DJ Hero Retrospective

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Rhthym gaming took the world by storm in 2005. A relatively unknown company by the name of Harmonix brought Guitar Hero into the public conscious and blasted themselves to stardom. The mixture of an old-school score mentality mixed with classic rock tunes lead to an immensely popular debut that would see the series continue on for a good few years.

I jumped on the bandwagon in 2007 when Guitar Hero II was released for the Xbox 360. While I never fancied myself an actual rock star, I had some previous experience using a guitar and I liked that songs I truly admired were getting more recognition. It also felt super cool to nail insane solos without breaking a sweat.

Most of my time in college was spent playing Guitar Hero in one form or another. Its sequel or the highly polished third entry gained more of my attention in 2007 than any other game or series.

While the success of the series showed the games industry that graphics and genre weren’t that important in making lots of money, the brand eventually began to stagnate. There is only so much you can do with the formula before people realize they’ve had their fill.

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Harmonix seemed to catch on to this after creating the second game. They did not sign with Activision to produce the third and instead went on to make Rock Band, the biggest competitor to the Guitar Hero franchise. The business model was also dramatically better; instead of creating yearly sequels, Harmonix opted to utilize the online connectivity of newer consoles to continually produce extra content for the game.

Activision sort of copied that idea, but still put out a staggering amount of games with the Guitar Hero branding. Handheld consoles got installments; cellphones weren’t free from virtual shredding; there was even a spin-off series focused more on hip-hop and dance music.

That is where my interest truly piqued. I’ve always been a fan of classic rock and I love heavy metal, but to hear modern pop songs and classic hits mashed together in some freestyle kind of insanity was just golden. It encapsulated everything I liked about the internet era of music discovery with a style of gameplay that I had quickly grown to love.

Enter DJ Hero, Activision’s attempt to branch out the Hero name to reach wider audiences. The entire genre was quickly on the decline, but this didn’t stop Activision and Freestyle Games from attempting something different.

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DJ Hero was a more back to basics approach to gameplay progression mixed with some popular artists and DJs that were remixing classic dance tunes alongside some rock and metal hits. It created a strange, dissonant sound that felt comfortable in the space of gaming.

It also had a much more structurally solid controller and gameplay that totally emphasized high scores and never ending combos. Different ideas like rewinding and crossfading also put a greater emphasis on player interaction within each track. Gone were the days of pretending to be a star; you were now given some control over what the music sounded like.

The sequel, DJ Hero 2, improved almost every aspect of the previous game. The visuals were cleaner, the audio was better mixed and the soundtrack was even more solid (despite it’s omission of Daft Punk tunes from the first game). 2 focused more on rocking clubs and EDM, but its gameplay was as frenetic and score happy as before.

It also didn’t hurt that the multiplayer was greatly expanded. While credit needs to be given to the developers for attempting to not nickel and dime their consumers (the original DJ Hero has a mode that allows a player with a Guitar Hero controller to play along), having multiplayer that actually utilizes the new fangled controller just makes more sense.

Each mode feels like an intense duel with a potential usurper. Score and accuracy are dominant alongside tracks mixed specifically to up the ante with each successive checkpoint. It brought a cut-throat attitude to competitive play that had long been missing in the rhythm gaming genre.

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Sadly, 2010 marked the year that this genre of games couldn’t sustain itself. The influx of releases and more costly instrument peripherals turned any newer customers off. While they were happy with buying one “toy” and sticking with it, having to collect a virtual band in your house was too much.

Not to mention that Guitar Hero was releasing games that focused on specific bands and having redux packages of older content, but even competitor series Rock Band had started to come out with “track packs” and games dedicated to the career of specific artists (granted, the Beatles are fairly important).

For what it’s all worth, I still believe that DJ Hero was the best thing to come out of that explosion of popularity. Guitar Hero also felt a little cheesy to me and a bit insulting to actual musicians. People who had no intention of picking up actual instruments or no understanding of what went into making music treated these songs like simple levels.

I remember playing a song by Rush and explaining to my friends how I saw them live and had been a fan for most of high school, but they couldn’t care less. To them, Rush was the song with the hard drum section and female singer. It was infuriating to me.

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With DJ Hero, it didn’t matter if you truly didn’t care about the artists are songs on offer. The game required you to be more active in what was going on. You couldn’t simply sit there with controller in hand and bang through a few songs; you had to pay attention to your crossfader, work on maximizing your note streak for potential rewinds and add your own personal flair (via samples) to up your score.

The shift in focus from a slightly more involved spectator to a remix guru just made everything feel more rewarding. Despite the track list being the same for everyone, the way you heard the song belonged to you.

It truly made me want to consider being a DJ as a career path. While I never went down that road, I started a friendship with a DJ at a club out of my amazement for what he was able to create. Those songs weren’t his, but the way they were played was wholly his invention.

DJ Hero perfectly encapsulated the atmosphere of the club scene while making the player feel like the star of the show. It didn’t hurt that Daft Punk leant their likeness to the original game and that Deadmau5 signed on for the sequel, either. DJ Hero was into a burgeoning music scene before it erupted into mainstream acceptance.

Sadly, the potential third game will never happen. Both Activision and Harmonix tried their hands at new Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles last year, but sales figures were underwhelming for both. People seem to have had their fun and want these games to fade into blissful memories.

It may be pointless to ask for another entry into the DJ Hero series, but I’d pay a lot to see a return to such vibrancy and joy within music gaming. If I’m going to pretend I’m any kind of star of a music game, at least it should be the game that actually gave me control over the sounds pumping through my speakers.

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I JUST CAN’T WAIT, but I probably should…

Daft Punk’s newest album will be releasing this coming Tuesday. Expectations are astronomical, which is astounding since the group’s last album came out eight years ago. I am a huge fan of their work, with their eclectic blend of electronic sounds having changed my outlook on music.

To say I’m excited is an understatement. The anticipation has been boiling in me since I heard about the new album in March. I may have spoiled the fun a little by bootlegging the release, but I did already pre-order the disc. Regardless, I’m shocked at how the end result turned out, considering the amount of hype behind this release.

With games, I’ve ruined more than a few titles simply because I wanted them too much. 2011 changed my idea of how I should focus my energy on gaming. I still love the medium, but I just tend to not get too eager about anything. I cannot live through another Uncharted 3 incident again.

I had become a massive Uncharted nut during the course of this generation. The game was the first thing I beat on PS3 (before I even owned the console myself) and I blitzed through the campaign in such a fast time that I needed to play everything again just to remember the best moments.

Then Naughty Dog went and upped the game with Uncharted 2 and lifted my expectations of what a scripted, third-person, cover-based shooter should be. I was annoyed at the lack of flexibility in the setpieces, but blown away by how wonderful-looking they were and how fantastic the game felt.

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How can you ruin this? Easily, it turns out.

When Uncharted 3 released, though, everything just felt wrong. Drake moved awkwardly, the controls were never as concise as I remember them being in 2 and the enemy AI took a dramatic step backwards in terms of tactics. Even the cover system became completely worthless with how the level design was.

That was just the biggest disappointment. I was also hotly anticipating Skyrim and I left that game wondering why I even cared. A rushed story with barely a hint of comprehension, a lack of innovative ideas that used to define Elder Scrolls and a generally boring game world just culminated in a game I had to force myself to finish (and at 28 hours, that was a lot of determination).

Oddly enough, Saints Row: The Third was another game I truly desired. I have such fond memories of destroying Saints Row 2 with my friend, Dan. We spent most of my college days goofing off on the Xbox 360 and just plowing through Saints Row because of how absurd the game was. The campaign was a great riff on the realism that Grand Theft Auto was drifting towards, not to mention Volition implemented some smart improvements in terms of playability.

Then THQ became greedy. Somewhere along the line, it joined the ranks of Activision and Capcom in regards to DLC policies. Saints Row: The Third is too long, but feels devoid of content. I believe the campaign lasts around 13 hours, but there are maybe half of the side missions that 2 had. Some of those side missions pad out the campaign, making most missions feel disconnected.

The game also performs miserably on the Xbox 360. I later played through it on PC, but my own memories of the experience tainted the entire game. I could not shake off the feeling of being let down by a game I wanted. Nothing was going to replace that.

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DLC ONLY, SUCKA!

If I never had any expectations for these games, I may have enjoyed them. The hardest part of evaluating any piece of media is removing your preconceptions before going in. This is nigh-on impossible for the average person, but gaming has almost seemed different to me.

Usually with sequels, general improvements are par for the course. Even if you feel that the game isn’t as creative as the predecessor, playing feels like a joy because everything is refined. Every game I mentioned above is a victim of the current game industry’s insistence on DLC.

I suppose Uncharted 3 did feature a full campaign, but the multiplayer component handles far better. The controls aren’t sloppy and the level design is tight, other than the lack of maps (which got rectified by plenty of DLC). The general feeling I get is that Naughty Dog wanted the game to sell more map packs instead of provide the tight, scripted and funny campaign that the previous games had.

Bethesda happens to be a product of its own ambition. Oblivion redefined the Western RPG and Fallout 3 showed that first-person shooters could adapt to the RPG template very well. Both of those games followed an oddly similar template, though, and after trekking through three individual Bethesda games before touching Skyrim, I feel that the company just has no tricks left.

Oblivion started the DLC craze and Skyrim just put it into overdrive. I haven’t heard a single good thing about any of the packs released and they all feel like content that could have been included in the base game. I remember mods for Oblivion that allowed you to own homes, yet Bethesda made sure to not include that in vanilla Skyrim.

I remember other moments in my life where anticipation ruined the final outcome. Halo 2 stands as the worst let-down of my teenage life. I was never a giant fan of Halo, but the first game was so much fun with friends and was wholly unique for a console FPS that everyone had to have the sequel.

When that day came, though, I was treated to sloppy graphics, copy and paste level design and a very strange game feel (the field of view is zoomed in too far). The rest of the game continues down this path, too, making for a wholly polished but entirely soulless story.

Not to mention the game doesn’t even have a conclusion, but I couldn’t stand anything else about the experience. The multiplayer may have been a monumental achievement for consoles, but the balance of the weapons is ludicrous. Whoever has the biggest weapon wins, every time. There is no hope for someone spawning with the dingy pistol.

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Working all the way towards nothing. Feels great, right?

Why bring this all up? Well, along with Daft Punk’s latest material finally getting unleashed on the world, Microsoft is set to reveal the next Xbox on Tuesday. The Internet is buzzing about how badly Microsoft ruined goodwill and how all the rumors of always online might be enough to spur people away from another Xbox.

I cannot say I have much anticipation for whatever this next generation brings. Maybe that will work in my favor. I do not regret buying a Wii U, but I can’t claim to be infatuated with the device. Nintendo definitely dropped the ball in that regard.

So hopefully Microsoft does something right. Even if they don’t, I know that for once in my life, the sting of disappointment will not be festering within me. I’m glad I finally got over that, too.