DJ Hero In-House Impressions

My experience with DJ Hero has always come in short little bursts, never affording me enough time to really play the game. Until now.

Yesterday a demo build of DJ Hero landed on my doorstep. The build features a short playable tutorial hosted by DJ Grandmaster Flash, three DJ-only mixes and a DJ-guitar mix. The game also includes three of the four difficulty settings and two avatars.

This is the build, Activision tells us, that will be showing up at kiosks in stores starting in October.

One of the most important things about DJ Hero, as with all music games, is its song selection. In the build I received I was able to play through mixes of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" vs. Gorillaz' "Feel Good Inc.", Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" vs. Rick Jamess "Give it to Me" and Benny Benassi's "Satisfaction" vs. Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow".

The DJ-Guitar mix was Beatie Boys "Sabotage" vs. Foo Fighters' "Monkey Wrench".

Gameplay, as DJ Grandmaster Flash points out, is broken down into three types of controls: Taps, cross-fading and scratching. Taps have you tapping one of three colored buttons in time with their appearance on the screen. Cross-fading has you moving a cross-fader switch between left, right and center to match the lines that flow between taps. Finally, scratching has you pressing a button and rubbing the turntable back and forth when a colored bar with the scratch symbol scrolls by.

At it's easiest setting, gamers won't have to worry about the cross-fader, which is certainly the most complex idea introduced to the rhythm game. Instead you will just have to tap in time and scratch when needed.

The medium and hard settings only vary by the mix of taps, scratches and cross-fades. I found medium to be fairly easy, while hard was a bit of a challenge. Expert, I suspect, will be the mode most people familiar with the concept of rhythm games will quickly turn.

Which raises my first concern about the game. Is it too easy?

The thing that keeps me playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band isn't just the fun of jamming along to music I know and love, it's also the idea that there's still plenty more to master. I'm a medium to hard level player on those games. I'm fine with the four buttons of the guitar, but that fifth button, it freaks me out. And I know it's there, waiting for me to master.

Not so with DJ Hero. While the game gets more complex, the tapping rhythms more intricate and cross-fades faster, after you move past the easy setting there are no more elements to introduce. No addition of extra buttons or movements you have to learn. (Ed's note: Mike tells me that there is specific, directional scratching in DJ Hero on hard and expert.)

Since expert wasn't included, it's hard to say how big an impact that will have on the sustainability of the title. But it's enough to give me pause.

Focusing back on what I could experience, I did enjoy DJ Hero. Once you find the right difficulty setting, mastering the music is rewarding, dropping notes, missing scratches painful.

The music itself is certainly for a different type of gamer. Personally, I'm a big fan of mash-ups, so I loved the selection, and younger gamers, I think will appreciate the music as well. I'm not so sure that the game will have the same reach into the older, less gamer-friendly set that Guitar Hero does.

The ability to play music with both the turntable and a Guitar Hero guitar adds a lot of potential depth to the title, and will most certainly extend its reach.

After messing around with the game for a bit, I brought in Tristan to see what an 8-year-old, and fan of both Rock Band and Guitar Hero thought. He seemed to really like it, complaining once that his eyes hurt because he forgot to blink while playing. And he got it, the concept of mixing music. But I don't have any expectations that this game will, as I firmly believe Guitar Hero and Rock Band have, expand his musical palette. Despite being a fan of mash-ups, part of me actually worries it may do the opposite.

After playing through all of the songs on all of the settings several times, I remain both intrigued and entertained by this latest rhythm game. It offers someone like me, perhaps without the best rhythm, a chance to experience a sort of music I've long enjoyed in a different way.

And it does it in a way that is more entertaining than frustrating. Something I could never say about Konami's Beatmania. Will it be the sort of industry-expanding massive hit that Guitar Hero and Rock Band are? I doubt it, but that doesn't mean it won't enjoy some success both critically and financially.