Version tested: Xbox 360
Anyone taking the pulse of the rhythm-action genre right now is coming away worried. Even this time last year, sales of the genre's front man franchises were tailing off; now Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock's dreadful performance seems to be fulfilling the grimmest premonitions. High-street window displays are full of discounted plastic instruments. People are sick of pretending to be in a band, the stars seem to be saying. Something's got to change.
I am one of these people. I've been playing Guitar Hero for fully five years, and I've reached my ceiling. Before that I had to get my music-gaming kicks in hard-to-find places – mostly Japanese arcades – and I miss the purity of those games, the Beatmanias and Gitaroo Mans and Frequencies. You and the screen. Bright colours, impossible patterns, booming music. That rush of good chemicals to the brain when you're making all of it happen in synch.
DJ Hero 2 reminds me of simpler times. Rock Band has reacted to the current mood by turning itself into an awe-inspiring full music-learning hardware and software suite, adding fascinating layers of depth and difficulty that maybe 5 per cent of its audience will ever fully experience. DJ Hero 2 strips away almost everything except you, the music, the patterns, and the big number above your score meter.
It immediately looks much slicker, clearer and more tasteful. The graffiti pop-art style is gone, replaced by calming white menus. You no longer have to spin past 20 tutorial and set list selections to find Quickplay – it's the first option. The single-player is organised away under Empire mode, in which you pick a DJ avatar and guide them through about 80 excellent mixes, interspersed with DJ Battles that show off the new multiplayer modes.
The soundtrack is faultless. If you're a regular club-goer there's plenty to recognise, but crucially, it's still a powerful draw if you don't know or even like the music. That's down to the quality of the mashups. FreeStyle Games' own considerable talent is once again supported by original mixes from legends like DJ Shadow and the Scratch Perverts. Deadmau5, David Guetta and Tiesto show up for cameos as well, which is terribly exciting if you care about this kind of thing.
The note tracks, too, look different. No more primary colours – it's been given a cooler colour scheme, heavy on the neon. You still control things in the same way, pressing buttons on the decks to match samples, scratching back and forth with your right hand with your left glued to the crossfader.
The escalating difficulty levels gradually introduce new elements, guiding you gently through the controls without lazily stripping everything out for Easy and Medium, introducing directional scratching at Hard level, and throwing in a few new things like sustained button-presses. It's much harder than the original DJ Hero, challenging right from the first megamix on Expert.
But there's been a much more significant change to the way the game works. DJ Hero 2 has completely altered the nature of freestyling, turning it into an integral part of the game. Previously you could only let off a small selection of pre-selected samples with the red button – otherwise known as the YEEEEAAHH BOIIIII button – but now , those samples are mix-specific, and how you use them is the difference between making a song sound incredible and like a 13-year-old playing with Garage Band.
There are whole sections of mixes where the game just hands over control, letting you set off effects, scratch or crossfade exactly how you like. Keeping the beat isn't easy, especially the first time you hear a mix, but when you get it right it feels incredible. You're graded on your freestyling at the end of a mix, but it doesn't affect your score. You don't have to be naturally good at it to make progress, but it's an outlet for your musical creativity, and a skill that you can feel developing the more you play.
Freestyling doesn't just give you the illusion of control over the music – something that DJ Hero was already very good at – it actually gives you control, putting key parts of the mix in your hands and inviting you to either recreate what Freestyle Games does with the tracks or take them in your own direction. It's much closer to actual DJing than to beatmatching.
Nothing has been done to those chunky DJ Hero decks. There's no need to buy anything new to play DJ Hero 2, which surely comes as a relief after the original's absurd price-tag. Activision still wants you to buy more of them, though, so DJ Hero 2 has a vastly improved suite of party and multiplayer options.
The original Hero's multiplayer consisted solely of playing mixes side-by-side and fighting over the effects dial, but 2 has proper multiplayer-specific mixes and DJ battles. This was the main thing that we wanted from DJ Hero 2 when we reviewed the original last year, and it really delivers. There are straightforward high-score, high-streak and checkpoint competitions alongside the call-and-response Battles, and all of it is online-enabled, with player tags and personal logos.
It really encourages a competitive spirit, even adding in an option to send an instant brag/challenge message to a friend upon finishing a mix (smack-talk optional). Guitar Hero-style Party play is in there too, so at parties you can essentially use the game as a very, very good jukebox, jumping in to play whenever you're not stuck in the kitchen talking to people you don't know.
But I'm not convinced that DJ Hero is a party game. It can be, certainly, and the new multiplayer modes make it much more viable as group entertainment, but it's also the most absorbing single-player rhythm game around at the moment. It draws you right into the Zone – you emerge from a five-mix set with no sense of time, blinking in confusion.
There are little things that aren't quite right. DJ customisation in Empire mode is very limited, for instance. I'd have liked to be able to create my own character, or use my Xbox avatar, or design my own logo rather than choose from a selection. But then there are other little things that are just perfect – the way the mixes run smoothly into each other, loading-free, the added emphasis on beating high scores, the interface, and non-essential things like microphone implementation and playing as Deadmau5.
DJ Hero 2 is the freshest thing in rhythm gaming right now, a lifeline for people bored of guitars and drums and genre veterans craving the purer, simpler rhythm-action kick of a pre-Guitar Hero world. It's a social game, sure, and the music selection makes it an accessible one too, but it's got the heart of a real hardcore beatmatcher. The inspired freestyling and playful multiplayer options make it more attractive than it ever was. It can't compete with something like Rock Band 3 in terms of complexity – but then, it's not playing the same game.
9 / 10