Last year's DJ Hero was a rather pleasant surprise. While it felt as though the game was released at the absolute apex of Activision's music game outpouring--2009 was the year that brought us the likes of Guitar Hero: Smash Hits and Band Hero, after all--DJ Hero proved to be a fresh, fun take on the art of making music in your living room. Much of that was thanks to the capabilities of the new turntable controller, but at the same time, it was clear from the game's soundtrack of original mash-ups that developer FreeStyle Games is a studio with no shortage of creative talent. Now, despite lingering questions of how commercially successful DJ Hero proved to be in light of that initially pricey turntable bundle, we're happy to see that FreeStyle has been given the green light to develop a sequel.
We got our first look at DJ Hero 2 just before this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. If you haven't had a chance to catch up on what's new, one of the big features FreeStyle is bringing to DJ Hero 2 is the ability to, well, freestyle. The quick and dirty summary is this: You'll now be given more creative leeway in how the songs you're playing actually sound. This comes in the form of designated sequences during the song that let you scratch the record as frantically or slowly as you'd like, as well as moments that give you control of the crossfader in order to determine which of the two mashed-up song tracks becomes the dominant one. (If you don't recall, these two mechanics form the heart of DJ Hero's gameplay--the "zukka zukka" warping of a record and alternating between two songs being played simultaneously.) You can compare this with the original game, where scratching and crossfading was either done exactly as the game indicated onscreen or not done at all. Songs are still mostly prescripted in terms of controller input, but at least there's more room for creativity now.
The result seems to be a soundtrack that feels a little bit more personalized and, hopefully in the long run, songs that won't sound as repetitive once you've played them a dozen or so times. We'd compare the experience to those moments in Guitar Hero and Rock Band that let the drummers add their own off-the-cuff fills or solos during specified moments. Obviously, you can't go crazy during the whole song, but those handful of times that let you cut loose and really invest yourself in the feeling that you're a DJ seem to go a long way. If there's one drawback to these new freestyle moments, it's the concessions made for multiplayer. The first person to start freestyle crossfading is the only one who can do it for the entire sequence, and it's often hard to tell who's actually controlling the song during those parts. It may be a nitpick, but it was a noticeable point of confusion during our hands-on time.
While we're on the subject of multiplayer, that's another area where DJ Hero 2 has been given something of an overhaul. A number of new competitive multiplayer modes have been introduced, and perhaps none is more interesting than DJ Battle. Rather than having both players play a song simultaneously from start to finish in a simple points duel, DJ Battle is all about taking turns on individual parts of a song in a back-and-forth dueling of turntables. The basic gameplay is unchanged, but the nature of one player standing around while the other tries to get as flashy as possible and then switch that up multiple times throughout a song adds some real fun opportunities for showmanship if you're the type of person who enjoys hamming it up a bit. We know we certainly did. Some of the other new multiplayer modes mix things up by shuffling around how points are calculated. Here are a couple of examples of what we played. Accumulator is a mode where each player collects points for a continuously flawless performance, with the points total dropping back to zero when the player makes a mistake. The twist here is that you have to bank your current points total by hitting the euphoria button on the turntable, and you only have three chances to hit the bank button throughout the entire song. There's also Checkpoint, which divides each song into five parts, giving each player the chance to win or lose multiple times throughout a single song. (Thankfully, there's a mercy rule, which ends the song if one player wins the first three segments). Like DJ Battle, these modes don't mess with the core gameplay, but they seem to add a good bit of variety to the ways you get competitive with another player.
Lastly, it's worth mentioning that we also spent a little time in DJ Hero's own version of Party Play. First introduced in Guitar Hero 5, Party Play was one of the best things to come along in the rhythm genre in years. Each player can painlessly drop in and out of a song, as well as adjust difficulty levels without stopping the music. Neversoft has worked with FreeStyle to help implement Party Play into DJ Hero, and the result is a thing of beauty. We felt more comfortable playing on a higher difficulty level than usual knowing that we could easily bump it down a notch if it all went south. The vocalist (who's been given the gift of scrolling lyrics this year) can also drop in and out on the fly, which seems like it will come in handy considering the sheer variety of music taking place. Not every singer can jump from Rihanna to Metallica without skipping a beat.
Altogether, DJ Hero 2 seems like a solid improvement over its predecessor. From Party Play to a cleaner user interface, the whole experience is a lot more inviting--not to mention the fact that the standard game-and-turntable bundle will be $20 cheaper than it was with the first game. Keep an eye out for more coverage before the game arrives later this year.