It's staggering to see the wildly popular (and over-saturated) sub-genre that Harmonix wrought when it unleashed Guitar Hero upon the world, a genre that continues to pump out iterations like some rhythm-based alien queen intent on overwhelming Earth with its glitzy sonic babies. Some of these interlopers are worth paying attention to -- items like Beatles: Rock Band come to mind -- but so many seem like so much dross, clogging up retail shelves while you wait for something really worth your attention. This is just one of many reasons why DJ Hero, the newest (and perhaps inevitable) plastic peripheral to invade your living room, is surprisingly great, standing out as its own worthwhile product while bringing an otherwise ignored type of music to the rhythm genre: mash-ups.
But before touching upon the music, it's important to take a breath and acknowledge that yes, DJ Hero's mandatory turntable means yet another hunk of plastic to add to the pile. This sense of "peripheral exhaustion" -- and the added cost it brings to the game's eyebrow-raising pricetag -- may be enough to dissuade some from taking a second look, though that would be a mistake. The sturdy device is well-made, the faux record-top easily standing up to abusive amateur scratching through prolonged play. The spinning plate is armed with a trio of colored buttons (sound familiar?) which need to be tapped or held while scratching the turntable, while the left side of the device features a crossfader switch, a sample selector and a Euphoria button which activates this game's version of Star Power. Lefties have the option to flip the sucker around, or even to choose which side of the spindle the buttons are to be used. It's a decent-sized thing, comfortably sitting on your lap without being intrusive or heavy. The hardware looks good and it holds up, which is all you can really ask from it.
Of course, a great peripheral doesn't matter for squat if you don't have the gameplay and musical chops to back it up. The design of the game revolves quite literally around the music, with the concept of the mash-up directly feeding into the gameplay itself. For the unfamiliar, mash-ups result here from two songs being expertly squished together, with the DJ playing the best elements of the two into and against each other, making a new tune by using the crossfader to flip between the two tracks as they spin on the turntable -- sure, you may have heard Gorillaz' “Feel Good Inc.” plenty of times, but you haven't heard it until it's been mashed up with Marvin Gaye's “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Hit enough button taps, scratches and crossfades in a row, and build highscore-busting combos; hit all the moves in a specific, lit-up section, and you nab yourself a boost of Euphoria, which you can use any time to double your combo value, amp up the volume, and as a bonus, automatically handle all crossfades. Nailing long stretches without slipping up will also net you a Rewind, which is exactly as it sounds: physically spin the turntable backwards a cycle or two and the on-screen track will pop backwards, allowing you to replay a particularly score-strengthening run with a healthy multiplier, or take another chance at nailing a Euphoria segment.
As previously mentioned, there are many roughly analogous items between DJ Hero and its guitar brethren: Euphoria is Star Power, scratches are strums, while the sample selector doubles as a whammy bar in certain spots as you slide between bass and treble. But make no mistake: for all its similarities, DJ Hero is its own beast, and even die-hard Hero types will find this to be a unique, fresh and altogether different take on the rhythm music genre. By the time you're midway through the great Dizzee Rascal's “Fix Up Look Sharp” mash-up with Genesis's “Justice,” sliding between tracks, scratching wildly, jumping back with Rewinds and tossing in samples from Flava Flav, there's no question that you're not hanging out with Kansas anymore.
Further reinforcing that split is the stripped-down approach to the proceedings. There's no career mode, for starters, as you instead unlock a huge variety of items, from new sets to venues to pre-made DJ avatars, by scoring enough stars through regular play. Nab enough stars and you earn your way through to tougher sets, funkier decks and crazier outfits. What's more, you can't actually fail a track. If you mess up, that portion of the music drops off momentarily and kicking back in fairly quickly, meaning that you'll always be able to experience the full track no matter how badly you do. This is a good thing, given how regular play is structured: rather than playing songs individually, you choose from among sets of three or four songs, which are experienced back-to-back until the set's up. You can swap the order of a set's songs however you like before starting, and later on, you can mix and match your favorites into your own custom setlist or two.
While there's only the one turntable in this game rather than the standard two you'd see in the club, DJ Hero remains plenty hard, arguably harder than most any other rhythm game, though this could be a function of the new movements required. Between slapping the crossfader back and forth between tracks, crossfader spikes, and specific directional scratching, things get surprisingly crazy, suprisingly fast once you move out of Normal mode into Hard. This is due in part to the crossfader switch not having enough tactile feedback for a particularly defined "center" or neutral spot, meaning that it's all too easy to zip past the middle, thereby wrecking your combo. This becomes all the more aggravating when you get to the more advanced sections requiring crossfader spikes, a fast push in a single direction before just as quickly moving it back to centre. Not to say that you can't get used to it, but it makes things much tougher than it really needs to be, and is something that should be fixed in future iterations of the series.
Another thing that definitely needs fixing is the prevalence of in-game advertisement. While this was largely restricted at launch to the off-to-the-side Sprite ads, the intervening weeks have begun to transform the in-game billboards from goofy ads for the DJ avatars into movie ads. This might not be a problem were it merely occasional or barely noticeable, but sadly, it's not at all uncommon to see an ad for the likes of Ninja Assassin dominate the screen at random points during a single song, popping up numerous times throughout any given set. In-game advertisement is a disturbing trend, to be sure, but there are many examples of where this is done relatively seamlessly or without being egregious or obtrusive -- Burnout Paradise comes to mind -- but this isn't one of them. Having such ads dominate the view is never pleasant, but it's especially galling after you've shelled out in excess of $120 for the game. Some would argue that players aren't even going to be looking at the body of the screen as the action is sufficiently chaotic in the bottom half, where players should be focusing anyway. Sadly, even amidst the most furious of sessions, it's extremely difficult not to notice Ninja Assassin pop into the corner of your eye. On multiple occasions, this has distracted me to the point of blundering my combo even on an easy track, though this could admittedly be due to the incredibly rapid distaste I earned for these ads (Side note: Ninja Assassin is now playing a theatre near you. Not sure why I felt compelled to add that). Here's hoping these get toned down in the future rather than the reverse, though the trend since launch would unfortunately seem to indicate otherwise.
I would be painfully remiss if I approached this review without talking about the mash-ups themselves, which form the thrilling, vibrant heart of this entire game. To put it simply, the music is astounding, jaw-dropping in its scope and quality. These mash-ups are not the work of your neighborhood YouTube amateur: this is amazingly strong stuff, and could easily stand to be played on any dancefloor or club. If you're even the slightest fan of hiphop, rap, electro, you name it, you'll find something to love here. I'm no fan of Gwen Stefani, but hearing “Hollaback Girl” cut with Rick James' “Give it to Me Baby” is awesome, and even things that seem theoretically weird, including 2Pac’s “All Eyez On Me” mixed with the Arenbee Pop Symphony Orchestra's “Bittersweet Symphony” instrumentals, are catchy and head-bopping strong. There are a handful of duds among the 100 or so mixes here -- mostly in the plug-in-the-Guitar rock co-op segments -- but that a game about re-inventing music is replete with nothing but Grade A commercial music is unbelievable. Even if you don't like the music, it's really hard to dispute that this may well be the most impressive collection of songs in the industry. While they've yet to release any kind of soundtrack for this game, you can hold down the Euphoria button at the beginning of a set to have it auto-play the whole thing, allowing you enjoy the tunes if you're otherwise busy.
Even better, the game also features a series of "celebrity" set mixes, hand-crafted specifically for the game by some of the biggest in the biz. From the likes of DJ Jazzy Jeff to DJ Shadow and the late DJ AM, there's tons of really impressive high-level stuff, though it's a testament to the work done by the developers' in-house guys that it's mostly on par with what's available in the heart of the game. Easily the most impressive and lengthy set in the game was put together by the legendary Daft Punk, who've tossed together an awesome eight-song set which marry up their hits with each other as well as other great songs, my favorite being Queen's “We Will Rock You” with -- what else? -- Daft Punk's “Robot Rock.” Of course, the only real downside with all of this is that DLC is and will tend to be more expensive, as twice the licensing is required for every mash-up, not to mention the work required to create a great individual song. If you can get past that, though, DJ Hero represents a marvel of modern and classic music in its production, its scope, and most of all, in its pure sonic bliss.
There's really no getting around the fact that, although it's derivative of the packed-to-the-gills-and-then-some Guitar Hero genre, DJ Hero is as exciting and fresh a rhythm music game as seen in ages. The mash-ups from both in-house and celebrity DJs are outstanding, the gameplay is challenging but fun, and the visuals dazzle with the appropriate party feel. It's a pile of good times, even though it might not have the same intrinsic cool factor of heading up your own guitar or rock band (or as cool as you can seem thwacking away on plastic toys). In fact, it's this, the "yet-another-peripheral"-itis, and the stiff price tag that make me worry about the future franchise prospects of this truly fantastic game. It's worthy of a long and healthy run; here's hoping this strange but beautiful thing gets the consumer lovin' it deserves.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)