Last year, DJ Hero charted a new course in the rhythm genre by letting you tap, scratch, and crossfade along with uniquely energetic songs, creating what proved to be a very entertaining experience. DJ Hero 2 improves on its predecessor across the board, offering an even better collection of songs, creative new gameplay mechanics, a slick new interface, and expanded online competition. There are even some new ways to play the game, though the ability to be scored on vocal tracks takes a backseat to the excellent Party Play mode that lets you enjoy the music and the game in a relaxed, social environment. Cutting it up with the turntable peripheral is not only more enjoyable but also more affordable with DJ Hero 2, thanks to more-reasonable-than-last-year pricing that lowers the barrier of entry. Though it is still a bit pricey for newcomers, DJ Hero 2 justifies its price tag, not only because the music is so good, but also because the game is so relentlessly fun to play.
The core gameplay of DJ Hero 2 remains largely the same. Using a plastic turntable peripheral, you play along to a song that is a mix of two different tracks. You tap buttons, crossfade between tracks, and hold buttons while moving the platter (the circular platform) to scratch. As you move up the gentle difficulty curve, your actions get more and more closely attuned to the flow of the song. An isolated tap at the beginning of a phrase becomes a series of taps that follow the beat throughout the section, and your crossfading evolves from intermittent slides to bouncing rhythmic bumps that more actively correspond with the mix. DJ Hero 2's setlist is so good that practically every song will have you dancing in your seat. But when your movements are synchronized with the music, you feel like you're helping craft the mix yourself, and you enjoy the experience that much more.
DJ Hero 2 takes this feeling of participation and builds on it, giving you some concrete creative control in certain sections of each mix. Freestyle scratch sections function much like normal scratch sections, only instead of merely moving the platter and triggering prerecorded scratch audio, the music conforms to your actions. You can use short, darting movements to scratch along to the beat or use longer, slower scratches to get a little funkier. These sections are much more engaging than normal scratches because you gain the satisfaction of putting your mark on the mix. Freestyle crossfade sections allow you to be even more creative, giving you control of the balance between the two mixed tracks. Jabbing into one track to create a pulsating beat, bouncing between tracks to highlight certain lyrics, or sticking with one track for all but a few key moments are just some of the ways you can alter these sections to your liking. Of course, your results may not always sound cool, especially if you are trying to keep up with a challenging mix. Fortunately, there are segmented bars in the display that show you good places to cut in and out of a given track. These creative sections heighten the excitement of playing along with a great mix, and the satisfaction you get from scratching out a sweet rhythmic pattern or deftly crossfading at just the right moment is novel and invigorating.
There are a few other gameplay tweaks that enrich the DJ Hero 2 experience, like held notes that are an interesting inversion of the scratch sections and sound samples that are uniquely tailored to each mix. You can also be scored for singing along with the mixes if you have a USB microphone (the guitar mixes from DJ Hero have been cut), but until you know the mix well, it isn't all that fun. Though the singing evaluation doesn't feel as slick as in other games, it works just fine, and it can actually be fun to sing along to mixed-up versions of songs you like once you are familiar with the mix. You can play through all the mixes in Empire mode (read: career mode), which lets you unlock new music and customization options for your in-game DJ. Most sets in Empire mode feature two-to-four songs, some of which are strung together in a cohesive megamix that keeps you playing longer and feels more like a proper DJ set. There are also battles against other DJs, both fictional and real, which test your ability to outperform them in certain sections of a given mix. Deadmau5, Tiesto, and others lend their likenesses and mixes to DJ Hero 2, infusing the game with a more modern club feeling, as opposed to the more hip-hop-oriented DJ Hero.
Playing through Empire mode's themed sets is a fun way to explore the great musical catalog and unlock more songs, thanks in part to the slick and appealing new menu system. You can also play mixes and tailor setlists to your liking in Quickplay or take a more casual approach in Party Play. In this mode, the game simply plays mixes and accompanying videos without stopping. You can jump in with the press of the button, play for as long as you like, and drop out easily. You can enjoy the lively music without imposing the pressure of performance on anyone in particular, making it a great way to introduce the game to a social situation. If you do like a bit of pressure with your performance, then the new online competitive modes are a good outlet. These modes include simple score battles, section-by-section competition, and an intriguing one in which you must tally the longest streak you can. The trick here is that you have to press a button to bank your streak or it won't count. Banking resets your streak counter back to zero, so you have to weigh the risk of striving for a higher streak against the value of banking what you already have. There is also a persistent ranking system that tallies your progress, which is a nice touch that makes you feel like you're earning something for your troubles, even if you don't win the match.
DJ Hero 2 is offered as a stand-alone game this year ($59.99) for those who already have a turntable, though there are a few bundles available, including a game and turntable bundle ($99.99) that is a more reasonably priced point of entry to the series than last year's bundle. The cost to newcomers may seem high, but DJ Hero 2 justifies its price tag. Most of the 83 mixes are a blast to listen to, let alone play, and DJ Hero 2 really brings them to life with gameplay mechanics that create an invigorating connection between you and the music. It lets you enjoy the infectious soundtrack in a wide variety of ways, from casual to challenging, building on the electrifying fun of its predecessor to create one of the most exhilarating experiences available in the world of rhythm games.