VG O.D.: DJ Hero
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 2, 2009
I apologize for the dearth of posting lately–it’s been a crazy-demanding week pop culture-wise recently. What with the NBA season starting, the World Series going on, Halloween looming (I ended up going as a member of NWA–worked OK, though my friends gave me deserved amounts of shit for being suckered into buying a $50 fake chain at a costume store) and new books by Chuck Klosterman and Bill Simmons being released (the only two writers I really care enough about to actively seek out new material, coming out with books within a week of each other–what are the odds), things like writing, sleeping, and pursuing social contact during daylight hours fall predictably by the wayside. Perhaps most time-consuming of all, though, is the new release of DJ Hero–Activision’s latest entry in the ever-expanding rhythmic synchronization video game market. This one, as you may have seen in the (not terribly illuminating) commercials, uses a turntable instead of a guitar or drum set, and asks you to fake-mix pairs of songs, using a crossfader, effects dial, and a prop record for scratching.
First and foremost, I’ve already played for about ten-twelve total hours since buying it (I’d have logged about twice that under optimal circumstances, but these are trying times), and it both seems like A) There’s still a decent amount of new material I’ve yet to cover and B) I still enjoy playing it a good deal. By those qualifications alone, the game is already something of a success, even given its fairly hefty pricetag (I paid over $110 for it, I think, and I was terrified I’d play it a couple times, be none too impressed and spend the rest of my week kicking myself for shelling out that kind of money for something so useless–but who was I kidding, really? I’d probably just have wasted it on Halloween anyway). The most important question, as with all these type of games, is this–despite your most logical, grounded-in-reality instincts, when it’s at its peak, does it make you feel in your heart of hearts like you’re actually a superstar DJ killing it in front of a sold-out club crowd? The answer is yes–in spurts, at the least.
The primary difference between DJ Hero and the Rock Band series–besides the controller, anyway–is that in this game, you’re just synthesizing two previously-existing songs, instead of (feeling like) you’re actually creating the music yourself. That’s not a problem, necessarily, though it certainly means that you’re not likely to feel like you’re learning any valuable skill in actually playing the instrument–especially since, despite the mixing between two records in the game, it’s only a single turntable on the controller (maybe they’re saving the double-deck for the sequel). But since you’re not actually playing anything but the entire songs, the enjoyment of playing the game is more dependent than ever on the quality of the songs/mixes selected. Many of them are good, often surprisingly so–pairs I never would’ve thought to be successful, like Masta Ace’s “Born to Roll” and Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” 50 Cent’s “Disco Inferno” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Classics IV’s “Spooky” and Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” end up being some of my favorites. But when it’s awkward–like the mixes with Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” and Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”–it’s not much fun at all.
Luckily, the hits outnumber the misses, and the game gets more enjoyable as it gets harder–having to do more with the controller (and sometimes you have to think three or four steps at a time) just makes it a more engaging experience. Pulling off a complicated break section is just as rewarding a feeling as nailing a tricky guitar solo or a tough drum fill, and some of the gameplay elements they implemented–like the filtering with the effects dial and the “rewind” option made available when you get 50 in a row–just are very physically and aurally rewarding on a basic, almost kiddie level. The scratching can be a little cumbersome, and your arm definitely gets exhausted after a while, but they basically got the controller about as perfect as they could have for a game like this. (The DJs of the world have showed their support for the game, some even appearing in the VG itself–which is unfortunate when it comes to Grandmaster Flash’s grating delivery of the gameplay tutorials, but is pretty cool when you get to actually play as Daft Punk).
I have two main grievances with the game so far. One is that it seems like multi-player with this is going to be more difficult than it has been since the first Guitar Hero game–since you need to have two of those controllers to have two people play at the same time ( and then only two), unless you also have a guitar and are playing one of the dozen or so songs in the game with a guitar part. I feel like there must have been a way to sneak in a vocal option in there somewhere–if not yet, I guarantee there will be in a future installment. The MC/DJ combo is just too good an idea for a game like this to stay dormant forever. The real most annoying thing, though? You can’t fail out of a song. Not that I particularly like failing, but it casts a pall on some dubious in-game performances of mine, and eventually you start to lose that sense of accomplishment of actually having beat it (which, granted, is minimal…but this is still a video game, and I don’t want to beat it just by virtue of having sat through it). It feels patronizing, almost downright Un-American to play a video game where it’s impossible to lose. No good, and I’m not sure what the logic is.
In some respects the game is still pretty raw, more notable for its promise than its immediate delivery. But clearly, there’s a new strain of music video game to be had here in some respect, and I look forward to seeing what they do with the franchise in the future–as well as playing the rest of the songs I haven’t gotten to yet in the meantime. Except for “I Like to Move It”–way too soon after the commercials to be drawing back from that pool already.