The DJs players can choose range from fictitious caricatures to DJs modeled after the legendary Grandmaster Flash, the underrated DJ Jazzy Jeff, the late DJ AM, and internationally famous sample master duo Daft Punk (in their robot helmets). In addition each real character has made considerable contributions to both the DJ culture and the game.

Players are given a series of songs to play in set lists. These sets are a few songs, most of which vary greatly in tempo and style. Depending on how well players do, they earn ‘stars’, the ability to ‘rewind’ the track which the player can play a section over again for double the points, and ‘euphoria’ which serves the same purpose as ‘star power’ in Guitar hero – doubling the point multiplier. New DJs, outfits, decks, deck skins and headphones as well as venues are unlocked by the number of total stars players earn over the course of the game. The better the players do the more access they’re granted to visual additions and set lists.

Old school Hip Hop legends such as Gang Starr to modern marvel Drum and Bass group Noisia get their representation in this collection of mash-ups that won’t cater to a specific audience but has enough weight that it will attract attention from a wide range of people. For the most part the track mash-ups are solid but there are a few that would confuse even seasoned veterans of the ‘ones and twos’. For instance, Eminem “My Name Is” and Beck “Loser” are great songs separately, but not so great combined. The point of such mixes is unknown and I’m sure would appeal to some players but I believe it to be a way of adding to the challenge of the game. Players who are familiar with both tracks expect the songs to be at a certain tempo and key – they aren’t. They’re slightly ‘off’ in terms of tempo and pitch, which is fine since DJs have to play with those aspects of a song to beat match, slip cue or beat juggle. However, adjusting to something unexpected on the fly can throw players off, but again that’s part of the challenge and it is fun in that sense.

As a device, the DJ hero controller has its flaws. The deck plate is unbalanced and will rotate in a position the puts the buttons at the bottom if the deck is even at a slight angle. This means that during a pause or if players have to move your hand to say… scratch their eye, the plate isn’t in the same position as when they left it. Normally for a DJ this would be expected because in reality the record is constantly spinning, but the DJ Hero deck contains three buttons which the player needs to be able to access quickly and the deck does not spin.

The buttons on the deck are used to scratch. The game allows players to set the buttons to be on the left of the plate or the right of the plate (not to be confused with the cross fader itself being on the right or left of the deck). Most DJs scratch with their ring and middle fingers on the outside of the record but DJ Hero asks players to use the ring finger on the inside of the record and the index on the outside, or the ring on the outside and index on the inside – this is a poor control design in that it required more force and thus less control to scratch back and forth on the inner ring of a record. Also, the manner in which the human wrist moves makes using the index finger on the outer ring very awkward because the outer ring scratch can be performed with hand and wrist muscles while the inner ring scratches almost require moving the entire arm. The buttons want to spin away from the player and unless the player wants to put some wear on the deck by pressing down, it will cause some missed scratches. If enough people observe the same issues I have with the peripheral, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be fixed in the next iteration of the game.

The cross fader is a bit stiff and the rotary knob is a bit loose. I understand why each is stiff and loose, but not why they are as stiff or loose. The cross fader in the game is used like a real cross fader – to jump back and forth between the two tracks or to play them both at the same time while the rotary knob is more or less an ‘effects knob’ . For the game I understand that many people will not be used to having to control this kind of action and the natural reaction will be to ‘slap’ the fader to the left or right and giving a bit of resistance decreases the chances of a slight fader bump causing the game to register the action as a fade. The problem is that the fader is notched at in the middle so when having to jump right to left, it sometimes catches slightly. It feels awkward more than it prohibits smooth play, but it still catches and gives a split second false impression that the fader is all the way to either side. Conversely, the rotary knob controls the effects, er… effect (phasing or flanging depending on the song) which is rather loose when a level of stiffened control is desired. It also has no ‘middle’ point so players have to listen to watch the phase line on screen to use it effectively, but once a feel for it has been made it’s not a huge deal but it is annoying.  

Overall the game device incorporates enough of the DJ mechanic to be usable in the game and develop a sense of illusory style, but players may find themselves thrown off tempo a little bit during long scratches and cross fades because game movements aren’t perfectly synchronized with what the player hears. For example, a long scratch element only requires movement of the deck back and forth while pressing the button associated with the corresponding groove. The sound may be “wiki wiki scrrrrrr wik [stop] wiki wiki scrrrr” and the player may try to at least emulate the actions in accordance with what they hear – but they’ll ‘miss’ because the ‘scrrrrr’ is a sound that happens when the DJ slowly winds the record. Either the player might try and let go of the button or stop the back and forth scratching action, both of which produce a ‘miss’. Expert mode gets rid of this in that the scratches are broken into such small groups they require the player press and let go of the button while scratching which is much more realistic but the learning curve between medium and expert is like going from riding a big wheel to driving a Ford GT40 given the way players must operate the inner and outer most buttons to scratch – while more realistic in context to fader control and use, a lot harder with everything else going on.

Is the game worth getting? Absolutely. The Device drawbacks aren’t strong enough that they would deter anyone from getting in on the fun, and the track list has enough for everyone that they’ll enjoy it overall. So,  buy this game is you’re looking for a music based game that stands on its own in a single player sense but do not expect that getting 5 stars on all tracks will grant you access to a DJ booth at Ministry of Sound next to Luke Chable and Ozgur Can or convince Tiesto and Satoshi Tomiie to put your number on their speed dial anymore than mastering Rockband or Guitar Hero will get your name on the same stature list as Steve Vai or Darrell Abbot and Mick Fleetwood or Neil Peart.  If you’re looking to be a real DJ, then I’d suggest saving your money and buying real equipment, perhaps Native Instruments Traktor or Decadance from Image Line (but be sure to have set aside around $2000 or more)and go from there. DJ Hero is a game (not that anyone claims differently), and a good one, but it’s not anything close to ‘real’ in terms of actually DJing or the feel of it – not yet anyway other than very basic operation. We’ll see what Activision and Red Octane piece together next time around or if Harmonix has a response pending the titles success.  Until then I’m going to enjoy DJ Hero for what it is and have a load of fun doing so.

My only question now is:

Will the Guitar Hero series begin to have tracks from bands that include the talents of a DJ, like 311, Portistead, Crazy Town and Limp Bizkit? I hope so since it would strengthen the franchise and represent a wider array of music to a broader audience at little cost to Activision while increasing profitability and appeal to a wider audience.