Rhythm games are older than most people seem to think. I've had a love affair with hitting notes to music ever since I learnt kicking and punching was all in the mind back in the late 90s. Parappa the Rapper might have been my first exposure to the genre, but afterwards I've gone on to enjoy the DDRs, DJ Portable MAXs and, yes, Rock Bands and Guitar Heroes of the world.
Enter holiday season 2010, and DJ Hero 2 is currently the freshest, purest rhythm action game on the market today. FreeStyleGames has picked up the baton dropped by the obscure (but lovable) Beatmania and neatly mixed it with the bright lights and flashing spectacle of Amplitude to create an experience so tightly packed with exciting button presses that you'll be permanently stuck within some kind of synaesthesia-addled bliss as soon as the turntable starts spinning.
Slicker presentation is noticeable before the needle drops, with an Apple-inspired industrialism instead of the original's cartoony graffiti. Dapper white menus let you fiddle with reams of options as you scroll through the list trying to find the mash-up of Edwin Starr's War with Stevie Wonder's Superstition, until you realise it needs to be unlocked first.
The soundtrack is absolutely pitch-perfect, and affords an incredible amount of versatility to the player. Its genre choices lean predominantly towards electro and mainstream hip-hop, with a little bit of pop and disco thrown in for flavour. That's fine by me, and plenty of the individual tracks mixed into the mash-ups are already bona fide floor-fillers.
Like the original, there's a very genuine thrill at working your way through the tracklist and experiencing the way the game cuts and scratches the bespoke mix. Because a little star power never hurt anybody, joining FreeStyleGames' considerable in-house talent are tailored mixes from, amongst others, RZA, DJ Qbert, Deadmau5 and David Guetta. They're all very good.
DJ Hero 2's most significant changes are, perhaps ironically, the ones that probably look the least important on the back of the box. A new freestyling system, for instance, replaces the crude implementation of the original - aka the YEEEA BOOOOI/F-F-F-FRESHHHHH button - and gives you complete control of the mix, sometimes for huge amounts of time, along with sound effects specific to each track. This has a significant impact on the overall game, and FreeStyleGames should be commended for magically coming up with something that allows idiotic tone-deaf people (like myself) to create freestyle sections that often sound fantastic.
New held notes also spice up the tracks, with long taps and extended directional scratches adding further levels of complexity to the game without sacrificing any accessibility. It's also a relief to see the game treat the player with a little more respect than before, allowing them to get straight into the game without faffing around with half an hour of forced tutorials.
DJ Hero 2 is also unafraid to throw most of these more advanced moves into lower difficulties, too, albeit in far less taxing situations. Make no mistake; this is a far more challenging game than the original. While there is still no penalty for failure other than finishing with a pathetic score, anyone dedicated to making their efforts sound decent will find themselves up against considerable opposition on the higher difficulties.
Empire mode, the game's rejuvenated single-player campaign, is nicely crafted fluff. Existing concurrently to Quickplay, it adds a little structure to track progression by attempting a mini-narrative of sorts. You're an aspiring DJ, basically, and you'll go from one stylish little club in Ibiza to six top-tier nightclubs all across the world - each more glamorous than anything reality could ever muster up. There's currently no word on whether or not FreeStyleGames will add in a mode where you sell out and slowly lose the respect of your fans after letting your work end up on one too many car adverts, but we can only hope.
You get to pick a club name and logo from a sparse selection of names (I went with Redemption), and this iconography is occasionally splattered around the game, but ultimately it's just a routine Career mode with a fresh lick of paint. While Empire might be functional and entertaining, it would have been nice to see more customisation options, perhaps, alongside giving players a modicum of choice every now and then as to what gets played - the problem is that it just never really feels like your empire.
More effort has been afforded to the competitive multiplayer modes. DJ Battles are impressive back-and-forth affairs, allowing two DJs to showboat their skills across specially crafted mixes, different for each player, while Checkpoint Battles and Accumulator have you trying to hit all the notes concurrently in the regular tracks.
The most advertised addition is probably the least significant. Vying for the kind of social environment enjoyed by Rock Band and Guitar Hero, DJ Hero now fancies itself as a party game. Two players can man their turntables for some co-op action, while a third person can take to any microphone and lay down some vocal.
Karaoke immediately hits a bum note, however, as convincing someone to sing along to a custom mash-up goes down faster than a lead balloon - these tunes hardly have the sing-along vibes of Bohemian Rhapsody or Livin' on a Prayer. The note detection and implementation are both fine, but their audience is almost non-existent and, more importantly, singing isn't playing to the game's strengths.
As for the two turntables, well, they do the job. Despite DJ Hero 2's best efforts, I'm still not entirely sold on the idea of using it as a party game: it just comes across as two people playing a single-player game while sitting next to each other.
There's no new equipment to buy, which is probably for the best considering the original's ludicrous price tag, although it's safe to say Activision won't be too upset if you went out and bagged yourself a couple of extra turntables. Anyone who's played a fair amount of DJ Hero over the last year will have probably warped his or her turntable a little bit, too, but that's okay - it's a sturdy piece of kit.
DJ Hero 2's multiplayer modes might not strike as anything special, although it is a social and accessible game, but the robust content is tailored to be the most hypnotic single-player rhythm game on the market. Where Guitar Hero is floundering, and Rock Band is now obsessed in becoming some kind of intricate musician's tool, DJ Hero 2 is happy with the beautiful, simple thrill of flashy, lightning-fast button presses in time with some fantastic music - the kind of thing which caused everybody to fall in love with rhythm games to begin with.