All of my appointments on my final day at gamescom 2009 were with Activision, and although my body was shattered from several days of lugging the heavy camera rig around from video interview to video interview, my spirit remained unbroken. The DJ Hero booth was by far the darkest, hottest and most cramped of any I had been in, but nonetheless I was determined to have a good go on it this time.
A quick show of hands revealed that most of the journalists in the demo room had tried a level or two on DJ Hero - there was a demo stand in Activision's press area that gave passers by the chance to have a quick blast with the funky peripheral. Initially a little apprehensive of embarrassing myself not two minutes after walking into the room, I let one of the other journalists have the first go. The song: Tears For Fears' Shout mixed with Eric Prydz's Pjanoo. He nails the mix, on hard difficulty no less. Time to swallow my pride and step up.
Let it be said straight off the bat that I am not a DJ and I have only once or twice even tried to use vinyl decks. In fact I can only think of a handful of people that have even shown any interest in DJing, something that I have always considered to be a potential Achilles heel for this title. Nonetheless I was familiar with the concept, and with the E3 preview still fresh in my mind I felt reasonably confident that a spark of rhythm would ignite my inner mix master.
For me it was going to be Jackson 5 - I Want You Back vs. Jay-Z - Izzo, a funky, albeit slightly more forgiving mix that I would be dipping my toe in with. With the guitar hero controller it was always glaringly obvious how to grasp the plastic instrument; right hand on the strum switch, left hand on the buttons. So before the song began, my hands defaulted to finding that comfortable position that the pros seemed to find so naturally. The thing with the DJ Hero controller is that there are a lot more fiddly buttons, knobs and sliders than all the other Hero peripherals put together. The three coloured buttons that represent the highway tracks are on a full 360 rotating turn table, while the left hand chooses between the cross fader, the euphoria button and the effects dial.
After a quick 30 second schooling on my grip, DJ Hero began to make a bit more sense. On the right hand your index, middle and ring fingers rest on the buttons respectively from left to right. Most importantly, your right thumb needs to rest on the edge of the turn table so that as you scratch the buttons don't simply fly out from under your finger tips, a lesson I should have paid more attention to. Your left hand sits predominantly over the cross fader, moving up only to change effects styles and hit the euphoria button on occasion. The song begins.
Like most of the tracks, it begins with a few simple button presses as the mix warms up. In this regard it's exactly the same as Guitar Hero, except there's no strumming action - just button pushing. When the beat kicks in the controls begin to liven up, with the cross fader and turn table coming into play as well. Scratches only appear on the left (green) and right (blue) channels on the highway, representing the two tracks that are being mixed together, and to the same effect it's where you will see the cross fader indications with the highway darting sharply to the right or left. The red track in the centre indicates audio bites and effects that have been specifically chosen for the mix, and the player is given the chance to drop their choice of effect in at certain points throughout the tune.
I almost immediately forgot about my right thumb placement, the buttons slipping from under my fingers on the first scratch attempt, but I quickly recovered - lesson learned. Fortunately the scratches are actually pre-recorded and are simply activated by the movement of your hand. I dread to think what they might have sounded like otherwise, but the hardest task is actually finding the centre point for the cross fader. Moving slowly it's easy to find the little stop point in the middle, but in the heat of the song it's a bit too easy to skip right over it, plummeting your song into near silence.
While the appearance of a thick bar on the green and blue tracks indicates a scratch, on the red bar it's a chance to show some artistic flare and drop in a sample of your own. You have a choice of five per mix, specially selected by the Freestyle Games re-mixer so it's guaranteed to fit the tune. Rotating the effects dial pulls up the short list and chooses your sound bite, but somehow I kept choosing the same "Check this out!" sound over and over, to the point where I actually stopped using the effects altogether out of sheer annoyance.
Even though Guitar and DJ Hero are similar in principal, they actually play quite differently. The big challenge in Guitar Hero is in always pressing the string of buttons at the right time, with the difficulty levels only influencing the button count and highway speed. Of course the same principal of 'more' and 'faster' still applies to DJ Hero, but there is much more of a rub-your-belly pat-your-head affair going on. You'll be busy timing your button presses and dropping in some scratches on the same hand, while switching between tracks on the cross fader with your left hand, and somehow finding an opportunity to hit the euphoria button and effects dial when you need to. Juggling this cacophony of instructions looks pretty intimidating - this is going to be a game that takes some mastering. Initially it feels clumsy, and I can only assume that time and practise is the only remedy to this. Luckily for me the medium difficulty was kind enough to see me through to the end without too many hiccups.
Visually, the game has that same colourful and vibrant charm as all the other Hero titles, and the broad spectrum of music includes genres like hip hop, techno, electro, soul and rock. I would almost say it's nice to see a Hero game that doesn't use a guitar for the first time, but Activision has even managed to shoehorn one of those in for ten of the multiplayer tracks - and it works. Overall, though, it was a pretty excellent three or four minutes I had on the game, and I'll be kicking it up to hard next time for sure.
If you want more on DJ Hero, check out our E3 presentation video where the guys from Freestyle Games show us how it all works.
DJ Hero is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, PS2 and Wii this year.