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.