I never bought DJ Hero, for some reason I just couldn't ever seem to find a legitimate reason enough to part with the money. Maybe it was the niche appeal of the whole venture - my own musical tastes perhaps more suited to the distorted strings and tubthumping of a Rock Band or a Guitar Hero - maybe it was that the notion of a predominantly singleplayer party game didn't sit very well, maybe it was that I'd had a go at a few parties and that was all I'd need.
DJ Hero 2 has convinced me that this was something of an oversight because, quite frankly, it's utterly fantastic.
I don't own a set of decks, I know next to nothing about turntabling and I want to smack anyone who uses autotune in the face, but after fifteen minutes of being guided through the game's basics by Zane Lowe, and another fifteen spent mashing Soulja Boy into Chamillionaire and 'fixing' Lady Gaga, I thought I was David Guetta. My flatmate and I spent four hours last Friday drinking a few beers and kidding ourselves that we were fit to spin records for real and then found we were so utterly psyched that we immediately left the premises and went clubbing.
Activision have been in the rhythm-based music game market for some time and, although they've had a few pitfalls and could be accused being a little self-indulgent at times, the refined that started with Guitar Hero 5 is fully on show here. The immediacy of the Party Play, sticking on the whole library for people to jump in and out of as they choose, is excellent. Unlike Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which have a tendency to kill a party with the multitude of instruments and fiddly space requirements, DJ Hero 2 fuels the party. You can just stick it on as a giant interactive playlist and people can jump in and out whenever they get bored of chinwagging and playing Ring of Fire.
The first game got rather roundly criticised for seeming to be very singleplayer-centric in a genre that was surely about bringing people together to play. Certainly the singleplayer has seen a lot of attention since last year's effort, with FreeStyle expanding and polishing the requisite career mode - here called Empire - that now sees you playing through various clubs and stages in different countries across the world, battling other DJs and busting through setlists and megamixes that include three or more songs at a time, mixed together in a ten minute marathon.
Empire mode is an excellent idea, but it's probably actually the weakest area of the game simply because it hasn't been pushed far enough. Although there is avatar support on the X360 - a fantastic addition, but hardly circumventing the need for extensive in-game character customisation, that saw my afro'd virtual self busting out American Boy whilst dressed as a Spartan - there's not much personal input aside from picking the name of your club from a preset list. Sure, you can pick a DJ logo, that starts becoming more an more ubiquitous as you progress, but it's hard not to feel like this is anything other than just your bog standard career mode.
This would be a problem if DJ Hero 2 wasn't so damn fun to just play and the game allows you to mix things up a little bit more to your liking when you're actually playing through tracks. If the idea of a turntabling game passed you right by, here's a refresher course in what the basic game actually entails: The controller is essentially made up of a spinning deck with three face buttons and a mixing control block with switches and knobs for Euphoria (this game's Star Power), crossfading and special effects. When the coloured buttons - the outermost ones incorporating the two separate tracks and the middle one denoting sampled sounds and effects - scroll over the buttons at the bottom of the screen you hit or hold them in time to the beat, but DJ Hero shakes things up a bit. There are indicators that have you hold buttons and then 'scratch', generally at first and then in particular directions and at specific speeds on Hard and Expert, you'll have to look out for rapid crossfade instructions and effect alerts, often all at the same time on the higher difficulties. As such, it's actually a little more complex than the more instrumental rhythm games.
Where DJ Hero really excels over it's predecessor, though, is in the freestyle sections. As well as dictating instructions to you, the game will also allow for custom scratching, varying the response based on your speed, rotation and direction. There's freestyle sampling too that allows for you to muck about with dropping rhythmic snippets into the mix as you like in certain areas, but by far the most satisfying aspect of it comes during the Freestyle crossfade parts, where you can suddenly put your own stamp on proceedings and manually fade in and out of either track, with marks based on timing and rhythm. At the end of each mix you be graded on your freestyle proficiency, so it pays to shake things up a little. At first it all feels a little bit random, but as you progress, and your skills improve, the game really begins to sell you the illusion that you're actually in control of all of this.
It's quite easy to say that this is by far the most engrossing singleplayer experience I've had with a music game since the original Guitar Hero launched, but this time Freestyle have really made the multiplayer shine, and it's DJ Hero 2's secret weapon. Whereas the first game just basically saw you busting through the same track and sizing things up at the end, now there are a host of options to choose from. You can still gun it for the high score, but now there are checkpoint contests too, high streak competitions and full on call-and-response battles. Better still, whichever mode you're in, at the end of a mix, you can fire off a challenge to a mate and taunt them into attempting to beat your score.
There are some weak points, but you won't find them in the setlist or the cameos. It's far less hip-hop oriented than the last game with a library that sees Guetta and Tiesto rubbing shoulders with Calvin, Kanye, The Jackson 5 and one of the finest mash-ups of War and Superstition that I've ever heard. There's even a spot of Metallica in there for you. Guetta and Tiesto themselves show up, as does Deadmau5 and DJ Qbert. Unfortunately, the brilliance and variety of the mash-ups means that the vocalist mode seems a bit forced and a little like an afterthought, seeing you flit between mixes in ungainly fashion, but it's also incredibly funny watching someone try.
Ultimately DJ Hero 2's biggest achievement comes from blasting a niche wide open, a feat won through sheer enjoyability. There's no real frustration here, no loading times to complain of, no jarring mixes or clunky interfaces here. Everything is streamlined, seamless and immensely satifying. It's difficult not to let a grin spread across your face when you pull off a perfect rewind for the first time or distinctively nail a varied, two-speed freestyle scratch, or engage in some light hearted smack talk when you steal the crossfader out from underneath your opponent in a battle and cripple their score with Euphoria. It's still not perfect, and there's room for more to be had when it comes to Empire mode, but sceptics should certainly give it a god. Much like Dr. Pepper...to try it is to love it!
- Freestyle control
- Exceptional setlist
- Expanded multiplayer
- Empire mode could be better
- More customisation please
- Vocal option interesting if a little half-hearted
The Short Version: Considering Activision's poor track record with risky enterprises, they should be fully praised for bringing DJ Hero back for a second swing. Solid, smooth, stylish and side-splittingly fun it's a real treat for rhythm fans everywhere and the perfect party gadget. Sure, there's still room for improvement and expansion, but you'll be hard pressed to find a more refreshing spin on the rhythm genre at the moment.