Review: DJ Hero 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

DJ Hero 2
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Freestyle Games
Genre: Rhythm
Release Date: 10/19/2010

With players swimming in a sea of band games in 2009, it wasn’t hard for DJ Hero to stick out and cement itself as one of the few bright spots in rhythm gaming for the year.

For a seasoned rhythm vet like myself, DJ Hero wasn’t a new concept as I thoroughly enjoy playing SEGA’s Crackin’ DJ series in the arcades and even imports such as the SEGA Saturn’s DJ Wars brought crossfading into the gameplay limelight. What I found enjoyable about DJ Hero was in the fact it finally made such concepts readily accessible, as even though the U.S. received a very lazy port of Beatmania IIDX, it just doesn’t tap the spirit of being a DJ, no matter how fun the series can be. The concept of mash-ups took the limelight and the constant fading and scratching really carved an identity for itself for U.S. gamers.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a follow-up one year later as DJ Hero 2 takes a spin on the wheels of steel. DJ Hero 2 isn’t trying to shake its format up drastically, giving players the same basic concept while adding in a few supplemental features such as expanded freestyling for fades and scratches, new multiplayer battle modes, continuous mixes, integrated microphone gameplay and a few other minor revamps to accompany another score of song mash-ups. Do these additions justify another DJ Hero release or is the honeymoon already over for the series?

After a pretty crazy opening video in the original title opens up some story possibilities, it’s kind of disappointing to see DJ Hero 2 continues to fall into the trap of featuring the most cliché story you can possibly place into a music game title – the unknown artist makes a name for themselves and plays in gradually more impressive venues until they reach the big time.

What this leads to in DJ Hero 2 is a “new and improved” Empire Mode, which is a linear slog through pre-set determinations of what the player will play. It definitely sets the pace nicely with some of the most appropriate difficulty progression I’ve seen lately in music video games, but it does nothing new for the genre and most players will be stuck playing through a chunk of songs they won’t care to. I’m all for music games that do not try to feature a story or gimmicky career as at times they are unnecessary, so I’m kind of placing DJ Hero 2 into this category. To the point, it doesn’t bother me, but the linearity and uninspiring progression does and I don’t find it to be either new or improved. Either way, the sequel’s battle modes and selection of nonstop mixes does slightly freshen up the lot, and these features can even be experienced on Xbox LIVE.

Sure, I’m being pretty tough on what was promised versus what was delivered, but, thankfully, FreeStyleGames were smart enough to build upon the two key reasons DJ Hero was essentially the only music game to care about in 2009: Sound and gameplay.

The concept of mash-ups is still exciting and seeing as DJ Hero 2 is the only place to hear these tunes, the game easily avoids the repetition and odd selections many long-running music games are starting to encounter. While a few mash-ups do seem like nothing more than an excuse to smash two popular songs together, there is a decent representation of genres that make sense for the title and the audio quality is as spectacular as one would expect. It’s a bit of a stretch to say the addition of the freestyling segments involving scratching and cross-fading ensures players hear “different mixes” each time, but while the mechanic might seem worthless to some players, it will certainly be an eager experiment for others. When you throw in the fact this installment offers up a handful of continuous mixes, which was certainly a “what the hell?” omission from the first game, the ears certainly get a nice treat as long as the player is already into or can accept the music styling.

Jumping from the first installment to its first sequel, DJ Hero also doesn’t miss a beat in its gameplay. Instead of fiddling around and pushing a new $50-60 controller on players, DJ Hero 2 plays nearly identical to the first with no new gimmicks made to the controllers. If you gave the first title a chance, there is little to be surprised by here as the taps, scratches and fades are represented faithfully in DJ Hero 2. While DJ Hero skills do not translate to actual disc jockeying skills, when you play DJ Hero on the turntable, it feels feasibly right, which makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

The game’s visuals also play into one of DJ Hero 2‘s other highlights, which is its natural flow. The menus are very clean and operate much simpler than in DJ Hero, which certainly serves as an improvement. In the gameplay, the camera uses a number of dynamic swoops and timely cuts to alternate between your DJ, the audience and stage dancers. It certainly works because these instances don’t miss a beat the music and while the graphics aren’t among the best on the system, but with the constant camera tricks, you don’t get much time to painstakingly observe anything. The characters are certainly stylish and there is no lack of animation in what is going on during gameplay, so, overall, the game looks great and its constant movement creates a very slick presentation.

That being said, DJ Hero 2 doesn’t get to walk away without a scratch.

Earlier, I mentioned a “what the hell?” omission from the first game that was remedied in DJ Hero 2, but the second major culprit still isn’t rectified here. In a game about turntablism, it is inconceivable there is no option to allow one player to utilize two turntables. While the casual player surely won’t sweat this detail, “doubles” players and those looking to get an enriched turntable experience are surely left scratching their heads for one more installment.

Next, the vocal gameplay aspect of the title feels incredibly tacked on and it just does not work in this type of game environment. In mixes where the vocals are constantly hacked up and jogged back, performing vocals in DJ Hero 2 can be very awkward (which, I guess could be funny if you’re watching someone trying to tackle this). I also wasn’t a fan of the way the vocals played out. Not only is there uncertainty in the lyrics unless you’ve played a mix over and over, but in certain phrases, the scrolling indicator moves by at the speed of light. While this mechanic does get a third person into the mix, I just found it to be incredibly unintuitive. There are essentially no options to select for the vocals gameplay, so it’s just kind of “there.” For a bullet point feature of a video game, this just didn’t slide for me.

Third, with the lowered novelty factor and the linear Empire Mode structure, my addictiveness really took a hit in DJ Hero 2. It only takes about four hours to blow through the mode and because of the setup I had to battle through songs I really didn’t want to play. The extra features in this sequel will probably give most players a little initial mileage out of the title than the first, but, compared to the first title, I was far too willing to set the turntable down and walk away. Most of “addiction” actually stemmed from the well-implemented social features that let me know when someone on my friends list needed a score-based beatdown. Much like in Warriors of Rock, I love the new Hero Feed and it is probably the best new feature I’ve seen implemented in music games this year.

This also ties into replayability. While, realistically, you could play the game infinitely and work on bettering your scores, I grew tired of the game fairly quick after unlocking everything I could through Empire Mode. The DLC mixes will further add to replayability, but this brings up another point I didn’t like when DJ Hero 2 launched – when I would select the DLC option, I just got a message that essentially stated “coming soon.” This felt kind of lazy to me, as the patch to throw your DJ Hero DLC over into DJ Hero 2 wasn’t even live at launch. While we now have a couple of packs and a suitable patch as of this writing, I just found it to be discouraging, especially since this installment wore out on me faster than the first.

Seeing as the achievements and overall DJ progression relies much more on online competition in this installment, I gave it a spin to mostly satisfying results. When it comes to battles, though, I am a bit confused on the scoring methodology, especially after a good friend of mine forwarded a screenshot of him perform at a higher difficulty and scoring one percentage accuracy higher than his opponent, only to still lose the match. Even some of CPU battle scoring seemed suspect to me, as I would hit everything in phrase only to not receive a 100% accuracy and lose the phrase. I know freestyling plays a part in this, but, every once in a while, the scoring seemed to play more favor than accuracy, which can be greatly annoying.

Even though I have list of minor complaints, this verdict still says DJ Hero 2 is a blast to play. The series continues to pick up the slack where many recent music titles are failing and FreeStyleGames didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken. While the Empire Mode is certainly a letdown and I would have to say the vocals gameplay is an outright failure, the meat of the game is still as tasty as ever and players get some nice presentation and original song mixes to boot.

The Scores
Story/Modes: ENJOYABLE
Graphics: VERY GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: VERY GOOD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal Factor: GREAT
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Short Attention Span Summary
If you need something new to do with those turntable controllers, DJ Hero 2 certainly won’t disappoint. FreeStyleGames didn’t rock the boat with the franchise, so everything there was to like about the first installment comes back with a fresh coat of paint. The biggest disappointment in the title is that some of the marquee features, such as the Empire Mode and vocals gameplay, just do not measure up, but if you’re here to keep spinning, scratching, tapping and fading, there is a lot to like with this sequel. The stellar gameplay is backed with great presentation and a sensible track list, but players will also dive through the initial content very quickly.



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