Vinyl-scratching wannabes were given their taste of the rhythm game genre last year when Activision extended a glowstick-laden hand with DJ Hero. But while the game promised to give fans of electronic, hip-hop, pop, and rock music the chance to throw down beats and mix up a storm, players and critics alike criticised the game's lack of musical freedom as one of its biggest stumbling blocks.
We recently got our first look at DJ Hero 2, and while it appears to have borrowed (and in some cases torn pages out of) the playbook of its sister products in the Guitar Hero stables, it does appear to mark a slow but steady transition towards loosening its grip on the creative reins. Before you go conjuring up crazy ideas like being able to create custom mixes with individually selected tracks, or monitoring BPM counters to create an unholy mash-up of two very disparate pieces of audio, it’s only fair that we point out that this is still very much an on-rails DJ-ing experience. Like other games in the Hero family, DJ Hero 2 has been designed to simulate the key functions of the task, not to act as a springboard to kick-start your club career.
The newly found freedom in DJ Hero 2 takes several different gameplay forms. Freestyle scratching has been added to your repertoire of moves and complements the standard bidirectional "wikka wikka" platter scratching of the peripheral rather than replacing it altogether. Previously scratch moves were limited to correctly timing a button press and wiggling the record until you hit the end of the section. This time around you have the option (when presented with a free scratch section) to begin scratching at your leisure, at your own pace, and then release the button to let the sample play or press it again to retrigger the sample to create unique sounds. Freestyle scratching is not available on all scratch sections, but it's a marked improvement over the basic move introduced last year. More importantly, it gives you the chance to give the track some much-needed customisation and variety with the chance to scratch the section differently each time you play through.
Similarly, freestyle crossfading opens up the chance for you to determine which record gets the lion’s share of the air time. Where previously each remix contained a single static mix with predetermined crossfading at set intervals to follow to earn points, freestyle crossfade sections--marked with wider-than-usual glowing lanes--allow you to either follow the suggested mix or deviate to play more of your preferred track. Thin lines within the lanes indicate beat changes and key vocal points, so while you may dedicate your play to hearing more of one tune, you can quickly rejoin the flow of the intended mix by following the guide. It’s the gameplay equivalent of having a cued track play in your headphones, but it removes the need to listen to two sets of beats simultaneously. Unfortunately, like freestyle scratching, these free crossfade sections appear only at set spots during the total mix, meaning that you’ll need to follow the rest of the time. The staggered sustain notes found in recent Guitar Hero games have also made their way into DJ Hero 2 and require you to keep one of the three buttons held down as you tap out notes on the remaining two.
DJ Hero gave you the opportunity to plug in and rock a microphone, but since song lyrics weren’t displayed, and you didn’t earn any more points than you would have just mixing the track, it served no real purpose. DJ Hero 2 changes this by allowing you to again jack in and belt out words, with karaoke-style lyrics appearing at the top of the screen to sing or rap along with. Pitch detection scores your vocal styling, but while it’s a good way to get a third player into the action, in our demo we didn’t see the ability to collect singing-specific euphoria (DJ Hero's star power) or roll the vocals into the overall score if you want to scratch and rap at the same time.
Multiplayer expands on the basic score attack found in the first game in favour of a DMC-style approach to battles. Two competing players will perform alternating parts of the same mix in Checkpointer mode, each hoping to better the other player by performing with more flair and skill with the winner declared by winning the greatest number of sections. Drop in/out play in Party mode also features prominently, giving you the chance to keep the groove going if your buddy flakes out and leaves the game.
Rhythm games live and die by their soundtrack, and DJ Hero 2 offers a bevy of new tunes to play along to. FreeStyle Games concedes that while the unproven nature of the first game made it tough to licence music for, labels have embraced the sequel more willingly. The game will ship with more than 70 original mixes from more than 100 songs and will include artists such as 2Pac, Lady Gaga, The Pussycat Dolls, Metallica, Dr. Dre, David Guetta, The Chemical Brothers, Kanye West, Marvin Gaye, and MSTRKRFT. Canadian progressive house DJ Deadmau5 joins the lineup and makes his debut as a playable character, complete with his trademark giant-rodent costume.
Story has never been a big part of music games, but the development team is determined to change that in DJ Hero 2. The game will be more narrative focused, with Empire mode following your rise to fame as you get your foot in the door, play your first shows, and build a name for yourself to unlock major global venues.
Despite concerns from gamers about the design of the deck peripheral bundled with the first game (particularly the notch between the left and right crossfading positions), DJ Hero 2 will not include a revamped piece of hardware when it launches later this year. The game will be available as a super bundle with two decks, software, and a microphone; as a single deck and software; or as software only.
As a series, DJ Hero is still in its infancy, but from what we’ve already seen, this sequel is evolving to give you more of what you want: banging beats and enough customisation and control to feel like you're in on the action.
Stay tuned for our ongoing coverage from E3 2010.