Thursday, October 28, 2010

They spinnin' - DJ Hero 2 Review

DJ Hero 2 is amazing.

You knew I was going to say that though, and it's funny how long I've come in a little over a year. Originally a detractor, turned fan, turned high ranking leaderboard jockey (I was in the top 5 on the leaderboards for a spell), it's safe to say that the unique, aurally innovative title got it's hooks into me and refused to let go.

When say that it refused though, I mean it. I've been across the original's 93 song list on Expert with 5 stars and beyond, purchased every DLC pack doing the same, and spread the love amongst my friends, hooking them as well and letting them know that an oversaturation of plastic instruments in the market did -not- mean that the music genre played not by only one note but by several, just cut and mashed to perfection. It wasn't the most social game however, with most sessions being limited to 1 on 1 battles people didn't want to engage in (especially with me), and an incredibly steep asking price turning others off (It went for $129 and $199 respectively..)

A year, and a reduced price later, the release of its sequel boasts not only a near equal number of new mixes, but a new career mode, expansions on the old gameplay, and a new social component that not only brings with it a new way to play with friends with new multiplayer options, but adds a Facebook-esque persistence to the whole online endeavor as well. Does it hold up though? Or--

Wait, are you kidding?

This is really how a sequel should feel.

Several stylized corporate logos in, and the sense of "new" is immediately evident. A new, sleek porcelain menu replaces the gaudy graffiti-like club flyer interface of the first game, a Facebook-like news feed pops up and replaces the ignorable RSS-like feed from the first game, and everything just looks and feels nicer. The visuals, the animations, everything combines to pull off a convincing club atmosphere, down to the crowd chiming in during mixes. This complete visual package carries over into the UI as well, as notes pop off the screen more than the original, the gauges and icons are larger and more prominent, and the star meter has recieved an upgrade as well. In some ways, because of these changes, it feels like more of a reboot than a sequel to the original.

The game starts you off asking if you'd like to view the tutorial, veteran or no, and with good reason. At first glance, the gameplay at first glance looks mostly unchanged, but slowly, the differences start to creep in. Vocals replace the terrible Guitar Hero mixes from the first with special attention to pitch for harmonizing and cadence for rapping/speaking, but it's really playing second fiddle to the main feature. In DJ Hero, with turntable in hand, you're tasked with crossfading, sampling, and scratching between two tracks to the beat of the music as gems and icons fall down a track shaped like a record. Much of that is still the same, but with all new held taps and long arrows during scratches that require you to hold a button and drag the turntable in a certain direction. If that sounds too boring and familiar for real change, fret not, because a whole new degree of user freedom has been injected into the mix.

At first, it's something strange and awkward, but after a few mixes, experimentation kicks in and you're left wondering why something so open ended and natural wasn't added before. Every track now has freestyle crossfade sections that let you mess around with one or both tracks at the same time, along with samples that change dynamically during the song (no more out of context YEEEEAAAAHH BOOOOYEEEE in every mix), and scratches whose tempo and duration are left up to your own creativity. It's something that makes the songs sound like they're truly under your control and practically ensures that any two people playing a mix won't have the exact same result. As you can imagine, all these new additions rear their heads constantly and to a point, simultaneously on higher difficulties.and if you thought "Groundhog" in the first game was difficult, prepare to have your fingers and wrists destroyed by what they have in store here. It's no stretch to say that the difficulty has increased, but with all the new additions feeling more natural than overbearing, the songs are still a blast whether you're a tried and true vet, or just a beginner.

Navigating the sleek new menus, there's a new option right underneath quickplay, and it's the meat of the single-player experience found within. Dubbed "Empire", it's starts you off naming your own party spot, picking a DJ, and traveling around the world mixing and battling others in a bid to build a virtual empire with you at the center. Along with some very cool intros from each venue seguing into phenomenal new megamixes (continuous sets of 3-4 songs blended together into one huge mix), there are setlists to complete, one on one battles to win, and many, many new things to earn on the way to the top. If only the "top" didn't lie in theory.

I say in theory because really, if there's any complaints to be had about Empire mode, it's that the feeling of being an up-and-coming DJ building a superclub from scratch is surprisingly absent. Yes, you start out picking a DJ, naming your club, and starting out in Ibiza of all places for your first set, but it's a red herring of a setup that ultimately doesn't deliver. You end up spinning in several venues across the world, go toe to toe with DJ superstars and amateurs alike, but it simply doesn't feel like it goes anywhere by the conclusion. There's no management to be seen, no money to earn from playing sets, no crowds to manage as a barometer for your own club's success, hell, even customization of your avatar is limited to a few predetermined costumes. It's a bit of a missed opportunity, and it's not something that ruins the career, but the potential in customizing and expanding your own party spot (or being able to create your own venue) is hopefully something that'll be explored in future DJ Hero games. As it stands, Empire is little more than a new coat of paint on the challenge based structure of last year's game.

Somewhat making up for this though, are the varied community options available. Every significant action you take, from making into a certain bracket on the leaderboards, to completing a challenge in empire, gets reported in a "Hero Feed" that shows up on all your friend's screens via pop up like Twitter. Challenging a friend's dominance in a particular song is a button press away from a notification, and the upgrade to the star meter I mentioned earlier? It now dynamically lists your friend's gamertags in order of high score, and you can either come close to or knock them off their pedestal in real time. It's a small tweak that goes a long way in making the game's userbase seem consistently alive. Fansites like Scorehero have been doing this since the release of the original Guitar Hero, but to see it seamlessly woven in here is a sign of progress.

The multitude of modes injected into the multiplayer do well to inject some much needed life into the original and its boring score battles, addressing a chief complaint about the first having very little to do when a second turntable is in play. There are star battles as before, though now you can steal rewinds and freeze the other player's track, accumulator and streak battles for you to compete on a technical level, DJ battles on special versus tracks that leverage speed and skill over scores, and more. Better still, a Call of Duty like experience and rewards system was added as well, and there are a ton of levels, icons, and titles to unlock on the road to the top. Playing constantly to get a higher score was the most addictive thing about the original, and with all these new features (including issuing challenges to friends after a mix), it ends up feeling more like an Empire mode than the actual game.

My small complaint about the career doesn't detract from the true backbone of this game though, and it's in the game's phenomenal soundtrack that DJ Hero 2 ultimately delivers. The first soundtrack was mostly composed of hip-hop, R&B, and a smattering of electro and techno. Things haven't changed drastically for the second,but things are more eclectic this time, with a broader range indulging disco, trance, house , reggae, and even current pop hits for this intallment. There are overall less mixes than the last game, but it's a moot point. Ever wonder what Kanye West's "Heartless" would sound like mixed with Lady GaGa's "Lovegame"? How about Sean Paul's "Get Busy"mixed with Harold Faltermeyer's iconic "Axel F"? Busta Rhymes vs. House of Pain? Once again, the game boasts an absolutely amazing soundtrack of mashups that'll have you scratching your head when read on paper, then dancing when you actually end up hearing them. The aformentioned megamixes of several of these tracks are a welcome addition the package as well, not only do they nail the seamless transitions between tracks that's normally common in turntablism, but they are an absolute knockout as well. One can only hope that they make it into the next game in a broader form, or that they at least become front and center during the deluge of generous DLC the developers have planned in the upcoming months.

It was a bit tough writing this review to be honest. I have a very strong love for this game, and it took a great deal of effort to simply not fanboy myself all over the place, but at the end of the day my original statement still stands. This game is amazing. The additions and refinements echo a developer who clearly listens to their fanbase, the game was made more challenging without sacrificing fun, the multiplayer is fun, and somehow, they managed to trump the first game's soundtrack with one that's even better, and arguably without peer in the genre.

Yes, even with Rock Band 3 on the horizon.

It's that real.

Why are you still here? You should be playing this. Now.

No comments:

Post a Comment