Like grunge music, it appears that the era of rhythm games has been somewhat short-lived. The once burgeoning genre has seen a sharp decline in sales over the past year or so, perhaps due to a parade of mechanically identical games, or because people have simply grown bored of their living rooms being crammed with plastic instruments.
Even Harmonix, the developers responsible for bringing these types of games to prominence, has been released from its parent company, despite recently releasing the critically lauded Dance Central and Rock Band 3.
Many would point their finger at Activision for this state of affairs. After the enormous success of the initial Guitar Hero games, the publishing giant pushed the franchise into an annual development cycle – not necessarily the best way of letting a series grow, or allowing developers Neversoft to invigorate its core gameplay.
Savvy to the success of the Hero name, Activision has also affixed the moniker to FreeStyle Games’ turntablism-themed DJ Hero series, the first of which was released last year. Whilst this featured some good ideas, it certainly felt more proof-of-concept than a fully-fledged title, and hardly the shot in the arm many hoped it would be.
However, it feels great to be able to cast any disappointment and jaded cynicism aside when playing DJ Hero 2, because the sequel not only expands upon the solid foundations laid by its progenitor, but also breathes new life into a stale genre.
DJ Hero 2’s core gameplay revolves around hitting and holding correctly coloured notes, beats and samples across three tracks of an ever-spinning vinyl pathway. Like the first game, this is complemented by scratching and knob-fiddling effect sequences, as well as the ability to initiate Euphoria mode, which acts as a score multiplier. However, the sequel also introduces Freestyle Mode – portions of pathway that give you full control of the mix, allowing you to freely scratch and shift audio channels to your heart’s content.
This is a significant addition, as it not only adds greater variety to the gameplay, but also gives you the feeling of legitimately controlling a song’s overall sound through some measure of musicianship. All of these elements make DJ Hero 2 more complex than most other rhythm games, and can feel overwhelming at first. As such, newcomers will find investing some time with the game’s extensive tutorial to be worthwhile.
True to the nature of actual DJing, playing DJ Hero 2 is a somewhat solitary activity. While a few multiplayer modes are present, it doesn’t lend itself to party situations quite as effortlessly as Rock Band. Instead, the single player Empire mode provides the bulk of the experience and sees you selecting a DJ and conquering the world’s club circuit one city at a time.
Along the way, you’ll face off against and play as other DJs such as David Guetta, Deadmau5 and RZA, artists who might give you some idea of the game’s eclectic track list of mixes and mash-ups. Whilst the nature of mixing tracks means that specific songs feel less crucial to the overall experience, it is particularly delightful to suddenly identify a song that you like fade into the mix.
At the same time, the breadth of featured artists gives the impression that DJ Hero 2 has something of an identity crisis on its hands, unsure of whether to ally itself with the zeitgeist of club music or the more technical but less culturally relevant hip-hop. This has few implications from a gameplay perspective, but means that the whole package lacks a distinct feel. That being said, the clean, crisp graphic design-influenced presentation is a welcome departure from the crusty roadies of the Guitar Hero aesthetic.
Given DJ Hero 2’s focus on single player content, it’s disappointing that the options to customise the look of your character are so limited. The meagre number of unlockable outfits and accessories seem especially stingy in comparison to some of the more recent entries in the genre. Aspiration is an essential part of music games, so giving players the ability to fully invest in their avatars is something that shouldn’t be undervalued.
The turntable peripheral itself remains unchanged from those bundled with last year’s release, a no doubt pleasing fact to the wallets of early adopters. It’s slightly more utilitarian than the snazzy, iconic guitars of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, but is nonetheless a solid piece of hardware. There’s a pleasing heft to the turntable itself, which makes spinning and catching it at key moments of a song gratifying.
The only real criticism is that finding the midpoint on the crossfader can be infuriatingly messy at times, and some more reassuring mechanical feedback would be appreciated.
The role of a DJ might not, to most people, seem as immediately alluring as striding onstage with a Gibson Explorer, but FreeStyle Games has done a fantastic job of creating an enjoyable game which also provides some meaningful methods of musical expression.
While DJ Hero 2 is a great game in its own right, this is another solid addition to a series on the rise in an otherwise declining genre, and it’s exciting to consider the ways in which it may evolve.
DJ Hero 2 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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