When Activision and Freestyle games released DJ Hero this time one year ago, many commentators haughtily suggested it was a ‘me-too’ game. Another prime example of this greedy behemoth of a publisher overloading the popular rhythm-game band-wagon and peddling its mediocre wares in the name of pushing the genre forward. And at £90 for the game and turntable controller, those same commentators were rubbing their hands together at the prospective of seeing Activision come out of this episode with a deserved bloody nose.
When those first few weeks on sales generated decidedly average returns, it looked for a while that those naysayers were right. Perhaps Activision was going to rue its decision, and while critically acclaimed, DJ Hero was going to still prove to be a financial disaster. But then something strange happened. Instead of following the typical videogame product life-cycle of coming strongly out of the gates before fading quickly, DJ Hero instead continued to perform reasonably well at retail for extended periods. Perhaps even more mystifying was the fact that it wasn’t just young men buying the game. Instead, girls were snapping it up in their droves. Fast-forward a year later and with over one a half million units sold, now who’s laughing?
Me actually, as it means Freestyle Games (a British developer lest we forget) was given the resources and leeway it required to further develop, polish and tweak this fledgling franchise into what some would arguably say is the current rhythm-game fore-runner.
DJ Hero 2 isn’t a radical overhaul of the first game. In fact anyone that has played the original will instantly pick up where they left off, quite literally getting back into the groove. And the changes that have been made haven’t been made simply for the sake of ticking a few checkboxes and adding some unique selling points to the sequel’s marketing material. Instead they’ve been carefully considered and crafted and genuinely enhance the game. But perhaps best of all, allow for a far greater element of free-styling, improvisation and user interaction.
First of the new changes is the addition of freestyle scratching. Previously, scratches were pre-defined by whoever produced the mix and it was your task to basically replicate their back and forth motions. There was no room for creativity or improvisation, you just simply, at a very basic level, triggered a quick-time event. This time around you can scratch exactly as you would were you manipulating a real-life turntable. Quickly spinning the platter in full revolutions forward or backwards will fast-forward or rewind the current track causing the pitch to be higher or lower, while quick back and forth scratches behave realistically and authentically.
Also new is freestyle cross-fading. Again, previously you were simply duplicating the original DJs own cross-fades, but this time around there are sections in each track where you can choose which channel you want to fade in or out. A coloured indicator suggests appropriate points for each song at which you might want to fade but it’s totally up to you to either follow these guides or use your own intuition to freestyle. At first your freeform hotchpotch fading will sound dreadful as you’ll inevitably just flick the fader back and forth in a staccato rhythm, off the bea,t making a real pig’s ear of things - thankfully you’re not punished for this - but as your skills improve and you start to be come attuned to each track, rather than trying to process and take in the coloured guides, you’ll be able to feel when it’s an appropriate moment to fade and it won’t be long until you’re cutting and chopping like you never thought possible.
One of the biggest annoyances with DJ Hero was the repetitive samples you could play at various times on each track by pressing the red button. Depending on your choice of sample pack, you could trigger any one of 5 pre-set samples, but inevitably always ended up using the default option before repeatedly hammering “Yeaaaahhhh boooooy” which very quickly got annoying. DJ Hero 2 fixes this quite brilliantly by instead selecting a sample that actually belongs to one of the mixed tracks. It might be a certain distinctive sound effect, a rapped phrase or a specific signature effect. But it’s at its most effective when it allows you to tap out the rhythm to a basic riff. This allows you to really creative as it’s possible to play every other note, or tap out all but one or two notes to create your own improvised versions, which while not sounding a big deal on paper, really adds significantly to the experience. It's hugely satisfying.
Another new addition is the ability to have a second player collaborate and sing vocals. Compatible with Guitar Hero or Rock Band microphones, friends can easily drop in or out and sing along as you DJ. The fact that they have to sing vocals from two tracks also helps makes it a trickier proposition than you’d first imagine. While they might know the structure and words to the radio edit of a song, the DJ Hero mash-up will test their ability to think on their feet. Particularly when you, the DJ, start adding rewinds and freestyled cross-fades into the mix – pun intended.
In another great design choice, rather sensibly, the success or failure of the vocalist has little or no bearing on how well you score as a DJ. All of which means that like my girlfriend, if you only want to sing the Michael Jackson parts from The Jackson Five with ABC vs. Snow with Informer, then they can do so with no punitive action. Rapping, as it turns out, is actually extremely difficult, unless you know the words rote.
The quality of the music tracks on offer is again absolutely stellar with some big names on the roster this time around including The Prodigy, Basement Jaxx and The Chemical Brothers. And following on from the success of Daft Punk last year, Tiesto and David Guetta also worked closely with the developer to incorporate their likenesses and exclusive mixes into the game. Thanks to the fact that most DJs and music producers are very technologically literate, it’s not taken as long to get industry figure-heads on board this time around, whereas it probably took 3 or 4 Guitar Hero games before bands started to take the franchise seriously.
DJ Hero 2 also learns from the mistakes Neversoft made with Guitar Hero 3 and its power-up based battle modes and instead makes its own battles a test of who can successfully score highest across a number of checkpoints. Add to that Xbox live enabled multiplayer, quick play, mega-mixes and the increasing-in-popularity friends’ challenges and there’s plenty to do outside of the game’s default Empire single-player career mode.
In terms of criticisms, there’s actually very little to fault the game for. Expert mode is terrifying at times and throws more at you than seems possible to mentally process, but Guitar Hero felt like that for a while, and my own inadequacies are not something I can blame the developer for. The build quality of the turntable platter still feels great, and the ability to swap and changes its orientation means lefties and righties are both catered for. The track listing might be an acquired taste but then what sounds awful on paper more often than not makes for a fantastically eclectic mix.
All in all, Freestyle Games has done a marvellous job of subtly adding to the first game where necessary and rather than overhauling, simple retooled slightly. While in the movie industry the original is usually always better than the sequel, in the games industry, and this game in particular, the extra time and opportunity afforded by Activision to allow an enhanced sequel is a worthwhile decision. And one for which a publisher normally reserved for vitriol and vehement insults, actually deserve praise.