It should come as no surprise that Activision is looking to build on the success of its Guitar Hero franchise. We've already seen band-specific versions of GH featuring Metallica, Aerosmith, and the recently announced Guitar Hero: Van Halen. With its latest project, DJ Hero, Activision and UK developer Freestyle Games are bringing a new peripheral and some fresh genres of music into the video game world with a game that looks to do for spinning the wheels of steel what Guitar Hero has done for rocking the six string.
At the pre-E3 press junket back in May, developer Freestyle showed off both the gameplay and the associated turntable/mixer accessory that will come with the game when it's released this fall. The hardware features a single record platter with three embedded buttons that are used to trigger samples and music streams. As you might expect, the platter spins smoothly so you can easily scratch, which, as you might expect, is an essential part of gameplay.
The mixer features a fader switch that will let you switch between individual "records" (by moving the fader left or right) or a mix of both songs (by keeping the fader at center). There's a knob above the fader that you can twist to add special effects to tunes and a "euphoria" button that you press at the right moment for a star-power-like points boost. There's also a small panel that you can open in which you'll find your standard buttons and D pad, which you can use to navigate menus. In all, the plastic hardware is remarkably clean looking, yet sturdy; the design even lets you detach the fader from the record player and flip it, making it friendly for lefties.
As for gameplay, the music onscreen is represented on a note highway that is reminiscent of what you'd see in Guitar Hero (though it's curved to look more like a spinning record). As the music plays, the individual notes that stream toward you are played in a variety of ways. Green notes indicate "record one" and are activated by pressing the green button in time with the music. Similarly, notes streaming down the blue side are from "record two" and are played with a press of the blue button. In addition, red notes are samples that can be played with a press of the middle red button.
Scratching takes things to the next level. To scratch a record, you follow the back and forth arrows indicated on either the green or blue note stream, and it will be simply a matter of pressing the appropriate button and moving the turntable at the lower difficulties in DJ Hero. As the difficulty ramps up, your scratching will need to be more precise, and you'll need to follow the direction and speed of the arrows to correctly pull off a scratch phrase.
Moving over to the mixer, you'll make liberal use of the fade switch based on the position on the line that streams down the note highway. If the note-highway stream shifts to the left or right, you'll want to move the fader to the left or right accordingly. In addition, periodically you'll be called on to use the effects knob, which will twist and turn the tracks' sound qualities in fun ways. Just as in Guitar Hero, your goal is to score as many points as possible in a song. Activating euphoria with a press of a button will double your points multipliers temporarily, and the game will also let you build up a rewind meter, which you can activate to play through a section again and reap the points reward in the process.
We'll admit that DJ Hero looks overwhelming at first, especially for those who've never spent some time behind the turntables. The combination of button presses on the record player, vigorous scratching, and liberal use of the fader might not come easy at first, especially when trying to translate what you see onscreen to your hands. But as with Guitar Hero, it's likely just a matter of time and practice before you get things under your fingers and are performing jams with the best of them.
Certainly the list of artists in the game should provide some inspiration. In addition to well-known DJs such as DJ Shadow, DJ AM, and DJ Z-Trip appearing in the game as playable characters (and contributing mixes to the game), you can expect to see artists who run the gamut from electronica to hip-hop, rock to Motown. The results are some interesting combinations. During the gameplay demo, we watched as Freestyle producers played a level that featured a mix of Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose" with The Zombies' 1960s hit "Time of the Season," as well as an invigorating mix of Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" blended with Rick James' classic disco hit "Give It to Me."
Multiplayer will be a focus in DJ Hero, and the game supports several different offline and online multiplayer modes including DJ vs. DJ, Guitar Versus DJ (with 10 specially created tracks), as well as mic support for folks who feel more comfortable belting it out rather than minding the mix.
Freestyle reps told us that this version of DJ Hero won't have a freestyle mode that will let you mix your own songs together but, should this version do well, it could be a possibility in the future. After seeing the game in action for ourselves, we expect a pretty steep learning curve for folks who aren't already immersed in DJ culture, but we're certainly intrigued by what we've seen and look forward to trying it out. Look for our continuing coverage of DJ Hero in the months leading up to its fall release.