The battle of the band games has been going on for a while now. This time last year, you may recall, Guitar Hero World Tour was gearing up to take on Rock Band 2. Eurogamer loved them equally, slapping both games with a big fat 9/10. But it was Activision who won the battle for Christmas cash, in the US at least - Guitar Hero outsold Rock Band by more than 2 to 1 over there.
This year EA is sticking with the formula, but hoping to boost Rock Band's appeal by throwing in music from the greatest band the world has ever known (assuming you're not a Rolling Stones fan or Heather Mills). Activision is sticking with the formula full-stop. The boldest decision they've made with Guitar Hero 5 appears to be sticking the number in the name rather than adding a stupid subtitle, although we'll find out exactly what those new features amount to soon enough since the game's out in a fortnight.
At least they're also exploring a new musical direction with a brand new title, too. Activision has realised we've got enough plastic guitars and rubberised drum kits cluttering up our homes, thanks very much. What we really need is a plastic turntable with a rubberised disc spinner. Activision reckons loads of us will be willing to pay more than a hundred pounds for one, which is obviously ridiculous. That's like saying 18 million people around the world would pay 70 quid for a set of bathroom scales which measures how good you are at leaning and tells you you're a bit fat. HA HA.
The DJ Hero turntable is certainly a lot cooler than the Wii balance board. The design is sleek, sharp and neat, and sits on the right side of the line between realistic imitation and Fisher Price toy. There's a pleasing heft to it and the rubber turntable offers a good grip, while the crossfader moves smoothly and the buttons feel responsive. Which is all very nice, but is it worth a hundred pounds? That will depend on the game it comes bundled with.
Trying to convince us is Jamie Jackson, creative director at FreeStyle Games and conductor of our gamescom DJ Hero demo. He begins by showing how to adopt the position - right hand on the turntable, with index, middle and ring fingers on the coloured buttons set into the top. Your thumb rests on the side for added stability. The crossfader is operated by your left hand, but more on that later.
Just as in Guitar Hero, coloured notes scroll across the screen and your job is to press the corresponding buttons at the right time. However, here they scroll around a spinning record rather than down a fretboard. Some notes, or "taps" as they're officially titled, just require a single button press. Others are played by holding the button down longer while you twist the turntable backwards and forwards, thereby generating a scratching sound.
This manoeuvre is instantly intuitive, satisfying and fun. You could almost believe you are in fact a top international DJ who visits the world's hottest nightclubs to lay down phat beats, rather than a 31 year-old woman who goes to pubs in South-East London to whine about house prices. Perhaps "almost" is a bit strong, but there's definitely a sense that you're the one making the music. And the associated thrill which comes with that is just like the one you got when you played Guitar Hero for the first time.
Though the basic gameplay principles may be the same, Jackson doesn't reckon the two games have much in common. "We wanted to do something that was completely unique and new," he says. "We borrowed from some of Guitar Hero, the HUD and the concept of notes coming towards you - people are familiar with that. But the controller's obviously very different."
That means the gameplay's different, too. "You've got scratching, cross-fades, beat-matching in there... All these new elements allow us to play new music you've not heard in Guitar Hero," says Jackson. In fact, DJ Hero features new music you've not heard anywhere, as more than 80 of the 100-plus tracks on the disc are mixes that have never been released before.
Many of these are produced by FreeStyle's in-house team of 16 DJs, but some have been specially recorded by household names such as DJ Shadow, Z-Trip and Jazzy Jeff. The daddy of them all, Grandmaster Flash, talks you through the tutorial. "If you're a fan of those artists, you'll play those mixes and you'll recognise their scratching style, their beat style, their musical selection - which is pretty cool," says Jackson.
You'll also recognise some of the sounds they're throwing into the mix. The two tracks we get to play today feature recognisable hooks from the Jackson 5 and Eminem, and it sounds like most of the songs on the disc will be mash-ups of catchy chart hits and cool beats. It makes a refreshing change to play a music game that doesn't put the emphasis on screaming guitars and thundering drums. And as someone who's more familiar with "I Want You Back" than "I Wanna Be Sedated", I find it easier to get into the rhythm of the song and pull off some of the trickier button sequences.
But just as I hit my stride, Jackson decides it's time to introduce the crossfader. Accompanying the notes scrolling around the screen are solid lines of colour which switch to the left, right and back to the centre at intervals. Your left hand's job is to move the crossfader accordingly. "It's kind of like the first ever driving game for the Commodore," Jackson says. "Dead simple, just left and right."
Except it's not quite so simple when your other hand is simultaneously trying to press buttons and twist a turntable. And when your brain isn't familiar with this sort of thing, and doesn't usually have to multi-task beyond anything more complex than telling your arm not to drop the pint while your mouth says, "Well yes, it all depends on the leasehold."
Having felt confident and comfortable with the button-pressing, I switch to frightened, confused and inadequate when it comes to the crossfader. I fail to switch it fast enough, or even recognise whether it's supposed to be at the side or in the middle half the time. But that's just me - I was rubbish at Guitar Hero the first time I tried it too, and can still only play the Rock Band drums if someone else holds the other stick. Could this be the worst performance of DJ Hero Jackson has ever seen? "I'm not going to lie to you. It's not the best," he says. "But it's over now."
In fact the whole demo has come to an end, which is a shame. As terrible as I am at DJ Hero, the pathetic yet tangible sense of progression experienced over the course of the session did make me want to have another go. And any videogame which immediately makes you want to have another go is, by definition, good. But is DJ Hero so good it'll make you want to invest a hundred quid - even if you get as many goes as you want for the privilege?
At least one thing's clear: DJ Hero is one of the most intriguing and innovative titles in Activision's autumn line-up. It also represents the publisher's best chance of defeating The Beatles: Rock Band as the battle for dominance of the music genre continues. Unless, of course, they're about to announce Guitar Hero: The Rolling Stones.
DJ Hero is due out for PS2, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 in October.