Failure is not possible in Activision's turntable riff on Guitar Hero, but I saw last night how tough — and strategic — playing the game can be.
DJ Hero was available to play in a SoHo Manhattan gallery as part of an Activision and Microsoft-backed evening event for this multi-platform game.
After I arrived, I headed to a press couch in the back of the gallery, past a real DJ who had played real records loudly enough to already prompt one noise complaint from the neighbors.
At the press couch, I played the game on Easy. A mash-up of Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer was selected. The game's three-lane note highway began scrolling down the TV screen. Sitting with the game's turntable controller on my lap, I had to press one of three buttons on the spinnable record part of the device, in sync with the colored icons sliding down that highway. When longer, colored two-way arrows descended, I needed to hold a button and scratch with the record. The songs in DJ Hero are mostly mash-ups of two popular songs, with each song associated with the left or right lane in the highway. (The middle track is keyed to various barks and shouts and other DJ flourishes).
Easy mode could be played with one hand and involved almost no challenge. It is one degree harder than Beginner, which permits the player to press any button at any prompt.
But you might think all five of the game's difficulty levels are easy, because none of them will allow a song to fail. When I moved up to Medium, I struggled with the added requirement of using my other hand to move the cross-fader left and right, matching the position of a line on the note highway. I began to miss the cues and worry. The song did not terminate. Instead, the track associated with the side of the highway I was messing up just got quieter. Once I started to get used to it, I was enjoying the two-handed play of Medium.
The songs would always reach their conclusion, no matter how poorly I played — just maybe more quietly and without the player scoring many points.
The Activision producer who showed me the game said the developers had removed song failure from this take on the Hero formula because they wanted to allow the game to have broad appeal. They knew DJing — or the fantasy of DJing — is not as familiar to people, I was told. So they had some mercy.
But then how does the game get tough?
I asked the producer to play the hardest song, on expert. He activated a beat-juggled version of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit." The game changed.
The cross-fader prompts switched much more frequently from left to center to left, zigzagging this way and that. The highway sped faster, notes cascading down the screen more rapidly. The biggest change involved the scratch prompts, which now called for specific directions of scratching. Up-down-up, maybe. Down-up-down, next?
Playing at this intensity, the producer needed to use the game's more "gamey" elements. Portions of a DJ Hero song's note highway will glow. If their sequence is matched perfectly, the player earns Euphoria, the game's version of Guitar Hero's Star Power or Rock Band's Overdrive. Cashing it in temporarily makes the song louder, the on-screen DJ more animated and — this is key — it automates the cross-fader moves. So a wise player would save euphoria and activate it when a tough cross-fade prompt is coming up. The other high-level move is the Rewind. If a player nails 60 correct moves in a row, they can rewind. They do it by physically spinning the record back, which rewinds the song and pulls it back. Imagine a player using that to reverse course and rack up more points.
DJ Hero played on expert was an impressive sight. It doesn't call for quite the physical flourish of a masterful Guitar Hero player, but it certainly involves a level of dexterity no one who isn't an expert will be able to pull off.
So, the songs won't fail. But they will get tough. It's different. But it makes sense.