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LAist Review: DJ Hero (With Additional 'Hilarious' Commentary On The LA Launch Event)

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Last Thursday night, an improbable collection of DJs, Douchebags and Dorks gathered in a posh Downtown penthouse for a sneak preview of DJ Hero, the latest entry in Activision's increasingly ginormous Guitar Hero video game series. The appetizers were exquisite, the ambiance (provided by actual, non video game playing DJs) was redonkulous, and DJ Hero, a game which finally does for knob twiddlers and air-scratch nerds what the main Guitar Hero series did for vicarious cock-rockers, was, well, pretty damn good in the same way that the Dead Sea is kind of brackish and Sir Paul McCartney has a couple of extra dollars lying around.

We should start by commending Activision for having gone all out, all the fuck out, in fact. For a party celebrating a game that simulates the DJ experience, they also managed to do the same for the club experience. I estimate approximately 40% of those in attendance were actual hardcore gamers and/or music freaks; An additional 5% were media (lowly internet cranks like me, and G4). The rest were upper class scenesters who clearly spent thousands of dollars to look like they were keeping it extra real, with that just-so look of practiced stupidity, and a fairly large number of skinny, extremely "energetic" looking women who seemed to spend a lot of time in the bathroom, and would then stand around, mysteriously rubbing their noses as they acted smugly bored with the whole thing. It was just like being at Bang!

I kid, but in all seriousness a room full of septum-challenged skanks was the perfect decoration for an event that itself was a smashing tribute to the feeding of one's sensory addictions.

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The well stocked open bar, generously depleted, debased my liver as much as playing DJ Hero debased my years-of-improperly-typing fingers. The DJ'd music was an onslaught of classic hip hop and electro that shocked me in the way it did not suck, something rarely experienced in a town whose bars are filled mostly with 60s garage nights or Auto-Tune wank fests. Better still, they served the best appetizers in the world. Adorably cute Steak and Chicken sliders that one couldn't decide if they should be eaten, or cuddled. The bite sized bruschetta, composed of stunning cheese and a brilliant tomato spread that practically leapt into your mouth. But the demon that wrecked the rest of my digestive week was the salmon crisp things - a bowl shaped tortilla style chip, topped with a huge dollop of marinated, minced salmon, a glorious salty-savory-tangy overload that sent your humble narrator into a Requiem For A Dream fugue state. I spent the evening gravitating between game stations, the bar and the food line as my various addictions competed to see for which one I will eventually end up begging for change in an alley.

But you're not reading this because you care about my obsession with Salmon and free booze, any interest in how Tila Tequila DJs1, or whether or not Olivia Munn was there2. You want to know whether or not DJ Hero is any good.

It.

Is.

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Awesome3.

Let's get something out of the way - those of you who've actually DJ'd, especially the real hard core turntablists, and are currently sneering at the screen, let me assure you that you don't need to worry about plebes picking this up and thinking they're Kid Koala. While DJ Hero is remarkable in that it eerily simulates the experience of Djing, it doesn't, exactly, replicate it. People who have never touched Djing equipment may find it a bit like trying to write with the wrong hand, at first, but the controls are intuitive and the training level, narrated by Grandmaster Flash4 is brisk and easy, enough that you learn the basics without getting bored so you can quickly transition to the real game. On the other hand, experienced DJs (of all skill levels) will find the controls familiar, comforting even, but not so much that you'll be trying to make them do what a real turntable and mixer does. In short, it's the same perfect combination of comfort, ease of use, and mimicry that made Guitar Hero so much fun.

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The controller, as you've no doubt guessed, is a fake DJ station - 1 turntable instead of the standard 2, and a mixer. (Sorry realists, you'll have to provide your own headphones). The "record" is fully rotatable so that it can be "scratched", with three buttons similar to the 5 found on the Guitar Hero "guitar" controller. Additional commands given via the crossfader and knobs on the "mixer". As with other Guitar Hero games, the game is played watching command instructions cascading down the Notes Highway, plugging in the commands as given, in time with the music (as determined by the placement of the command icons on the screen). The difference here is that to compensate for the fewer number of buttons, the commands, specifically the highways themselves are more varied. The Green and Blue lines don't just carry instructions for buttons and the turntable, but to the crossfader as well.

It's the crossfader that should pose the biggest challenge to new players. While you're pushing buttons, and scratching, you're also sliding the fader back and forth as directed. The game isn't just straight cutting and scratching, you're also juggling and, for the most part, doing mashups. The fader then simulates switching between two separate records - slide all the way left and you'll hear only the "left" record, ditto in reverse if you slide all the way over to the right. Slide the fader to the middle position and both "records" play at the same time. The blue and green lines on the Notes Highway tell you when and how to slide the fader, and the more advanced you get, the more you'll be doing it until you're positively scribbling. And in case you're curious how it feels, last April, while playing around on my own set, I accidentally broke my crossfader trying out some of the stuff this game has you doing with the DJ Hero mixer. So, basically, that'll do pig. That'll do.

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So, the soundtrack; we obviously need to talk about that. You might see some songs - for example Hollaback Girl - that make you groan. Do not listen to that impulse. Remember it's (mostly) a mashup game which means it's as much about how incredibly cool it is when a truly brilliant DJ figures out how to combine ODB with Queen and make it work perfectly, and how much more incredibly cool it feels to feel like you're doing it yourself, as it is about the songs individually. Hollaback Girl is mashed up with Give It To Me Baby by Rick James, which works so well it almost makes you forgive Gwen Stefani for inflicting that inscrutably idiotic expression on popular culture. That said, most of the songs are also themselves fracking brill: Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz is mashed up with Marvin Gaye's version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine; During the training level, Daft Punk is combined with Queen; Your humble writer was combined with spontaneous uncontrollable orgasms! Anarchy of the senses, in other words, and it's wonderful.

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As with all of these games, part of the challenge, aside from managing the onslaught of commands, is getting the timing right. DJ Hero is no exception, and considering the amount of precision and the variety of command options, it might be a particularly unique challenge. Of course it didn't help that I was playing the game on machines used by several hundred other people, which might have accelerated the old wear and tear, but even so it took me a minute, and another minute, and then about 20 more, to figure out the timing needed to match your button pushing-scratching-cross fading to the cascading commands. Once I got it down, however, it was off to the races and I can report that I have rarely had such a blissfully immersive video game experience. I may be biased - I love hip hop and electro, and I love turntablism in general - but really, anyone who likes to dance is going to enjoy the living hell out of this game, whether watching or, as I made certain to do as often as I could, creepily reminding yourself of 8th grade as you play for one lengthy, hand-damaging session after another5. At one point in the evening I even lost track of 45 minutes.

Lest you think we were bowled over by free food and booze, let's be clear that it's not an entirely flawless game. The number of parts raises concerns that the DJ Hero controller might experience wear-related breakdown a lot faster than other specialty controllers. The emphasis on mash-ups might also mean that people looking for the totality of DJ styles might be somewhat disappointed - to be sure there's a lot to do, and not every track is a mashup, but most are. It's also a pricey investment, retailing at $120.00, cheaper than Rock Band 2, but a ballsy pricing decision nonetheless in the midst of a terrifying recession. Many gamers may want to wait until Xmas or until the price comes down before shelling out that kind of scrilla.

Still, the perks are copious: a massive, varied soundtrack; an immersive and addictive gameplay/ass shaking experience; unique takes on a gaming genre that was beginning to feel stale, like the ability to play competitively against a friend using a guitar hero guitar controller. DJ Hero is a long overdue nod to music fans who like genres other than Rock, and the most original rhythm based music game since the first Guitar Hero. Don't believe me? They were giving out free copies of the game to select attendees of the launch event, and yours truly wasn't one of those selected. I had to endure standing in line at the Valet with people holding their free copy of the game while I looked on with a jealous combination of GRRRR and WHAAAAH, and I'm still obsessed.

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The fact is, DJ Hero is a near masterpiece, limited only by the relatively limited playable DJ/turntablism musical styles and the ouchey price tag. About the only other thing this game lacks is an in-game douchebag who interrupts your set to find out if you take requests.

Frankly, if they include it in the DLC, I won't be surprised.

*****
Tila Tequila Photo courtesy of Edelman PR. DJ Hero Controller by mskogly, via Flicker. All other photos by Heather Shaughnessy for LAist.

Footnotes.

1) I don't know. Somehow I managed not to notice she was there. I assume she wasn't very bad because there was never a moment that I noticed the music suddenly becoming more herpes-sounding.

2) Ha ha, made you look.

3) Fucking awesome.

4) !!!!!!!!!

5) let's be honest - boys are probably going to have a lot more experience with repetitive stress hand injuries. Girls, on the other hand, are probably going to be used to the specific hand position needed for manipulating the record, so it really balances out.