It's safe to say that Activision has never been an innovator in the music game genre. It bought its way in by purchasing Red Octane, and the rights to the Guitar Hero franchise along with it. Harmonix, the original developer of Guitar Hero, went on to create Rock Band, which Activision subsequently cloned with Guitar Hero World Tour. So just how successful could DJ Hero be with nothing to base it off? According to a surprised Tim Hanlon, very.
As a preface to the review, I'll quickly mention that I've been involved in electronic music for the last nine years, starting out DJing trance music and quickly moving on to producing and performing my own music.
The controller features a free-spinning turntable with three Guitar Hero-style colored buttons on one side, a crossfader and a "knob" (or incremental encoder). What was a real surprise to me was that these controls exhibit a better tactile feel than most "real" digital DJ controllers several times the price of the game (US$120). There's a decent amount of mass to the turntable, and it doesn't feel cheap at all - like recent Guitar Hero controllers, it feels like it could cop a beating and still work fine.
As an aside, I fully expect people to be getting this controller to work with DJ software like Native Instruments' Traktor within a couple of months. I connected the included USB dongle to my Mac and fired up junXion, an application that turns signals from human interface devices like game controllers into MIDI (an ancient, ubiquitous interface for musical instruments and software) events, and all of the controls on the device show up ready for mapping.
DJ Hero parallels Guitar Hero in that it's a "minute to learn, lifetime to master" experience. Just using the three buttons, crossfader and turntable will get you through a mix, but there's plenty more game mechanics there for the adventurous - rewinds, freestyle sections, filters and "Euphoria", the analog to "Star Power" from Guitar Hero. It can get pretty intense at times, even on Medium difficulty - but once you've wrapped your head around it all, it's a blast.
It all works beautifully, apart from the freestyle sections, which allow you to trigger samples at will. Good in theory, but I'm yet to find one of the samples that fits well in any of the freestyle sections in any of the mixes. The upshot is that you're free to leave these sections alone without penalty. I just wish this lackluster mechanic had been replaced with one where your scratching actually affects the sample, rather than just mimicking someone else's scratching.
I was able to blast through the tutorials (featuring Grandmaster Flash) and play the game on Medium, getting four to five stars consistently. There's two difficulty levels below Medium (Easy and Beginner), and it's impossible to "fail" a mix (you just get less points), so I'm guessing DJ Hero will be accessible to just about everyone who's interested in playing.
There's 102 songs in the DJ Hero, and 93 original mixes created from those songs. It's an eclectic mix of artists, including everything from Queen to Foo Fighters to Justice to Noisia to Eminem, but having said that, if you're particularly averse to hip hop, you might want to give DJ Hero a miss - there's plenty of it.
The mixes, created by artists including Grandmaster Flash and DJ Shadow, are top notch - and are a real testament to what talented DJs, remixers and mashup artists can create using existing pieces of music. There's a couple of shockers (The Killers/Eric Prydz made me particularly stabby), but I can forgive that.
Despite the turntable paradigm used for the controller, I think DJ Hero has less in common with vinyl DJing than Guitar Hero does with real guitars, and more in common with digital DJing - although from my perspective, that's not a bad thing at all (I've long been a proponent of digital DJing).
To elaborate, while you can scratch in DJ Hero, so many of the manipulations in the mixes you're "performing" are clearly done using "stems" (separated elements of a song like drums, bass and vocals, rather than a complete song on a record) and music software - not two turntables and a mixer.
You also don't have to worry about beatmatching (the process of getting multiple tracks playing at the same tempo and in sync with each other), which again distances the gameplay from the techniques used by a vinyl (or CD) DJ.
As I said earlier, I don't think this is a bad thing. In much the same way as Guitar Hero teaches complete novices to hear music as a sum of its parts, DJ Hero gives you a relatively broad view of the techniques used by DJs and producers to create unique pieces of music out of two or more existing ones.
I've got a couple of mates who are face-meltingly awesome guitar players. They were naturally skeptical when they heard about Guitar Hero, but after playing the game, they loved it. While it's debatable whether I'm a face-meltingly awesome producer, my experience with DJ Hero has been remarkably similar.
I might be able to go upstairs to my studio, cut up a Black Eyed Peas acapella and a Benny Benassi tune, and make something new out of the pieces, but that doesn't stop "performing" someone else's mix of those tunes on DJ Hero from being a heap of fun (not to mention a solid dose of creative inspiration).
And whether you've got a studio upstairs or not, there's a pretty good chance you'll have a blast with DJ Hero. Activision have pretty much nailed this one, and for the first time, established themselves as an innovator in the music/rhythm genre.
If you want to do this stuff "for real", have a look at Ableton Live or one of the myriad digital vinyl platforms that are available today like Ms Pinky, as both offer flexibility and creative possibility (not to mention portability) that is light years ahead of vinyl records. You might not have the clout of a company like Activision, but you can still get your hands on a lot of material to work with thanks to our old friend the Internet - just Google "acapellas" and "remix contests".