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(Originally posted at Crush! Frag! Destroy!)

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I’m just going to be blunt and say this up front. There’s no need to couch it somewhere in the meat of the writing.

DJ Hero is hard and will kick the crap out of you the first time you play it. Most likely it will continue to do so for a fair while afterward as well.

Am I saying that the game isn’t worth the hassle? Not in the least! In fact, if anything, the challenge has spurred me to try and find a way to scrape up the cash to acquire a game that until recently I only had a moderate-to-decent interest in. Read on for more on my first excursion into the fine art of turntablism.

 

I’ve been following DJ Hero since it was announced, being what I would consider a fairly serious enthusiast of the music game genre. I play guitar and bass on hard without failing and can handle all but the hardest tiers of songs on expert consistently. Vocals pose no problem for me and drums are the only instrument that ever give me issues (damn lack of foot independence). I’m sure it also helps that I can carry a tune when singing and can play some actual musical instruments as well (though none of them with high degrees of proficiency); despite what many say, I found some knowledge of guitar actually helped me tremendously when I started playing the first Guitar Hero years ago, and I did two years of drums in Junior High so I know a flam from a paradiddle.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyCsBS7cuVk 500×315]

All of that being said, DJ Hero takes the skillset that you’ve amassed from hundreds of hours of shredding on plastic guitars and throws it straight out the window, leaving you a weak, simpering pup the first time you lay hands on it, rather than the beat-matching beast you assumed you would be. It really is like learning to walk all over again.

My experience with the demo began as I looked over the controller. The turntable itself feels very solid and spun a bit more freely than I expected it to, while the three colored buttons, slightly concave, fit my fingers very naturally. Moving to the left side of the controller found a serviceable, yet unremarkable Euphoria button (used to trigger the game’s version of Star Power/Overdrive), an effects dial and the all-important crossfader.

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Much has been said in other previews about how cheap the crossfader feels, making it one of the first things I checked out. Sadly, I have to concur; the fader itself feels very thin and lacks any sort of grip to it. Also, unlike the effects dial (which has a good amount of resistance and weight to its turning), it flipped from left to right almost as if it were broken. I’ve used actual faders before and there’s a sweet spot between too much resistance and not enough; DJ Hero‘s controller has none – zero. Also, the slight notch to indicate where the center position is didn’t catch the fader enough in practice for you to really notice it, requiring a bit of improvisation, which I’ll touch on further down. It’s one huge flaw on what seems to otherwise be a very solidly built piece of hardware.

I walked through the tutorial, narrated by a far-too-cheerful Grandmaster Flash (which I suppose I can forgive… since he’s freakin’ Grandmaster Flash!) in my typically impatient fashion – music game tutorials always seem to move too slowly to me. By the time I had sampled the rudiments of the controller and how to work it (in theory), I jumped into the first song of a three song set on Medium difficulty, feeling cocky and ready to conquer a dance floor full of virtual clubgoers. I was fully prepared to wow them with my amazing mash-up skills just as surely as I made their concert-going brethren scream and throw up the horns for my guitar solos.

Oh how wrong I was.

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I fully expected to perform at least semi-decently on my first pass through Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” versus Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” – I’m a music game vet, right? I should score at least in the high three-star zone seeing as this is my first try at a whole new style of play. Pfft – try barely limping over the line into two-star territory. Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby” against Gwen Stefani’s stomp-along “Hollaback Girl” fared little better. This game was not pulling any punches.

Most of this seems to stem from the fact that, at least during the initial learning curve, it’s hard to keep the all-important-to-your-score combos going when you’re forgetting to scratch for the entire duration of a scratch section or end up accidentally flipping the fader just a bit too far past the center when time comes to bring both tracks back into the mix. As time went on, I gradually developed subconscious hand positioning that kept a guide finger next to the center when I faded full left or right that would help keep me from overshooting when returning to the middle. I also found myself occasionally losing my grip on the turntable after a particularly long scratch, leaving me scrambling to swing it back around so that the buttons were on the left side again.

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Also, on the subject of scratching and controller grips, executing scratches on the green (leftmost) track was simple enough, as your hand has the whole platter for leverage and smaller movements are required. However, the blue track, representing the second deck on the right, lay near the center of the “record’s” label, meaning you had far less real estate to grip and took much more effort to move, necessitating quickly dropping my thumb to the outer edge of the turntable for extra traction. Keep in mind that this is all on Medium; the game starts requiring specific directional movements during scratches on Hard and higher difficulties.

On the two passes I made through the three song set, I was only able to activate Euphoria mode one time and the highest I ever scored was three stars (during that same song). At the end of my time, I found that I was hunched intently over the controller (likely due in part to it being affixed to a stand that wasn’t set high enough for me to play comfortably – I’m 6’2″ and my turntable hand didn’t rest in a natural position when I stood up straight.), my jaws were clenched and my eyes glued to the screen in a way that I never find myself doing with guitar-based games, where I often look away from the screen during repetitive parts, playing via muscle memory.

This game was schooling me something fierce. On Medium.

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But you know what? I could feel myself getting better with each pass; physically, tangibly better. It should go without saying that one improves with practice, but I learned something important from every mistake, and by the end of six songs I felt immense pride that I performed as well as I did. I couldn’t wait to dissect each of the remaining 90 mixes in the final version and learn them each inside and out. I have a pretty aggressive perfectionist streak and I don’t think my pride will allow me to stop until I reach at least four-star ratings on every song.

DJ Hero is a rare beast in the modern gaming world. This is a game that kicks you in the teeth and makes you feel stupid every time you do something wrong, but rather than getting angry and throwing it across the room, it drives you to improve yourself. You love it for being so painful, so brutally unforgiving, because when you get it to work and it all comes together in a gloriously executed performance, it recaptures that magical feeling you got the first time you tore into the pre-chorus on Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” on the original Guitar Hero four years ago.

That’s something I haven’t felt in many music games for a while now. I really missed it.

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