Reviews: DJ Hero 2

Last year, Activision and developer Freestyle Games entered the already-crowded music gaming market with not only a new game, but a new peripheral. The game was DJ Hero, and along with its turntable peripheral, it was a hit at retail, with reviewers, and with gamers alike. 

So it’s no surprise that DJ Hero 2 is hitting shelves only a year later. But this isn’t simply a quick cash in, as the sequel outshines the original in almost every way, making it a sure-thing for fans and newcomers alike. 

Last year, Activision and developer Freestyle Games entered the already-crowded music gaming market with not only a new game, but a new peripheral. The game was DJ Hero, and along with its turntable peripheral, it was a hit at retail, with reviewers, and with gamers alike. 

So it’s no surprise that DJ Hero 2 is hitting shelves only a year later. But this isn’t simply a quick cash in, as the sequel outshines the original in almost every way, making it a sure-thing for fans and newcomers alike. {{page_break}}

DJ Hero 2 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii)
Developer: Freestyle Games
Publisher: Activision
Release date: October 19, 2010

Developer Freestyle Games claims that after a long, much-needed vacation following wrapping up DJ Hero, it came back and put only seven months of development into the sequel. And boy, what a difference those eight months made. While the original game was surprisingly fun, with tight core mechanics that tied in with a new peripheral which was a joy in itself to use, the smallest tweaks really go a long way in DJ Hero 2.  

Freestyle Games has added a number of new mechanics that give the player the effect that he or she has far more control over the sound mix than ever before. The key are the game’s new “freestyle” section types, which are woven into every mix. While the previous title featured freestyle sections on the red middles section of the note highway, it was limited to sound bank effects, and led to the obnoxious repetition of Flavor Flav’s trademark “Yeaaaaaah, boy!” catch phrase. DJ Hero 2 does away with those effects, instead mostly using samples from the song, including vocal hooks and lines, rhythm effects, and more. The result is a more natural sounding freestyle section, not to mention far less annoying. You’re rewarded for triggering the sounds in time with the song’s rhythm, but even mashing the button repeatedly finds the game triggering only relevant samples that still sound good within the mix. 

Both scratching and cross-fading sections have also received freestyle sections in the sequel. The former gives players the freedom to scratch at will during marked sections, the speed and “distance” of the scratch affecting the sound and feel. The latter lets players mix sections of two tracks, cutting in and out vocals or beats, giving that section a distinct and personalized flavor. These sections, along with the sample freestyle sections, really make you feel like a participant in the mix, as opposed to simply pressing buttons and playing “follow the leader” with the game’s note highway. 

Vocals have also been added to a select number of tracks, allowing you to rock a microphone with up to two DJs, or even go at it alone. It’s a nice addition, and far more fitting than the ill-conceived “Guitar vs. DJ” tracks from the original. Because nearly all of the tracks on the game’s soundtrack are remixes or mash-ups, this isn’t as simple as karaoke-ing your way through a song, either. Even tracks you’re familiar with can sound completely foreign, with vocal sections mixed and matched, and sometimes completely cut to pieces. Because of this, vocals can be both refreshing and frustrating, depending on whether you’re interested in a challenge or simply interested in singing along to a Lady Gaga track. 

The game’s single-player career mode has also been given an overhaul in what’s called “Empire” mode. Here, you’ll choose a DJ avatar, select the name for your empire, as well as a logo. From there, you’ll play pre-determined sets across a variety of locations, earning stars from each song to progress and “build your Empire.”

There’s really not much to this mode, despite its fancy name — you’re really just going from set to set, playing through the game’s mixes, occasionally engaging in a head-to-head battle with another DJ (RZA, Tiesto, Deadmau5, DJ Qbert, and more all make appearances), or even stepping into their shoes for a few mixes. There’s little customization here, too — you’re given a small set of logos to choose from at the start, and you can’t even pick your own Empire name, instead the game giving you a handful to choose from. It’s simply an excuse to play all of the game’s mixes by yourself, and fortunately that’s enough, given how much fun DJ Hero 2 is to play. 

The on-disc soundtrack for the game is also arguably better and more varied than the original, as well. With 83 mash ups and about 100 songs, there was definitely a hell of a lot of music licensed to bring this game to life. It’s a relatively eclectic group of artists, too, ranging from The Chemical Brothers to Nelly, House of Pain to Lady Gaga, and more. The mixes, overall, are also a lot tighter and better produced than most of the tracks found on the original. With a few exceptions, most of the mixes are top quality; some of them even make songs I normally wouldn’t be able to stand on their own quite palatable. It also seems there is far less repetition in song use as well; if DJ Hero 2 has its “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (which seemed to repeat itself ad nauseum in the original), I didn’t take note of it playing through the game’s Empire mode. 

Beyond the game’s single-player Empire mode, DJ Hero 2 also employs the drop-in/drop-out “Party Play” modes Neversoft introduced with its Guitar Hero games. You’ll also find your standard multiplayer battle modes (playable against others locally or online), as well as quickplay which lets you play any unlocked track on the disc. There are a number of battle modes, many of them also lifted directly from the Guitar Hero series, all of which are good, trash talking fun. 

But my issue with both the quickplay and battle modes are that once you complete a song or a set (which you can create), you’re pushed out back into the main menu. Seriously, once you complete a song your options are either retry that track or go back to the game’s main menu, where you’ll likely be jumping back into that same mode the game just booted you out of. If the rest of the game weren’t so damned enjoyable and polished, I’d wonder whether or not Freestyle Games had ever played a music game before, because this particular design decision is both stupid and odd. 

Small issues aside, DJ Hero 2 is a solid music gaming experience from top to bottom, even more enjoyable than the current iterations of Activision’s other cash cow, Guitar Hero. Sure, I can already hear the buzzing of the publisher’s worker bees slapping together code for the next title in the series. But if they’re as enjoyable as this sequel, they’ll make a welcome addition to my next house party. 

Score: 9.0 

[Note: While reviewing the title, I came across an odd bug that may affect PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 users: If you have 100 friends on your Live or PSN friends list, the game (and your console) will lock up between mixes.

The simple fix, for now, is to drop your friend count to 99. This is a known issue, and I’m told Activision, Microsoft, and Sony will have a fix available shortly.]

Nick Chester