When I first heard about DJ Hero, I issued a scoff most hearty. "I’ve been there before," I thought. "I own Beatmania. Hell, I own eight Beatmanias, and I’ve dropped a mountain of quarters into Crackin’ DJ. I’ve seen all there is to see when it comes to electronica music games." Oddly enough, I thought the exact same thing concerning Guitar Hero. Poetically, I turned out to be wrong for the same reason – the music makes all the difference.
The first song I heard from the game obliterated my skepticism. The punchy drums of "Hollaback Girl" mixed sublimely with the bright brass of "Give It To Me Baby" – and I hate Gwen Stefani. Hearing the quality of these songs changed my smug superiority to a burning desire to play. I initially worried that the best songs were being demonstrated at E3, but learning of the talent involved with DJ Hero eliminated that fear. The game will feature 80 mashups from DJ luminaries such as DJ Z-Trip, Cut Chemist, renowned recluse DJ Shadow, and even one of the biggest pioneers of hip-hop and tuntabilism, Grandmaster Flash.
Wisely emulating one of the greatest draws from Guitar Hero, players look like real DJs when playing DJ Hero. Naturally, the controller is instrumental (pun intended) in this. A record with three surface buttons laid into the fake vinyl make up the body of the controller, with a side extension containing a cross-fader, a euphoria (read: star power) button, and a small panel-covered inset containing the traditional d-pad, face, and guide buttons. The game’s display features three scrolling lanes that correspond with the three buttons on the record, with the two outer lanes representing a mashup’s two tracks and the center lane bring for inserted samples. Take the previously referenced Gwen Stefani vs. Rick James track. Notes in the leftmost lane represent samples taken from "Hollaback Girl" – a drum crash or squeal from Gwen, while notes in the right lane are "Baby"-derived horn blasts or bass funkisms. Notes in the center are generic samples like cymbal crashes or DJ blasts.
Notes are well and good, but awesome wikka-wikka scratching is the star difference. Long notes in the left or right lanes indicate scratching sections, with lower difficulties allowing the player to chop the beats as they please and harder settings displaying arrows to indicate specific scratch directions. When songs cut between tracks, the left or rightmost lane will visually jump to the left or right, indicating that the player should move the cross fader accordingly.
Playing a dictated song is fine, but one of the best parts of being a DJ is the freedom to mix and scratch independently and let the music flow. DJ Hero emulates this by implementing freeform sections. A long note in the center lane represents a free-form sample section, where the player can bang out samples on their own to best fit the song. Certain sections can even be distorted via the effects dial, which is similar to the whammy bar in Guitar Hero. To compliment this freedom, a rewind meter fills with correct playing and can be employed to fix mistakes. Anyone that’s botched a drum fill in Rock Band will appreciate the ability to roll back a song to really nail a freeform section.
When all of this is added together, watching a player jam out a sufficiently difficult song is impressive. One hand dances across the vinyl, hitting buttons and scratching furiously, while the other cuts back and forth on the fader and effects dial. Like Guitar Hero before it, DJ Hero looks like an amazing amount of fun in the hands of a skilled player.
The music sounds great and it looks to be a blast to play, but a few concerns could drag the experience. With samples, track cuts, and direction-specific scratching, any player will hit their cognitive limit quickly. While I’m confident the game can be simplified to facilitate easy access, players might hit a wall of perception as often happens in Beatmania. Gamers keen to try DJ Hero might quickly become discouraged by its high learning curve.
DJ Hero‘s price will also illicit sharp inhales from all but the most solvent gamers at $120. Since this is the initial offering in a music series with a single plastic peripheral, the temptation is to compare it to the first Guitar Hero, which retailed a full $40 cheaper. However, the first Guitar Hero only had 47 songs, while DJ Hero offers short of double that. Additionally, the game features songs that combine the turntable, guitar, and non-scoring vocals. From a hardware perspective, the turntable is more mechanically complex than the original guitar. When everything’s considered, $120 becomes more reasonable, but that still won’t make expectant virtual DJs’ bank accounts any happier.
Ironically, the factor that drew me to DJ Hero will also become its biggest deterrent. While turntablism is an interest of mine, the majority of potential players may not be as drawn to mixing the Black Eyed Peas’ "Boom Boom Pow" and Benny Bennasi’s "Satisfaction" as they were to playing the legendary "Smoke on the Water" guitar riff. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are games for everyone, since anyone can find something they like. DJ Hero will be more limiting. If you’re curious about the genre there’s tons of free mashup music out there to gauge your own interest. Without a love of the music, nothing else matters.