DJ Hero 2 is cool. I'm definitely not, but when I'm spinning around its plastic turntable I feel like I'm trendier than a Superdry jacket.
Still, though, it can feel like FreeStyleGames faces an uphill struggle: it's far too easy for cynics to decry the whole experience. And it's not hard to see why. The rhythm game market is in steep decline and, for all FreeStyleGames' considerable efforts to stay fresh, all it takes is a cursory glance at prior Guitar Heroes (though it must be said this year's looks like a return to form) to see the unpalatable homogenisation of a series - and by extension, a genre - as it struggles to keep slapping in new features on a year by year basis.
At least the developers at FreeStyleGames are buoyed by their relative newcomer status, though ask them what it's like to be the plucky underdog of the rhythm genre and they'll tell you they've been developing for almost eight years. Unlike them, though, I don't really count B-Boy and Buzz! Junior: Monster Rumble as proper games. DJ Hero, however, got me to fork out a large amount of money on a plastic turntable and love them for it.
There's a reason it works, you see. The actual, deeper experience of the game is far greater than simply hitting on-screen notes in time to some funky music: it's the synaesthesia of the turntable and the shifting music as you glide the crossfader from left to right; the feel of the bass rippling through your body as you hit the coloured keys; and, like a moth to a flame, the pulsating rhythm of the neon lightshow disguising the fact you're sitting with a plastic toy on your lap in the living room.
The fact the original was so good is one of the reasons FreeStyleGames remains upbeat. Based out of a little office complex in Leamington Spa, everyone at the studio is still perky as Autumn rolls in - the game's out in just under a month and they've recently held their (allegedly messy) wrap party. Jamie Jackson, DJ Hero 2's Creative Director, claims to have kept the formula that saw critics (and Seb Ford) rave over the original, despite DJ Hero 2 having an exceptionally tight 11-month development window.
How, then? It's done primarily by FreeStyleGames taking a committed stance to the belief that the original was pretty decent to begin with, actually. There are no great, sweeping changes or redesigned blobs of hardware that prophesise the next best way to play. Instead, there are simply some incremental (but important) tweaks, some new multiplayer modes and a 100-odd strong tracklist to get through. Don't underestimate those features; DJ Hero 2 has the potential to be huge.
First and foremost, the music selection is a particularly deft choice. Worried that the original's mix of hip hop, electro and motown might have turned people away, FreeStyleGames now has the money and the clout to draw in some bigger, mainstream artists. Lady Gaga, for instance, is so hot right now she could take a crap, wrap it in tinfoil, put a couple fish hooks on it and sell it to Queen Elizabeth as earrings. She's in. But everyone knows that: it's been plastered all over the hype express for the past few months.
Then there's the also-publicised Deadmau5 inclusion. He gets his own megamix, though I wasn't allowed to play past a few tracks because other people wanted a go. Jerks. Still, breezing through I Remember was ace.
Even more interesting, at least to me, was D.A.N.C.E. by Justice (getting on a bit now, but still great), an in-house remix of MSTRKRFT's Bounce and a mash-up of Edwin Starr - War with Stevie Wonder - Superstition. Oh, and House of Pain. House of Pain! The oldies (as in, pre-millennium) were the least popular tracks in the original (FreeStyleGames has technology which can tell what's being played) but there's still plenty to be had; the studio loves them too much to not work on them.
Certain tracks will pop up in various guises, though the repetition seems to be less obnoxious than in the original - far fewer instances of Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl, basically. Held directional scratches have been added to spice up the mix, and the new freestyle sections - allowing far greater control over the sound of the mix - work to make the player feel more connected to the music. It's a little touch, but it goes a long way.
Then there's multiplayer. Poorly implemented and overlooked in the original, a new suite of modes have been created to encourage party play. Cut and paste battles are the primary inclusion, allowing back-and-forth (think Run DMC) sections with custom mixes made exclusively for the mode. It's a lot of fun, tougher than the standard competitive Guitar Hero and Rock Band modes because you're aware all eyes are on you as you struggle to keep up on your sections.
Another mode is accumulator, which functions as a DJ version of The Weakest Link: you have to 'bank' your streak else lose it when you miss a note. It's a fairly hardcore mode as it requires a lot of skill, not to mention the inevitable frustration from missing a key means it won't work too well in a party environment (when you've had a few beers). Checkpoint is slightly more relaxed, and has you duelling to rack up the most score across sections of each track.
Again, these modes are incremental additions rather than revolutionary new features. DJ Hero 2 isn't trying to reinvent the turntable, but by keeping the range of options consistent and adding in an impressively bulging tracklist, FreeStyleGames is creating a very promising sequel. Make no mistake, this could quite easily be the defining moment for the series.
DJ Hero 2 is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii on October 22.