DJ Hero (Xbox 360)
It's 2009 and our heroes aren't on television. Instead, they are ours to control -- as avatars standing on a living-room stage; streaming down the note "highways" of Guitar Hero and DJ Hero.
DJ Hero might inspire newcomers to the culture to pick up a turntable or two. But it's really a love letter to those of us who did grow up idolizing the DJ in the booth rather than the musician in the band. In DJ Hero you have a turntable and mixer, not a guitar and drums; and you play "mixes," not songs. So Marvin Gaye sings with David Bowie, Jay-Z and Pharrell meet Rick James, Gary Numan gets filtered through Daft Punk, etc.
It sounds like a gimmick, but it's one crucial distinction that the game got right before you ever laid hands on it. DJs play other people's songs, sure. They play them with each other -- turning two songs into one, and then four and six and 20 songs into one. With a single exception, you never play one song at a time in DJ Hero.
This isn't the first rhythm game based on hip-hop and dance music. Konami's Beatmania bound players to the beat via a turntable-like controller. But while Beatmania was all about the rhythm of the dance, DJ Hero is descended from rock games like The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero: Metallica, games made for idol worship. Like them, DJ Hero wants you to feel like the real thing. So it gives you a controller that looks just like a Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable next to a Vestax PMC-06 Pro mixer. And it puts you on stage as a fashionable, fast-fingered, fist-pumping DJ. And it has you playing these mixes, and rewinding your deck with a flick of your wrist, and there's wildstyle splattered all over the game's interface.
From its mimetic interface to its booming A/V authenticity, DJ Hero is Rock Band reshaped in the DJ's image -- an image that is itself a mashup of various ideas of what a DJ is. In the five or six hours it takes you to cut and scratch through the game's sets, you'll be (sometimes from one second to the next) a turntablist cutting up beats and pieces, a digital prodigy weaving a mashup on the fly, a big-room rave DJ dropping anthems at peak hours, even a band partner to a bouncy girl in a bikini and platform heels playing guitar.
Maybe DJ Hero tries a little too hard to sell itself to the rock crowd. Or, at least, to those masses for whom being a musician means being up there, on stage, blowing your fans and friends and family away with theatrics and technical skill.
You'll perform an astonishing number of feats in DJ Hero, following an astonishingly dense stream of cues on its "highway," which looks like a spinning vinyl record. The things you do with DJ Hero's controller far outnumber those you do on a plastic guitar or drum kit. There's scratching the record back and forth, and flicking the crossfader (the switch on the mixer) left and right to change tracks. There's tapping the three buttons on the record to trigger sounds. (Note to the MP3 generation: Real records don't have any buttons. Or touch-screens.)
There's training yourself to only scratch the record up or down at the right moments, twisting a knob to tweak the track during "freestyle" sections (not as exciting as it sounds), rewinding part of the track to get more points, and pushing a big, blinking red button to activate Euphoria, the game's version of Star Power. The crowd goes wild and the DJ raises the roof. It shouldn't be that easy. But DJ Hero is otherwise thick with gameplay, and especially brutal on Hard or Expert.
It's in its free-flowing iconography of scratches, cuts, fades and taps that DJ Hero writes out its manual for how to be a DJ.
But what does it really mean to be the DJ in this game?
It starts with moving the record back and forth. In the game, this means pressing one of the buttons on the controller's record and moving it back and forth. Unfortunately, scratching isn't easy in DJ Hero. The game suggests you place your thumb on the platter as you scratch, because it's hard to spin the record with just one finger, especially on the button closest to the center.
Your first impulse will be to scratch fast, which isn't worth the effort. It doesn't matter how fast you scratch -- the game just needs to know you are moving the record back and forth. So DJ Z-Trip's extended scratch patterns, in reality a complex sequence of movements, can be performed with just a lackadaisical rub of the platter, like brushing dirt off your shoulder. All the scratches can be performed with this same lazy, back-and-forth rub.
This makes the game much more playable, in the end. But it's an empty imitation. You're just going through the motions. Maybe you're playing DJ Hero at a party. But you're not in that party, helping clubbers get off to Justice.
Music games in 2009 are about creating a likeness. You don't find that in DJ Hero's lifeless computerized crowd -- the reason the DJ is there in the first place -- and you don't find it by moving the record back and forth. Pressing buttons on a plastic guitar is close enough to the real thing. But pressing buttons to rotate a plastic record doesn't feel very intuitive or fun.
Scratch here, tap there. At every other second the game asks you to do something that says, "I'm a DJ," and it can be hard to hear the music over all the mandatory tapping and scratching. DJing is about responding to the music; DJ Hero is about responding to the machine.
This is an elaborate pantomime. For example: Notice that there is no needle on the record on-screen. What is generating the music? You are, cued by the game. You're not a DJ, you're the apparatus.
It starts with moving the fader back and forth. Your very first set has you mixing "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" by Bobby Bland with "Fuzz and Them" by Connie Price & The Keystones. The two songs quickly blur into one. Then the glowing green and blue lines on the record diverge. When you ram the crossfader to the right, you cut out Bobby Bland's crooning to expose the crackling drum backbone of "Fuzz and Them." The change in the music is like falling into a trapdoor. You bring the fader back to middle, then flick it to the left. Just then, the "Ain't No Love" melody twangs out in response.
The act of cutting from one song to the other in DJ Hero must be the greatest hat trick in music games to date. Because cutting -- emphasizing the right parts of the right song at just the right time in the mix -- feels no different than it would in reality.
Of course, the game tells you when it's right to cut. But it's a rich illusion. You're only going through the motions. You're thankfully not lugging records to the venue in a case with wheels and having people come up to the booth and ask you to play something they can dance to. You're the only one dancing.
Your favorite records are readymades, dug up and beatmatched for your convenience so that you can get straight to the cutups. It's hard to argue with the choices that were made. Dizzee Rascal raps classic bars over vintage DJ Shadow. N.E.R.D. rocks with Herbie Hancock. The Jackson 5 unites with Third Eye Blind. No, scratch that one.
You may not generate the music, but when DJ Hero is at its best, you inhabit the music. The notes keep coming. You follow the cues and watch songs you know by heart being deconstructed before your eyes; beats into buttons, rhythms into shifting lines. Scratch here, tap there. Then cut.
DJ Hero wasn't built to be a simulator, so it takes creative liberties with its interface. The buttons on the record are often synced with voices and instruments in the source material. So you're not only spinning records. You're playing along with the original musicians, too. That's a level of participation few DJs other than Kid Koala can boast.
Cuttin' and scratchin' ? one, two, three
It starts in the bedroom. Grandmaster Flash is your tutor in DJ Hero basics. He explains the arrows and lines that move back and forth. It's a cryptic river of information.
It was midway through DJ Hero, at the peak of the first Daft Punk megamix, that I stopped seeing the notes on the spinning record as a series of instructions. Instead, I started to see them as a form of language -- as an attempt by the programmers, artists and DJs behind the game to communicate something to us. Daft Punk's drum machines were firing at full volume. Notes dotted the stream like bolts on the side of a plane. The glowing lines swerved left and right like a square wave. Daft Punk's mix didn't look anything like anyone else's mix. It looked like the thought process of a robot.
DJ Hero wants to put you in a DJ mindset. It's desperate to show the masses that DJing is a valid form of music. How much it convinces you will largely depend on what parts you choose to emphasize. The failed promise of scratching is offset by the genuine thrill of making songs speak to each other. The focus on superstardom is humbled by the game's ambitious attempt to boil the richness of DJing down into a handful of gestures.
For the converted, though, DJ Hero is like finding a new record. It's an instant source of inspiration.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.