a mix is definitely satisfying. However, when you do screw up (and you WILL screw up), DJ Hero is a little more forgiving than its Guitar ancestor; you won’t get a loud “PLONK” for hitting a wrong beat as the track simply drops out of the mix until you hit a right beat again.
He's the DJ...
The more you play, the better you get. There’s a great learning curve to this game that I really enjoy. As you get better you start reaping some of the rewards of doing well. While Guitar Hero has its “Star Power,“ DJ Hero has its “Euphoria.“ I’m a little surprised they opted to use a thinly veiled reference to Ecstasy (or a direct reference to a drug that was slipped into Brandon’s drink by the scheming Emily on the original “Beverly Hills 90210”), but it’s all in fun, so who cares? There is a second bonus for doing well that I really enjoy: the Rewind.
If you fill up your Rewind meter you can then perform a (you guessed it) Rewind by spinning the wheel of the turntable back quickly, which allows you to replay the previous section of the mix that you may have just botched, or want to hear again because it’s just that sweet. On other sections of the mix you can also tweak the effects knob for more bonus points adjusting the sound of either specific tracks in the mix, or the entire mix itself. As I play more and more using the effects knob and the cross fader, I start to notice the similarities to actual DJ-ing. The cross-fader action is pretty tight, and for the most part accurate. The effects knob, while somewhat difficult to get to at times, does good things within the mix. Then when you get to the freestyle sample-drops by pressing the center button on the wheel during specific points in the mix, well, for me quality beats quantity, but that’s up to you. It’s really easy for me to get absorbed into this, the better I get at it.
What's In the Crate
The other big reason that DJ Hero succeeds is in the soundtrack. Right off the bat you are given 93 different mixes to perform that use 102 different songs. There’s rap, house, techno, dance, funk, mo-town, rock, alternative…hell, there’s even a Motorhead song in there. There are some songs that you can’t believe were dug up for this. Seriously, when was the last time you heard “Poison,“ by Bel Biv Devoe? When it’s mixed with “Word Up,“ by Cameo, you’ll be glad you’re hearing it now. There is pretty much something for everyone. I even find some of the mixes very interesting and just hearing how the songs have been mixed together is a lot of fun to listen to.
Keepin' It Real
Now, before I get carried away, there are some minor issues with DJ Hero. First, the controller isn’t perfect. It definitely takes some getting used to. After a while, the buttons on the wheel get a bit slippery and scratching becomes a little difficult, more notably on the inner button, but with a minor adjustment this can be overcome. The second thing that I notice is that, at times, the buttons your hit don’t seem to completely correspond with what’s going on in the mix. My third issue isn’t so much a problem with the game, but more in the realm of what it lacks: a true freestyle mode. I would LOVE to be able to make my own versions of mixes, just like you could in the old Harmonix game “Amplitude,” for the PS2. To me, that is the only thing the DJ Hero is obviously lacking.
With DJ Hero, Activision definitely take some of the thunder back that was stolen by Rock Band. While it doesn’t give us something completely different, it does give us one fantastic twist on a flavour that might be in the early stages of getting stale. With its near-perfect controller and different styles of music, a whole new audience is definitely going to be drawn to DJ Hero, while maintaining a large percentage of the market that enjoys the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. Although the price-tag might be a little steep for some ($129.99CDN for the regular edition $209.99CDN for the Renegade edition), the amount of replay value should make up for it, especially if they continue to put out reasonably priced DLC like the first mix package (480 MS points, or approx $7).
Of course, this game isn’t going to be for everybody. However, if you are one of the many that enjoy Guitar Hero, but are looking for something with a little more BOOM to it, then DJ Hero is a must for all you ass-shakers and beat-makers looking for a video game experience that’ll make ya head nod.
Reviewed by Bryan Wall | 11.03.09