Reviewed: October 31, 2009
Released: October 27, 2009
Growing up I had a knack for music, both in collecting it and playing it. I had one of the largest LP collections in my school (thanks to my jobs at several record stores) and I was always making mix tapes, and whenever there was a road trip I was put in charge of the tunes. I decided a career as a DJ might be pretty cool so I did a summer internship with the local radio station where I learned that being a radio DJ was pretty boring, but three years later I turned 21 and it didnít take long to discover that bars weren't just seedy dives with pool tables and dartboards. They had dance floors and lasers and lights and DJ booths. I loved the nightlife and I was ready to boogie.
Thus began my 10-year career as a club DJ where I spun records by night and installed lighting systems, smoke machines, and lasers during the day. From 1985-1995 I worked in all sorts of hotel bars and fancy nightclubs in Indianapolis, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Back then being a DJ meant you had to know what the audience wanted to hear, when they wanted to hear it, and how to mix it all together so there was never a gap in the music. You learned beat-mixing so you could chain 10-12 songs together into 45-minute sets working up from 80-90bpm to 200+ bpm, driving the crowd into a frenzy, and your success as a DJ was measured by the crowds you could bring to the dance floor and how long you could keep them there.
When I heard about DJ Hero I was pretty excited. I hadnít touched a turntable in about 14 years. In fact, the last DJ booth I visited was all computerized with MP3ís Ė no records or CDís; just some online DJ mix service, so I was curious to see what kind of game Activision and FreeStyleGames could pull together. After a couple of weeks with DJ Hero I now know there is a new definition of the word DJ. Iíve heard about guys like DJ Shadow, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Grandmaster Flash, but I really never knew what they did, how they did it, or just how much they had turned a turntable, or pair of turntables into a music instrument of its own.
DJ Hero assembles more than 100 of the hottest dance tracks into 93 of the most amazing mixes you have, or will likely ever hear. Music that would seem to have nothing in common has been mixed in ways that it creates something far greater than the sum of its individual parts. This is music that you will find yourself wanting to simply sit back and listen to when you can no longer manage the strength to scratch one more inch. That's when you fire up Party Play.
A comprehensive tutorial takes you through the process of learning how to tap to match the cues on the color-coded note streams as well as sliding the fader control back and forth to favor one music track over the other or split the two equally. And then you have scratching, the art of holding down the track button then jogging the platter back and forth. On the simpler skill settings this is pretty freeform, but when you get to Hard and beyond you will have to scratch in a certain direction or even perform scratches while doing fader slides. It gets pretty crazy on Expert.
After your training is complete you can start to tackle the various stages in the game. Each stage has a set list and the better you do the more stars you earn, up to five per song. As you earn stars you unlock new venues, additional chapters, characters, clothing, turntables decks, and deck skins. Youíll never be on a shortage of quest items in DJ Hero. The game is pretty open with no set venues. You have to pick pretty much everything, at least until you do DJ-specific levels that force certain characters into the limelight.
Earning stars requires skillful gameplay and high scores, which means going for those multipliers. The easiest way to double your multiplier is to activate Euphoria. When you manage to complete a section of the track perfectly the red Euphoria button lights up and when pressed your current modifier is doubled. Another way to double your bonus is to use the effects knob to freestyle your sound in designated Effects Zones, as noted by a yellow arch over the track. And finally, my personal favorite if you can work your way up to it is the rewind where you can spin the platter backwards and rewind the last bit of music you just played and replay it over at double the points.
Customization seems to be a big feature with DJ Hero. You have several characters to choose from including famous DJís that you will unlock after you complete their specific chapters. You can dress them in custom costumes and equip them with dozens of headphones, turntables, and customized skins. The options were more than I cared to explore, especially since, as the player, you seldom have time to notice anything past the note stream. Sadly, this also goes for the numerous venues you unlock that range in size from a small underground club to a massive party in Times Square.
Another important feature are the Freestyle effects. The game defaults to Flavor Flav each and every time you start DJ Hero, and his samples are more annoying than the man himself. The nature of these samples and the way in which they are used makes anything with spoken words seem repetitive and annoying, but there are plenty of space effects, sirens, and rave horns and buzzers, so you should find plenty to keep things fresh during those freestyle moments.
There is a rather lengthy learning curve to DJ Hero, at least if you want to move beyond Medium and venture into the Hard or Expert settings. I mastered the basics by the time I finished the game on Medium and am now working on the more advanced moves like directional scratches and cross-fade scratching. My only real complaint with DJ Hero is that I never feel I am ďmaking the musicĒ, but rather chasing it with arbitrary button presses and fader movements. At least in Guitar Hero you have the illusion you are playing the music as it happens. DJ Hero seems more of a test of hand-eye coordination set to really cool music. Itís about as immersive as playing a DDR game with a controller rather than a dance mat. I guess what I am trying to say is that DJ Hero doesnít make me feel like a DJ; at least not in the way Guitar Hero makes me feel like a guitarist or drummer.
As far as presentation, you have some very atypical visuals that fit with the same style weíve been seeing in the Guitar Hero franchise; exaggerated character designs and loads of color and a visionary artistic style that is simple enough that there is no noticeable difference across any of the systems. The characters are flashy with awesome animations and the featured DJís resemble their real-life counterparts for those who would know them. The decks are insanely cool with great designs and colors and the venues are amazing, even if you only get to appreciate them in the opening and closing camera pans. If you are watching the game rather than playing it you will be treated to awesome camera angles, swooping pans, and jump zooms that pulse with the beat.
Given the nature of the title sound quality is paramount and DJ Hero pumps up the jams with a fantastic Dolby Digital mix that will bring down the house, or at least summon the cops if you arenít careful. At lower volumes I detected a bit more clarity on the PS3 but when you crank this game up to rave levels you wonít hear anything but awesome beats and crazy mixes. A big subwoofer is mandatory as is a solid foundation. My one minor complaint with the music is that they start to reuse the A and B tracks with other A and B tracks to create more mixes, so things start to sound a bit "familiar" the third or fourth time you hear "Hollaback Girl" used in a new mix. Sometimes they even repeat within the same set list.
DJ Hero allows you to mix things up with a bit of multiplayer action. You can add a second turntable and do some competitive mixing, even if you do play identical note streams and rewind is disabled. And some songs will even prompt you to activate an optional Guitar Hero guitar and play alongside the DJ with a traditional guitar note stream. And if you have the urge to compare your DJ skills there are leaderboards that feature the top scores for all the songs in the game.
DJ Hero is certainly a unique twist on the burgeoning music game genre. It is far from the DJ simulation I was expecting and more of a button and slider memorization game set to killer jams, but enjoyable nonetheless. If you have crazy dexterity skills and awesome hand-eye coordination and love original and unexpectedly cool house mixes, then check out DJ Hero. The soundtrack alone is practically worth the price of admission.