What do you look for in a Hero game? Is it the moments when the impossible becomes possible, advanced techniques decoding devilish solos? Is it the point where the vague renditions of Normal mode come into sharp focus on Expert, turning you from player into performer? Is it an education, a hand to guide you through anthems, styles, movements and careers you never gave a second glance? Or is it intimacy, a chance to enjoy tired favourites as if you were hearing them for the first time? If it’s any of these, and especially if it’s all of them, then welcome to DJ Hero.
What’s a DJ hero? To FreeStyleGames, it’s a kind of chemist-cum-treasure hunter – someone who finds, dissects and repurposes music for its benefit and ours, chopping and changing it live on stage. So with an infusion of Eric Prydz’ Pjanoo, Tears For Fears’ Shout becomes a dance floor smash. Swap Prydz for DJ Shadow’s Six Days, though, and suddenly you have a brooding downtempo creature better suited to a room full of bong smoke. An entire studio of such heroes has produced the game’s extraordinary track list, aforementioned mixes included, while making way for star turns from Daft Punk, the late DJ AM, DJ Jazzy Jeff and others.
Then, in a slightly different kind of ‘mash-up’, FreeStyle’s core team has supplied the know-how to turn this art form into a videogame, helped in no small part by hardware maestro RedOctane. The result: a fresh start for both the franchise and your ability to play it. Sat somewhere between Guitar Hero and Frequency, it’s a game of beat-matching, track-switching and scratching that takes each to its extreme, throwing them all together in a dizzying test of multitasking skill. So even before you make it to Expert you’ll be flicking the cross-fader left and right to match crooked light beams, striking three platter-mounted buttons to hit passing notes, and scratching the record back and forth to match directional prompts, all at once at over 100 beats per minute. Yes, it is as hard as it sounds.
Harder than Guitar Hero? FreeStyle insists not, and it’s true that you’ll reach most of the major milestones at similar points along the difficulty curve. But while each new technique is, at worst, no harder than learning a hammer-on or striking the fifth note on the fretboard, the number of instructions jammed into just three lanes is often overwhelming. As we’ve said before, tapping up and down, scratching back and forth, and flicking left and right is a lot like rubbing your head and belly in opposite directions. You’ll get there in the end, but you’ll need an almost scientific interest in the music and instrument to persevere.
Just as well, then, that DJ Hero is an excellent promoter. As a channel between artists and audience it’s considerably better than Guitar Hero, not least because all but one of its stars is actually alive. Never have the guests in Neversoft’s games seemed so remote as with the appalling (and thankfully optional) sight of Johnny Cash cavorting to the Beastie Boys, but this never happens here. Instead, there’s a great set in which Grandmaster Flash (who also voices the tutorials) calls you out as his mixes play, and another in which the Scratch Perverts lay down wicked tests in advanced disciplines. And as you take Daft Punk’s avatars or mixes to the stage, there’s never a doubt that they’re there with you in spirit. It's at times like these that DJ Hero feels less like a landmark in rhythm games than an evolution of music itself.
But it also feels like a classic first step, and not just because it lacks popular features like character and music creation, or because it's multiplayer duels feel like placeholders for something better. While most of its mash-ups are a lot less barbaric than the term implies, all of its attempts to work in guitar controller support – guitar music in general, even – are calamitous. At worst, they sound like duelling stereos on shuffle-play. It’s entirely conceivable that these rock-themed set lists will go untouched as players march through their careers, which is at least possible thanks to a generous unlocking process. And while it triumphantly captures the basic feel of the turntable, it fails to really pinpoint the culture behind the music. While it’s great to see many of the artists indulge their alter-egos, Shadow appearing as a kind of comic book Jedi master, FreeStyle’s generic characters shrink in comparison.
There’s also a lot of recycling, and many of the tracks pop up with different partners time and time again. Sometimes, as with the earlier example of Tears For Fears, it’s justified by the chemistries of the mixes themselves. But not always, and there’s a nagging feeling that even the stars have been handed the same small catalogue to play with. So if you’re expecting some serious crate-digging, don’t expect too much.
It's remarkable, though, how many of the more important targets FreeStyle has hit first time. The stigma carried by mash-ups in general, the science behind the art form, the difficulty curve, the hardware, the desk-bound antics of the DJ on stage: any of these could have sunk this game before any chance of a series. But they haven’t. All things considered, it’s about the best game called ‘DJ Hero’ we were ever likely to see. It deserves extended play.