This is the story of the world’s most honest rhythm game. The popularity that music games have enjoyed in the last few years rests upon their central conceit, a contract established with the player that is simultaneously sublime and silly: that by picking up a downscaled plastic (toy) instrument, you too can live the dream. You can stand in your living room, in your undies, if that’s how you roll, and pretend you’re a rock star while virtual crowds cheer you on. It’s the lie inherent in that which even people who love these games have to laugh at; that pressing buttons on a specially-shaped controller is supposed to in any way really equate to the act of performing music.
With the exception of the simulated drumkits in Rock Band and Guitar Hero World Tour, music games have remained relatively dishonest about how much like the real thing their play mechanics are. It’s all artfully orchestrated to make you feel real; and that’s not a criticism. That’s what all video games do, in their own way, each to its own degree. Sometimes, simulated hyper-reality can feel better than the real thing, and let you do things you couldn’t do in real life if you tried. Then there’s DJ Hero.
Take These Broken Wings
What a traditional DJ does is to take someone else’s content and make a unique performance out of presenting it in a new way. And God said “let there be mash-ups and scratch”. The mechanics of DJ Hero are, by providence and design, far closer to what a real DJ uses in his art, from a pure play mechanic point of view. But metaphorically, the process of mixing and mashing is also much closer to what a player does in a game world simulation than something like Guitar Hero is to actually being Van Halen.
What FreeStyleGames has done is to design a very good, though not flawless, experience around the fateful similarity of the DJ to the gamer. Perhaps because it’s more honest about, and closer to, the activity it represents, the gameplay concepts feel more relevant; less fake, less arbitrary. There’s an intensity in playing DJ Hero that arguably goes beyond the Plastic Guitar games in terms of the euphoria and sense of “being there”. Will Townsend, DJ Hero producer, said that he wanted to capture the rush that a DJ feels on stage and at the center of the party; it’s an experience unique from any other kind of musical performance. See more about how the hardware in DJ Hero accomplishes this in the controller section. It’s really not business as usual.
Hear The Voices Sing
But that’s the thing about music games: ultimately, they’re only as good as the music they offer. That’s where DJ Hero’s other shoe drops and the second half of what makes it a unique experience falls into place. Understand that in DJ Hero you’re not playing along to a collection of popular and classic music that you already know and love: here you are presented with a whopping 93 new, original works that you’ve never heard before this game came into existence. That’s what the “mash-up” has brought to the game – the 102 licensed music tracks in DJ Hero are remixed into new works, and the fundamental nature of what a mash-up is gives DJ Hero much of its flavor. Compared to the stately, cautious reverence that rock-oriented games display towards their meticulously converted and presented songs, mash-ups throw dignity to the wind. They’re sarcastic. Playful. Satirical. Wildly inventive. They were what people got their jollies from pop culture with before there was YouTube.
DJ Hero shamelessly wallows in that playful irreverence. Coming directly out of recent music games such as The Beatles: Rock Band, that turns out to be a stunning breath of fresh air. The wild CG intro to the game reflects this, depicting a gigantic alien record player’s boom arm destroying a hip-hop flavoured city as teams of brave DJs fight to stop it with the power of scratching and feedback loops. DJ Hero has a permanent smirk on its face, but it’s not shallow and calorie-free satire. There’s still an appreciation for the source material here – just no worship at the altar. (Unless you’re referring to the Daft Punk appearances in the game, who practically oversee the festivities as bio-mechanical patron saints of the mix-board.)
And after all that, yes: the soundtrack rocks in a massive way. The source track selections are virtually perfect, and the mixes between them are pristine and creative, full of originality and energy. Some combinations will drop your jaw with the insanity of what songs are combined, only to result in the best mash-up beats you’ve ever heard. It really is the finest rhythm game soundtrack of the year, hands down – even the Beatles must step to the side, even if only slightly. And just to confirm, yes: there are 11 Daft Punk songs, a Daft Punk arena, and the electronic duo are actual characters you can select for yourself. The very fact that all this still doesn’t make DJ Hero feel like Daft Punk Hero is a testament to the gobs of music that’s here.