DJ Hero is a game that you'll probably need to see in motion before it makes much sense. And I'm not talking about just watching a gameplay video. You'll need to see someone actually using the controller. Now that I've seen someone using the controller and gotten a brief demo of what, exactly, the different buttons do, DJ Hero looks like an interesting and unique twist on the rhythm game formula.
Initially, the only part that seems to directly translate over from the Guitar Hero games are the three note lanes that come down the highway. When gems come down those lanes, you need to hit the matching buttons on the turntable. When lengthier stretches come down the pike, you can start scratching the turntable back and forth. And when the lanes move out to one side or the other, that's your cue to slap the crossfader in one direction or the other.
There are also opportunities to turn a multi-effect knob that seems to function sort of like the whammy bar on a Guitar Hero guitar and a button that will turn on euphoria mode, which is the game's equivalent to star power. All told, it looks more dynamic and more authentic than, say, the piano keys and unexpressive turntable used by the Beatmania series. Also, the controller is surprisingly light and feels pretty nice. The rubber mat used on the turntable make gripping it for scratching or rewinding easy. You can detach the mixer section from the turntable and connect it to the other side, allowing for a left-handed configuration. This also allows for two turntables to be hooked up simultaneously, but that's not going to actually do anything in-game. Hey, they have to save something for the inevitable sequel, right?
Musically, DJ Hero is described as a mash-up game that combines two tracks into one. When word of that first got out, I was sort of depressed about it, because most of the mash-ups that get out there simply slap the vocal track from one song onto the instrumental from the other. Maybe the guy putting them together takes the time to chop up the vocals a bit or transpose one track into the key of the other, but most of the mash-up work out there feels like amateur hour. So it's good that Activision and FreeStyleGames are going further than that. These mixes--some of which have been created by skilled individuals such as DJ Shadow and DJ Z-Trip--have some genuine turntablism to them, with chopped-up vocals, elements of both instrumental tracks, and some extra samples to fill it out even further.
So crossing songs like Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl with Rick James' Give It To Me ends up sounding a lot better than you'd initially think. And Activision's licensing department has obviously shifted into overdrive to make DJ Hero happen, since they'll have to license twice as many tracks than they have songs in the game. So don't assume that the announced numbers of somewhere over 100 songs being licensed for the game will mean that this will have the longest set list of any modern rhythm game. Chop that number in half and you'll have a better idea about where the final number of playable tracks may end up. Speaking of numbers, it's also been announced that ten of the game's tracks will feature support for the Guitar Hero guitar, setting up a "DJ vs. Guitar" mode where one player cuts it up on the ones and ones while a second player plays guitar, complete with a very GH-like highway on-screen. The game will also have microphone support, but not for any actual gameplay. If you plug in a mic, it will let you speak through it during gameplay. So if you want to be one of those awful club DJs that's always shouting their own name while they mix, go right ahead. Jerk.
Previous attempts to turn record spinning into gameplay have left me almost totally disappointed. That's not to say that the Beatmania games are bad, but the turntable in that game may as well have been a button. Despite some weird-sounding stuff, like putting buttons on the record itself, DJ Hero ends up looking and feeling a bit more like the real thing than the games that have come before it. And after seeing it in action and talking to a couple of the people behind the game, I've come away from the demo feeling pretty excited about the game's 2009 release. The one big question still remaining is the price. While retailers have been listing the game as a 10/27 release for $120, Activision isn't confirming that date or that price, and would only say that the price would likely be closer to the neighborhood of the guitar-and-game Guitar Hero bundles, which are more like $99.99.