DJ Hero

[19 November 2009]

By Mike Schiller

It’s always a risk when a video game attempts to appropriate a certain segment of culture for the sake of enhancing the gaming experience.  Given that the chances of an intersection between some perceived outsider segment of culture and the community of software developers and publishers responsible for the creation of said game tends to be somewhat small, there is an element of research that has to go into involving said culture.  “Experts” in that culture need to be brought in, focus groups need to evaluate works in progress, and much care needs to be put into the final product to ensure that the culture being represented by the game is not insulted.

And still even after all of this, the developer runs the risk of a Poochie-style debacle, where all of the sure things in the world only add up to an intelligence-insulting final product.

DJ Hero treads the line between authentic and artificial in terms of its grasp on DJ culture to a degree that’s almost comical; there’s this constant push and pull between moments that immerse you in the experience, that heighten the party-style atmosphere, and those that just utterly pull you back to earth, reminding you that, yes, this is just a game that you’re playing here that was put together by working stiff computer geeks probably not all that different from yourself. 

On the side of immersion is, most notably, the music itself, perhaps the most important part of the entire equation.  DJ Hero nails the music, to the point where it’s actually worth playing through the game just to hear it.  Every single track on DJ Hero is actually a combination of two tracks, and almost every single one of the mashups here is exclusive to the game.  Sure, some work better than others—“Da Funk” works perfectly with “Another One Bites the Dust” (hence its use as the basis of the tutorial, while “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” combined with “My Name Is” seems like it should work but feels forced—but for the most part, the mixes feel natural, inventive, and occasionally positively inspired.  Whoever decided it would be a good idea to mash “U Can’t Touch This” with “Ice Ice Baby” deserves a raise.

Elsewhere, the guest DJs involved are solid choices for inclusion in a game like this; anyone would be hard-pressed to argue against the inclusion of Grandmaster Flash, for example, and the late DJ AM’s flirtation with mainstream music culture makes him a natural fit.  Daft Punk is an inspired choice here as well, given that the duo isn’t strictly known for its turntable prowess, but there’s a kitschyness to their inclusion that somehow lends variety to a game that could easily lack it.

Still, the visuals are almost enough to remove you from the experience.  For one, the Guitar Hero games were never really known for appealing avatars, but there was usually one or two that would establish itself as a favorite among some segment of the population.  There is no DJ Hero avatar that looks remotely appealing enough to want to inhabit for any length of time; not only are they ugly as hell, but they tread awfully close to some unappealing stereotypes.  Rarely have I ever felt the wish or want to inhabit any of the celebrities that have lent their likenesses to the Guitar Hero games (with the possible exception of an occasional run with Kirk Hammett), but once Grandmaster Flash was unlocked, I was done with these nasty little caricatures. 

The background visuals in the clubs while the “performances” are going on aren’t anything to love, either—the clubs seem oddly interchangeable, all of them featuring lots of dancing, much of it centering on leering closeups of scantily clad women with the occasional shot of whatever DJ you’re using “raising the roof” or some other such clichéd move.  Thankfully, there’s very little reason to pay attention to many of the visuals given the concentration necessary to keep the mashup tracks going strong in any of the included tracks.

Speaking of which, the gameplay is what tips the scales in DJ Hero‘s favor.  The peripheral itself—even the “cheap” version in the $120 box—is an impressive little piece of equipment.  It’s a turntable with buttons on one side, a modulation knob, crossfade slider, and “euphoria” (read: star power) button on the other.  The effect is that of familiarity (the buttons) combined with novelty (the turntable and the crossfader) that leads to a somewhat familiar but still utterly fresh experience.  The rhythm genre needed something like this, an excuse to give its fans something new to do in between games involving guitars, drums, and microphones (of which there are something like seven that will have come out by the end of this year).

The music alone is enough to grab you, but the feel of actually manipulating that music will keep you playing well into the night.  DJ Hero may not be perfect in its approximation of DJ culture, but it’s close enough to keep from distracting from a surprisingly taut and enjoyable gameplay experience.

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