DJ Hero First Hands-On

We take our first turn on the wheels of steel in Activision's new rhythm game.


Even if most people have never played a real guitar before, they usually understand the basics of a Guitar Hero game more or less right away. One hand strums, the other hand frets--it's basic stuff, and most of us have seen enough guitar players to get the basics in the game down after a song or two. The challenge with Activision and Freestyle Games' upcoming DJ Hero is that few people play "air DJ" in their bedrooms while listening to their favorite artists spinning records. As a result, there's a good chunk of people out there for whom playing DJ Hero might double as their first experience ever with the ins and outs of being a DJ.

This means that there's a lot to learn. From mixing tracks and adding effects to wrapping your fingers and wrists around the complicated art of record scratching, there's a lot to explore in DJ Hero, which we got to finally play for the first time last week. And while there is a lot of information to absorb in the early goings, in our experience, it doesn't take much time before you're pumping out the jams with something akin to style in the game's upper difficulty levels.

Certain aspects of the DJ Hero experience will be immediately familiar for GH fans: You've got a note highway onscreen that scrolls along as the tune plays. Colored gems scroll down the highway; each gem corresponds with one of the three buttons on the DJ Hero turntable. The green and blue buttons correspond to the two tracks being mixed together in the DJ Hero track, while the red button plays from a selection of samples you can switch among by turning a knob at any point in a song. As with Guitar Hero, when a gem appears in the note horizon at the bottom of the screen, you press the corresponding button on the turntable. As with GH's two- and three-button chords, you'll often find yourself pressing the left and right button simultaneously while mixing in the sample button liberally as well.

The buttons and onscreen gems follow the basic Guitar Hero flow, but the fader and record-scratching complicate the formula in DJ Hero. The fader switch is part of a snap-on attachment that goes on the turntable and can be attached to either side, which makes it friendly for left-handed DJs. The fader has three positions--left, middle, and right. How you fade between tracks is indicated onscreen by the positioning of the gems along their respective note highways. If the green gem shifts to the left, you move the fader to the left; if the blue gem moves to the right, you move the fader to the right. If either the green or blue gem moves back to center, you move the fader back to its center position--there's a satisfying little click that will indicate when the fade is properly centered.

Scratching is an art all of its own in DJ Hero--one that looks to rival the most difficult Guitar Hero tracks in terms of dexterity requirements. At the basic level, however, scratching is simply a matter of holding down either the green or blue button (as indicated onscreen) on the turntable and moving the turntable back and forth for as long as is required. At the basic difficulty levels, even simple movements will play the complicated scratches that abound in the game. Once you amp up the difficulty level, you'll see specific arrows indicating the direction you need to scratch. You'll also have to be more rhythmically precise by matching the rhythms of the track's scratches with what you do with the turntable.

If you've never spent any time on the wheels of steel--as was the case with us--it takes some time to get used to the basics of scratching. The challenge lies in the fingers you use to move the turntable in relation to the positions of the buttons. The green button is typically pressed by the index finger and the blue button is typically pressed by the ring finger, but there's a difference in control and strength between those two fingers that's very obvious in practice. It's also worth noting the different circumferences and positions of the two buttons on the turntable: The "inside" blue button is closer to the center of the turntable, which makes it slightly more difficult to accurately push the turntable with the blue button held down. The "outside" green button, on the other hand, is positioned further away from center, making it a bit easier to hold down and subsequently push the turntable. That said, there are tricks you can use to offset these problems--like anchoring your thumb to the side of the turntable and using it to power the turntable's movements.

In our time with DJ Hero, we tried songs from a bunch of different difficulty levels, but we started with the beginning tutorial hosted by Grandmaster Flash. Here, you'll be taken through the basics of the note highway, the turntable, and fading, which is all set to a mix of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and Daft Punk's "Da Funk." Once you dive into the proper gameplay, you'll also be able to experiment with the special effects dial, which will let you add envelope effects to the mix at your own discretion during certain sections of songs.

Once we finished the tutorial, we tried songs on every difficulty but expert. At the easy level, you'll be dealing mainly with sampling records via the buttons and the basics of scratching. The medium difficulty adds fading into the gameplay, and getting your hands working together between the buttons and the fader is a challenge, albeit a very fun one. Though we hadn't mastered medium, we wanted to see what the game was like at the hard difficulty level, and as expected, things got much more complicated. It's fair to say that the rapid-fire fading between tracks, complicated button combinations for samples, and directional scratching--sometimes all combined in the same section--left us completely and utterly lost in certain sections. As a result, we didn't even attempt a song at expert level for fear of having our fingers fall off completely.

Even if you might be lost in certain complicated sections of DJ Hero, the party won't end even if you're screwing things up from the DJ booth. The game has a no-fail system throughout, and all you need to do to get back on track after a particularly difficult section is to hit a few correct notes to kick the jam back into high gear more or less immediately. To that end, you'll be able to make setlists of any of the unlocked tunes in the game and even have fun messing around with the samples button in between tunes during your set.

While DJ Hero looks to be fun solo, there will also be some multiplayer modes of note. We got a chance to check out DJ versus DJ gameplay on several songs, which had both DJs spinning it out on individual turntables in a competition for the highest score. Both DJs play the exact same sequences--there's no individual parts swapping from one DJ to the next, and strategic use of euphoria (which is activated by a button that sits right next to the special-effects knob) is essential. Not only does euphoria act as a point modifier, but it also temporarily makes fading automatic, letting you focus just on the turntable scratches and buttons. There will also be a handful of tunes in the game that will let you hook up a guitar accessory and play with your DJ pal--we had a chance to check out a mix of Beastie Boys "Sabotage" and Foo Fighters "Monkey Wrench," which was a good time.

Other mixes we played in the game included: • Marvin Gaye "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" versus Gorillaz "Feel Good Inc." • Gwen Stefani "Hollaback Girl" versus Rick James "Give it to Me" • Benni Benassi "Satisfaction" versus Black Eyed Peas "Boom Boom Pow"

Even if you've never stood on a raised DJ platform and led the way for hundreds of club-goers to dance the night away, you'll still be able to have a good time with DJ Hero. The game's learning curve looks to gently introduce you to the basics while giving able-handed DJs a chance to flex their muscles with some creative and demanding gameplay interpretations of some extremely cool tunes. DJ Hero is due for release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii in late October, so stay tuned for more on the game in the coming weeks.

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