DJ Hero - First Impression

To put my impressions in proper context a little backstory is in order, so stick with me for a moment.

Rhythm games have been around for a while, and for the most part, I have not been a fan of them. Up until Guitar Hero in 2005, the games in the US seemed to consist of button mashers which didn't really fit the gamepad for the console it was being played on. With the notable exception of Dance Dance Revolution playing rhythm games was pretty dull for me and left me wondering what all the fuss was about.

When I had first heard about Guitar Hero the idea was intriguing. A game that gave me a controller that was meant to bring me into the game. Something that I knew how to use, and could relate to. It sounded great, then I got my hands on it. The controllers were way too small and felt cheap. the fret buttons were 'unnatural' to use, and totally ruined the suspension of disbelief that the game needed to make it engaging.

A few years later Rock Band comes out, and not only did they make the same promise of engaging me with familiar controllers which were designed to be used in a way that made sense for the game, but they also offered me a chance to do more than tap a strum bar. If I wanted to rock with sticks or send the cat running in terror with my voice, Rock Band was welcoming me with open arms.

I was very skeptical. Guitar Hero was three iterations in when the first Rock Band was released, and no notable improvements had been made in the awful controllers that came with the game. They still felt cheap, still were clumsy to use, and still ruined the fret experience. Rock Band had done better. Much better, though I didn't realize it at the time because I totally ignored the game.

Don't misunderstand, the Guitar Hero software was never bad, but with the sort of title it was the software was way less than half the experience for me. The Rock Band software was also decent, but so were the controllers. Sure the guitars still felt a little cheap, and the drum kits had a nasty habit of not being able to withstand the abuse of an overzealous bandmate. It was still a step in the right direction.

Rock Band 2 comes along, and the controllers last as well as they play. O'kay the kick pedal is still a little touchy if you've got a heavy foot, but then you're not supposed to stomp on the kick pedal anyway. Guitar Hero's controllers have gotten better; I don't think they're up to par with the Rock Band 2 controllers, but that might just be my own bias as I own that game.

This all brings me to DJ Hero. I heard about this game and my heart lept a little. Now I'm no house DJ, but I'm no stranger to crossfaders and tonearms. The idea that I could 'play along' with some of my favorite DJs was appealing. I was a little worried as it was in the Hero series, but I figured the other titles in the series had seen controller improvements enough to assume that the turntable controller would be at least decent.

Tonight I found myself in my local Best Buy (probably the worst Best Buy I have ever been in, ever, BTW) and they had the game running on a PS3. I was watching a kid play it, and having a rough time of it. Was obvious he really didn't get the concept. I don't blame him, DJ'ing isn't really showcased like it was when I was a kid. Rap videos were a camera on the voice talent, a camera on the DJ, and one on the crowd. You really got to see what they were doing, and it made sense. In today's videos, you usually don't even see a record... assuming the song has real scratching in it at all.

Reading the information on the display it shows that two player local and networked-based modes are available. Local two player requires either another deck or a guitar controller, though I'm not sure how that's supposed to work exactly with a guitar. I would like to see a two DJ battle game played, though. As that does have the potential to be cool. Though that just might be the DJ in me talking, and no one else but fans of the scene may care.

So the boy I was watching finished up, and no one else was in line to try, so I thought I'd give it a spin so to speak. The graphics were what I'd come to expect from modern rhythm games, with lots of flash and style. The on-screen interface also was fairly familiar. It took no time at all to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, and when. The demo has a three-track round with songs that are popular, and good choices for mixing. On the other hand, the controller sucked ass. I'm sorry, but there is really no other way to put it.

Look, I'm willing to forgive the single turntable interface. This is a game that is supposed to be accessible, and managing two records and a mixer is a skill that takes a long time to even get good at, let alone master. I'm willing to forgive the buttons on the platter, as you need something to make it a rhythm game, and it would make the controller overly complicated for casual gamers to add an effects board. I can not, and will not, forgive the piss poor build quality of the controller. The platter feels cheap and unbalanced. The buttons are too small and packed too close together. The platter itself is too small and makes scratching awkward. Then there's the overall size of the deck and it's attached 'mixer' console which places the platter and the crossfader so close together that you have to be 10 years old to use it comfortably.

DJ Hero is an awesome concept, and the game itself looks to be well designed, and fun. It's a shame the errors of the past were not learned from. Per the DJ Hero website there is apparently a premium addition of the game available which includes a different and supposedly 'better' controller. Why should I have to pay more just to get a usable controller, and until I get my hands on one I am left to assume it's the same POS deck with metal crossfader and effect knobs. Until a 3rd party controller comes out that gets it right, I'm afraid what could otherwise be an awesome addition to the list of 'party games' will be nothing more than an overpriced wannabe.