DJ Hero Review

By Patrick Klepek - Posted Oct 27, 2009

The array of plastic peripherals needed for Guitar Hero or Rock Band is already confusing enough. Music game-makers have wisely avoided tossing new instruments into the fray, despite repeated requests from dedicated fans (hello, keytar!). Activision is taking a calculated risk with DJ Hero by applying the same formula that worked for guitars, basses and drums -- capturing the essence of a musical instrument and mapping it to a runway with notes -- to a turntable.

The Pros
  • The best soundtrack in a music game yet
  • You get to play as Daft Punk in their virtual spaceship
  • At its best, you honestly feel like an amateur DJ
The Cons
  • Coming to grips with the touchy crossfader
  • Interface does a poor job informing players of mistakes
  • Tacked on integration with Guitar Hero

The array of plastic peripherals needed for Guitar Hero or Rock Band is already confusing enough. Music game-makers have wisely avoided tossing new instruments into the fray, despite repeated requests from dedicated fans (hello, keytar!). Activision is taking a calculated risk with DJ Hero by applying the same formula that worked for guitars, basses and drums -- capturing the essence of a musical instrument and mapping it to a runway with notes -- to a turntable. On its first try, DJ Hero gets a surprising amount right in the key areas (especially the music), but just like the original Guitar Hero, it needs a little more time back in the studio before it's truly ready to headline.

DJ Hero

You Gotta Believe

The biggest success of DJ Hero is proving that it's possible to take the general concept behind DJ'ing (you, uh, put two songs next to one another and they make a beautiful sounding baby, right?) and make a fun game out of it. The samples are mapped to three colored keys, and the corresponding icons come down the center of the screen in the same fashion they have since Guitar Hero popularized the concept. Scratching adds variety through both directional (both up and down) movements and moments of scratching at your leisure. These are secondary to DJ Hero's main gameplay mechanic, however: the crossfader. The crossfader's implemented in several ways. Primarily, it's used to alternate between the two songs being mashed together, but it's also an advanced-level note of sorts. On the harder difficulties, "spikes" appear on the left and right hand side of the screen, asking the player to quickly "spike" the fader to the left or right and back to the center.

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Your Ears Will Love You For It

Interestingly, DJ Hero easily has the best soundtrack of any music game released so far (The Beatles: Rock Band is barred from this discussion, as an all-Beatles soundtrack isn't a fair comparison). Maybe that's partially to do with the nature of mixes: two songs per track equals nearly twice the amount of music. But more likely, it's because the mixes are really, really good -- Daft Punk especially. I wouldn't be surprised if people pick up DJ Hero on the recommendation of the Daft Punk mixes alone, especially since they also prove to be some of the most enjoyable to play, as well. The moments where you're hitting a particularly good stride in DJ Hero -- the bass is pumping and everything falls into place -- it is, to cheekily borrow from the game's name for the equivalent of star power, euphoric. Like any music game at its very best, DJ Hero's handful of moments where you actually, truly feel like a DJ are worth chasing.

DJ Hero

But Here's The Thing...

If you're playing on anything above the medium difficulty level (of which there's five -- beginner, easy, medium, hard, expert), your experience with DJ Hero lives or dies with coming to grips with the crossfader's eccentricities. DJ Hero's crossfader mechanic is built upon the concept of moving it to the left, middle or right. A true crossfader doesn't have any built-in resistance, giving the DJ full control over the mix of the track, but DJ Hero is a game and you're following a pre-determined mix. Thus, DJ Hero's fader does have an element of built-in resistance in the center to cue the player while mixing. DJ Hero doesn't go far with the physical resistance, however, to make the crossfader effective enough as a tip off to your hands. It’s touchy. I found it incredibly difficult to know whether I'd dropped into the center or not. When I did, it'd often be too late -- I'd gone too far and messed up my combo. It required a solid ten hours or so of game time before I'd become comfortable with the crossfader, a fine line between deciding whether I became indoctrinated to its nuances or succumbed to its annoyances.

Compounding the crossfader's issues is a pulsing neon interface that suggests the designers were aware the users were going to need clear indications for when they're not properly executing the fader mechanics. But by implementing several visual cues to communicate mistakes to the player, the designers have watered them all down. The biggest problem is in the notetrack itself. When you miss a crossfade or a note on one of the three tracks, that section fades to grey. That's fine during a slow period of a mix, but when there are five different gameplay mechanics vying for your attention at once, having immediate feedback from the screen is paramount. Instead, I found myself straining my eyes to see where the mix was headed next because it'd been forced into the background. The game wasn't helping my ability to keep playing, it was hurting it.

There's also a notable, if forced, attempt at synergy between Guitar Hero and DJ Hero. For a handful of tracks in DJ Hero, another player can hook up a guitar and play along with the DJ. Unfortunately, it's an idea that sounded better on paper than it does in practice, as mashing the two works to the detriment of both. Remixes often rely on playing the same sample from a song over and over again. It's not particularly exciting to play the same guitar lick over and over again. The few times it does come together, such as mashing up The Killers and Rihanna, there's a spark, but it doesn't happen often enough to make the mechanic feel like anything more than a gimmick in its current state. There's plenty of room for improvement here.

DJ Hero

The Future Is So Bright

That DJ Hero's flaws are obvious is actually a good thing. It means they should be easily fixable and “DJ Hero II,” assuming Activision moves forward with the franchise, should be closer to what DJ Hero ambitiously aimed for. The game nails the hard parts -- making DJ'ing fun, convincing the music community to rally behind it -- but it’s rife with missed opportunities -- hardware with better feedback, guitar-versus-DJ battles that feel shoehorned in for obvious franchising purposes -- that are easily identified. DJ Hero is a gamble that was worth taking and further proof that Konami's bungling of the Americanization of its own music games (in this case, Beatmania) remains one of the biggest missteps in modern gaming. DJ Hero is a good game, one that will undoubtedly find a hardcore audience that appreciates it, flaws and all, and an interesting step forward for music games.