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The DJ Hero Rant

To begin, I think DJ Hero has been treated somewhat unfairly, initially. Activision and Harmonix have both pretty much beaten their respective music franchises into the ground rather than bring anything new to either of them. But that seems pretty understandable, actually, considering people demand downloadable content and the ability to play any song across any future iteration. This basically leaves both companies unable to do ANYTHING different or cool. DJ Hero when it first showed up seemed like it was just sort of further putting the nail in the coffin that is peripheral based music games. I think the skepticism was given further credibility when Activision came up with an absolutely moronic price for both the normal and limited edition SKUs for the game. 
Still, I had a great interest in the product from the start. I suspect that a lot of that has to do with Daft Punk not only contributing material to the game, but being playable characters and having a stage location of their own as well. But the real reason I was interested, was mostly because of the music featured. The Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have done very well for rock music, and their popularity has turned them into the MTV of this generation, where a band doesn’t just need a music video and iTunes to have a break out single, but having their music being playable also makes a big impact.

But the thing that always kind of got to me was that only existed for a single style of music. While I’ll consume pretty much any kind of music, most of my adoration goes to electronic stuff, and hip-hop, two styles of music that simply cannot be represented in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. As in it is simply impossible for either game to accommodate either to a decent degree.


That’s a good reason why I’ve really fallen in love with DJ Hero, but there’s a lot more to it as well.

Now that the game is sitting at a (somewhat) sane price for entry, I hope it starts to fare better, because as I’ve delved deeper into the game, I’ve really come to the conclusion that any initial skepticism is pretty undeserved.

Something that does stick out as a bit of an annoyance though, is the game does feel a lot like a “first generation” title. The menus aren’t handled too well, you can’t trick out a character of your own, and are instead given a rather odd and eclectic mix of characters to roll with, and beyond that, you just have the music tracks. Building set lists of your own to play is also kind of odd and poorly planned out with the UI, and it’s kind of annoying that you have to build a set list to play anything. You can’t just pick a song and roll with it.

But to get back to me throwing an almost creepy amount of love to the title, the part where you’re actually looking at the note highway, playing along with the music, is simply superb.

Actual DJ work is obviously nothing like what is presented in the game. I mean, the damn platter has colored buttons on it. But I don’t really see that as a valid argument against the game, considering that the only thing even remotely represented with some degree of accuracy in music games is drumming. But I guess I can kind of see where some pessimism comes from in this case, as the art of mastering a turn table is far more abstract, while the nature of music games is less so, and more about trying to recreate what has already been done.

But playing the game removes all of those concerns for me. The controller is mostly fine, and physically, the game evokes exactly what it needs to, in that it makes me feel really connected to the music. Slamming the cross fader side to side and listening to the individual tracks take and lose focus, and scratching and using the effects dial, it does just what Guitar Hero did way back when, in that while not at all representative of what you need to do to create such sounds in reality, the act of playing the game still makes you feel in some way that you are directly responsible for what is going on.

A lot of the credit needs to go out to the way Freestyle Games handled music in this game. Actually sitting behind a turn table isn’t really relevant to what it means to be a DJ these days, (in fact Daft Punk’s custom set up is slightly odd in the game because they don’t have turn tables on their deck) so the solution? Mashups. Sounds like a lame way for things to play out, as mashups are also pretty irrelevant at this point. But actually… a lot of the mashups featured in the game are pretty damn good.

There’s also some mixes that allow for a second player to use a guitar controller to play along with you… but these mixes are kind of all over the place, and it’s annoying in that the good ones can’t be played in a normal set list, you have to either play all guitar songs in a set, or just normal mixes. Also kind dumb is that you get an AI to play the guitar track even if you’re going solo, which reduces the reel estate you have on the screen, which is dumb, considering NO ONE IS THERE playing the guitar part of the mix.

There are some duds in the regular stuff as well though, and some mixes that are just too odd to work, but the majority of the mashups are pretty damn good. Notable stand outs include Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” versus the Gorillaz “Feel Good Inc,” Daft Punk’s “Television Rules the Nation” versus No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” and Rihanna’s “Disturbia” versus Kid Sister’s “Control.” Those are just a few of the choice tracks though. Pretty much anything involving Daft Punk is fantastic. Did I mention Daft Punk is in this game, and that you can play as them? Because Daft Punk is in this game, and you can play as them.

Something that also strikes me with this game, and its mashup nature, is simply how creative the team behind it is allowed to be. Obviously asking any artist to hand over their music to allow someone else to do whatever they want with it in their own product had to have been a hurdle, but with a game like this, the gameplay can be far more flexible than it can in a Guitar Hero or Rock Band title. In those games, the note highways have to represent a given song as well as they can, and they can’t change anything about the song. With DJ Hero, I imagine that if a mix isn’t strong enough, or appears too easy in the game when the music suggests a more fast paced tone, the developers are free to change the songs their selves to accommodate what they think should be represented in the game.

It’s an interesting advantage DJ Hero has over other music games. But it would still be crap if the mixes and gameplay sucked. That makes me really appreciate what a confusing game this must have been to work on. To take a very nebulous concept, and not only make it fun to play, but fun to listen to, seems like a very large uphill battle.

Another thing that strikes me, which EVERY music game should do now, without any excuse, is the entire game is in no fail mode. I could start playing on expert difficulty right now, and never have to worry about getting kicked out of a set list. Indeed, the entire game seems very encouraging all the time, while stuff like Guitar Hero and Rock Band for whatever reason always seem to strive to be as punitive as possible, demanding nothing less than perfection. Even the tutorial in the game is meant to make you feel empowered, with all of your lessons being very enthusiastically guided by Grand Master Flash.

Something I find disdainful about the current state of music games is stuff like failing out. It’s an entirely “video game” based convention that doesn’t belong in a genre that tries to preach about being open and casual. DJ Hero seems to be the first game to get this, as the game never has a condescending thought sputtered out to the player. Only got one star on a mix on easy mode? Who gives a shit? You still have tracks dropping in and out when you screw up, but I can forgive that, as it’s a tactile thing to feel when you’re trying to regain your footing in a track. Either way though, ifyou just crumble out of nowhere in the middle of a song, it’s nice to know I don’t have to replay the ENTIRE song over again, just to master one phase of it. 

Downloadable content may be an area where Rock Band succeeds, but I doubt a lot of DLC will end up rolling out for DJ Hero. It’s annoying (more annoying is how Activision has priced the current DLC for the game) but considering the nature of the game being all mashups, and significantly more work needing to go into each set list, I can kind of see why. I just hope the game doesn’t fall off the radar because of a lack of support.
All in all, DJ Hero has made me very obviously take back what I said about being really annoyed at the current state of music rhythm games. If anything, it’s given me a love and adoration for the genre that I haven’t had since the first Guitar Hero game came around. Any time something annoying pops up with the game, it instantly falls to the wayside, as I get into that tunnel vision like zombie mode of paying attention to nothing but the note highway, and the music.

Still sitting in that frame of mind, the idea of turning a concept as strange and odd as DJ Hero into a tangible thing, that not only manages to be playable, but fun, still strikes me retroactively as a really weird uphill battle. I would have loved to see what the years of development on this title were like, as in the end, the game comes together wonderfully.

Just too bad Activision’s in charge and fucked the game out of success with a horrific initial price. I guess I can always hope the sequel does better?