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PlayStation 3 Review: DJ Hero 2

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With the massive success of rhythm games over the past few years, a charge led by the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, it only makes sense that companies would look for a way to expand the genre.  Enter last year’s DJ Hero.

Made by the same folks who make Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, rather than giving you a fake guitar or drums or bass to pretend to strum, gives you a pretend turntable to spin.  It is certainly an enjoyable experience, and the new DJ Hero 2 does have some interesting features that the first does not possess, but it still seems to lack that which makes Guitar Hero and Rock Band great.

Before we get too far into issues however, let us start with the basics.  The game itself functions much like last year’s original – each controller setup consists of two parts, the turntable and the doodads.  Okay no respectable DJ would call them doodads, but that’s neither here nor there, the doodads are the crossfader, Euphoria button (like Star Power in Guitar Hero, Euphoria helps increase your score), and the effects knob.  The turntable – which can be placed either on the right side or the left side of the doodad section– has red, green, and blue buttons which get tapped, held, and manipulated in conjunction with the table and doodads to score points.  The turntable itself can be oriented so that the buttons are on either the right or left side.

As with almost every rhythm game, DJ Hero 2 has a wide black line that runs down the middle of the screen (or the middle of each split if you’re in multiplayer) which tells you what to do with the turntable and doodads.  Crossfading, scratching, taps, and effects all return from the original version of DJ Hero, but added to the new version are held notes, length scratches (long, single direction scratches), and allegedly more freestyle ability. 

One of the knocks against the first DJ Hero is that being a DJ is about doing new, different, and potentially unplanned things; it’s about being in the moment and DJ Hero doesn’t allow for that.  These new freestyle elements in the sequel attempt to correct that mistake but aren’t hugely successful in that endeavor.  The new game will allow you to – at certain points – run some pre-selected samples, crossfade from one of the tracks to the other as you desire, and scratch as you want.  The mechanics to these elements are all good, but they don’t really allow for all that much creativity.  As stated, samples are now pre-selected for you, but even if they weren’t, forcing them – or any other move – into a specific slot stifles creativity and right there is where the game runs into “bigger picture” issues.

Everything that you do in the game is really and truly enjoyable, but if being a DJ is about freedom and choice and mixing what you want to mix the way you want to mix it, telling people what to push and when (even if it’s telling them “and for the next few bars you have the freedom to crossfade, not to sample or scratch, but to crossfade”) eliminates something intrinsically important in DJ-ness.  That isn’t as much a problem for Guitar Hero as you’re playing a song that already exists as opposed to mixing two songs together as you do here.  Yes, there is unquestionably improvisation that takes place with good musicians doing live performances, but the basic song exists as an entity which isn’t as true when you’re putting more than one song together.  The addition of the freestyle elements makes the game more fun, but don’t address the basic problem in the representation, and I’m not sure anything could.

Before we talk game modes, it also ought to be stated that while the turntable and doodads feel pretty substantial and look decent, the crossfader remains a problem.  The crossfader still has that little hiccup point in the middle to let you know that you’ve returned to center after moving the mix to entirely one song or the other, but that middle point is still too week.  When you’re in the midst of mixing, slamming that Euphoria button, hitting the effect dial, scratching, and generally tapping out a beat, you’re going to miss that little click to tell you that you’ve centered the crossfader and consequently are going to lose points.  Hopefully any future iteration of the title corrects this deficit.

The single player action in DJ Hero 2 is centered around Empire Mode (there is also a Quick Play), which is your relatively standard career mode.  You start at the bottom and by performing well, earning enough stars, and defeating other DJs in the occasional DJ Battle you unlock venues, tracks, characters, accessories, etc.  There is some suggestion in the game that as you move along in your career you’re somehow forming an entertainment empire, but as that empire is solely focused on your success spinning records and nothing else, you seem to be a pretty wretched businessperson (either that or it really shouldn’t be called an “Empire” Mode).

As you would expect, the game comes with multiplayer functionality including now supporting vocals.  In fact, the most expensive version of the game you can buy, the Party Bundle, comes not only with two turntables but with a microphone as well.  Not every song has a vocal track however, so if you are playing with multiple people you do need to be aware of what tracks you’re selecting.  There is also a Party Play mode which allows people to join and leave the game in the middle of a set without any interruption to the flow. 

Online play is also available, and one of the overall highlights of the game – whether it’s done in single- or multiplayer – is available online too, and that’s Battle Mode.  Battle Mode actually subdivides, allowing you to choose one of several different objectives in order to beat your opponent.  These include gaining the most stars, having the longest note streak, and a checkpoint battle which ranks performance in sections of a mix (win more sections, win the battle).  Playing various mixes and setlists as a single player can make you think that you’re actually far better in the game than you are.  It is really only in Battle Mode, whether you’re taking on another human or a computer controlled DJ, that you can see how good you actually are.

DJ Hero 2 contains 83 different mixes, and if you’ve ever turned on the radio, you’re going to know a lot of these songs.  The setlist  is full of great music and completely enjoyable even if you’re someone who would never, even on a bet, venture into a club.

As for flavors in which the game can be purchased, there is the aforementioned Party Bundle which has the game, two turntables, and a microphone (MSRP $149.99); a Turntable Bundle with one turntable and the game ($99.99), and the software by itself ($59.99).  That is to say, even if the price is down somewhat from the original release, it’s not cheap. 

The game is a better game than the original – though the guitar portion of it is now gone – and does have some added flexibility with the freestyle aspects.  It is both an exhilarating and immersive experience, but playing it, you simply don’t get the feeling that you’re creating the music as you do in Guitar Hero.  Instead, you almost get the sense that the mixes would be just as good if you didn’t press a single button; you wouldn’t score enough points to advance, but the music would be just as good.  I’m not sure how that problem can be solved, but if FreeStyle Games and Activision can work that out for DJ Hero 3 they may approach perfection.

DJ Hero 2 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Mild Suggestive Themes, Lyrics. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.