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Critical Reception: Activision & FreeStyleGames' DJ Hero

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Activision's turntable-based Guitar Hero spinoff DJ Hero, which reviews describe as "a new beginning for the music genre."

Danny Cowan, Blogger

October 29, 2009

5 Min Read

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Activision's turntable-based Guitar Hero spinoff DJ Hero, which reviews describe as "a new beginning for the music genre." DJ Hero currently earns a score of 85 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. Game Informer's Matt Helgeson rates DJ Hero at 9 out of 10. "Activision has taken a lot of heat in gamer circles for its perceived shameless exploitation of the Guitar Hero franchise," he admits. "Against this backdrop, DJ Hero is an even more impressive feat of game development." Helgeson continues: "Not only does it succeed in being much more than a cheap cash-in on the Hero brand, it's the most innovative and inspired new music title since the original Rock Band." Helgeson describes DJ Hero's gameplay as a complex reworking of Guitar Hero's "gems and runway" setup. "The turntable and its three face buttons handle the cuts, scratches, and rewind effects that cascade down the three-track runway," he explains. "But the real challenge comes from using the crossfader to switch rapidly between different samples when a track makes an immediate left or right turn on the two outside tracks." The new gameplay style is very challenging initially. "At first it's like trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time, but the learning curve should be manageable for most music game fans," Helgeson assures. "However, some expert Guitar Hero players will have to swallow their pride and start on the medium difficulty." Helgeson also describes DJ Hero's soundtrack as a high point. "I'm hooked on DJ Hero," he notes in conclusion. "In many ways, it feels like a new beginning for the music genre. Freestyle Games has pulled off an impressive trick, crafting a game that holds true to its sister franchise while at the same time putting a unique spin on both the gameplay and the music." Wired's Gus Mastrapa scores DJ Hero at 8 out of 10. "Guitar Hero has always displayed a certain reverence toward music," he begins. "Players can fail if they don't re-create guitar gods' every hammer-on and power chord with complete accuracy." "DJ Hero has no such qualms," he explains. "The game isn't about slavish devotion to original recordings. It's about the power of the DJ to transform." DJ Hero's gameplay focus is reflected in its soundtrack, which consists entirely of remixes. "The music in DJ Hero isn't even songs so much as mashups -- two tracks laid parallel, then chopped and screwed with into a new, frequently lively whole," Mastrapa writes. "The best of the bunch is a fusion of Daft Punk and Queen that melds two anthems into one: 'We Will Robot Rock You.'" Mastrapa finds that the Guitar Hero crossover tracks fall flat, however. "A select few mixes allow a heroic 'guitarist' to plug in their plastic ax and jam along with the DJ," he says. "Trouble is, these mixes are uniformly terrible -- particularly a pointless pairing of The Beastie Boys and The Foo Fighters. The Beasties, early practitioners of the rock-rap hybrid (and the unlicensed sample), are woefully misused here; the game favors newer, less potent work rather than the group's early masterpieces." Overall, though, Mastrapa feels that the game succeeds. "If one kid gains a curiosity for David Axelrod or feels the thrill of cutting the profanity out of an Eminem track with a flick of the crossfader, then the game has accomplished its postmodern mission," he says. "DJ Hero takes music off the pedestal and encourages gamers to play with it until we've made it something new." At 1UP.com, Richard Li gives DJ Hero a B grade, noting that despite many standout mixes, much of the tracklist fails to impress. "Fifty-six songs into DJ Hero, I finally found my groove," he writes. "Daft Punk's superb Record Bag set came on screen, dropping a collection of eight, wonderfully crafted songs that mixed Daft Punk with the likes of Gary Numan, No Doubt, Young MC, and Queen. The music was infectious; the note layout finely constructed and engrossing." "Then, after Daft Punk played their last song, my groove waned," Li explains. "I wasn't feeling it. The Born to Rock set following Daft Punk was horrible, starring a rancid mash-up of Motorhead, Foo Fighters, and Public Enemy that attempted to mix Rock with Rap, but failed to move beyond derivative and linear song progression." This inconsistency ultimately harms the game's appeal. "Although the talent is stunning, the song sets are largely inconsistent (the game is divided into sets, with each artist representing one set that ranges from two to eight songs)," Li says. "The later parts of DJ Hero eclipse the first half in quality, where song selection bounces between mediocrity (Dizzee Rascal/DJ Shadow on 'Hip Hop Rules') and terrible (The Jackson 5/Third Eye Blind on 'Digging Deeper'), with the rare spurt of brilliance (Gwen Stefani/Rick James on 'On the Wheels of Steel')." Li also finds issue with the game's turntable peripheral. "Despite the controller's accessibility, if DJ Hero gets a sequel, the hardware needs a redesign," he notes. "For optimal performance, I had to make my own crude modifications to the Renegade version's deck. First, the fader on the mixer has too much space to operate, which I improved by attaching gaff tape to both ends. This restricted its movement to just the right amount, and improved my score (and overall experience) dramatically." Turntable control is also never addressed in the game itself. "The tutorials, both beginner and advanced, don't mention any tips for turntable control -- which is a shame, since learning the pinky technique helped me nail those difficult scratch combinations," Li says. "For such a large investment, DJ Hero's hardware should have been better designed." "DJ Hero attempts to mold turntablism into a mainstream medium. It succeeds, but stumbles along the way," Li concludes. "DJ Hero's debut is noteworthy, but there's much work to be done for the follow-up."

About the Author(s)

Danny Cowan


Danny Cowan is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist for Gamasutra and its subsites. Previously, he has written reviews and feature articles for gaming publications including 1UP.com, GamePro, and Hardcore Gamer Magazine.

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