There's been a sort of inevitability to DJ Hero, an unmistakable sense that once a company realised people would be willing to pay for plastic guitars and drums, it couldn't be long before plastic turntables were on the way too. It's nice to be able to report, then, that the game itself isn't looking as tired and cynical as sceptics' worst fears might have suggested. It isn't even looking competent but boring. Instead, it's looking smart, challenging and extremely enjoyable.
It's probably best to start with the peripheral. The big surprise, for a music game focused on thumping bass lines, is that it's not a plastic Vauxhall Corsa with alloys, under-car strobe lighting and a spoiler. Developer FreeStyleGames has opted for a shiny little turntable and mixing desk instead. The result is excellent: the platter has just the right kind of rubber coating, and the whole unit feels pleasantly weighty, with an option to swap the controls around for lefties, and dials and sliders that aren't going to come off after a few laps around a DJ Shadow track.
The turntable itself has the three stream buttons - green, red and blue - built directly into it, while the other side of the unit handles the mixing desk, with a crossfade slider, an effects dial, and a Euphoria button. Capping it all, the entire thing's small enough to slip under the coffee table, alongside the dusty Wii Fit board and the remains of that half-eaten banana you lost last year, whenever real DJs come to visit.
FreeStyleGames has wisely chosen not to go overboard on the buttons and switches, yet while it's a simple enough controller, it's one that translates into a surprisingly deep game. It starts off in a straightforward enough fashion: as with Guitar Hero, players must press the correct buttons at the correct times to hit the notes, the green and blue buttons representing the two different records you're mixing, with the red one in the middle laying down samples.
The first complication comes with scratching, dictated by on-screen arrows, and the second quickly follows with the crossfader, which must be slid back and forth between the two records as directed by a kink in the neon line that represents each track on-screen. Hitting streaks allows you to build up Euphoria, which seems to behave a lot like Star Power (that entire thought will make no sense to anyone reading after emerging from a 10-year coma), while a separate Rewind metre allows you to go back over a healthy point-scoring patch for a second time to blast your way up the leaderboard. Or you could go back over a low-score section again if you're an idiot.
While the game has undeniably come from the same lineage as the Guitar Hero series, a delicate rebalancing is evident. Some changes are immediately visible: the colour scheme has wholeheartedly embraced a clinical disco neon, while the endless fretboard highway of the original titles has become a gently curving arc of vinyl, and the various hard-rock stereotypes lumping around on screen have been replaced with weird caricatured DJs and swaying techno crowds.
Less obviously, DJ Hero is shaping up to be a supremely technical game, and quite a hard one, by the looks of it, with a handful of fairly in-depth mixing skills to master once you leave the beginner setting behind and move beyond the simple business of hitting the right note at the right time. The effect of seeing it played couldn't be more different than watching someone thudding their way through a Guitar Hero performance, too, the fierce loops and snarls of the songs used seeming to hypnotise those involved into a kind of highly localised myopia, making it even more of a zone game than previous music titles.
Asked about the really important stuff - the track listing - Activision is keen to stress the "unprecedented variety" on offer, with the promise of 100 songs and 80 unique mixes at launch. Culprits include David Bowie, DJ Shadow, Gorillaz, Beck, Nirvana and the Beastie Boys, which also happens to be the same list of people that I invite to my birthday party every year, and who don't come.
DJ AM, Z-Trip and DJ Shadow himself will all be included as in-game characters, too, with others presumably slated to join them. Most intriguing, however, is the fact that the DJs FreeStyleGames are working with to create the mixes are also doing the note mark-ups themselves, suggesting not only that the music and game design are presumably trapped within some hopefully beneficial feedback loop, but that this will be as authentic a representation of the art of mixing that you can get from any system that includes something called a Euphoria Metre.
Alongside the single-player campaign, there's both competitive and co-op multiplayer offerings - modes announced so far including a DJ versus DJ head-to-head battle - alongside 10 special tracks that allow guitar controllers to be plugged in for the entertainment of all present. You'll also be able to join in on a microphone if you really want to get that unique DJ experience of mumbling about some random's birthday incomprehensively over the really good bit of a record.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about seeing DJ Hero in action is how different the overall effect is. The delights of watching an idiot fling themselves around with a plastic guitar while their drunken friend on the drums misses the kickstand and boots your cat through a window by mistake meant that Guitar Hero was a spectator sport like few others, while the diminutive dimensions of the instruments involved ensured that, even if someone was playing really well, if you managed to film them doing it you still had something to blackmail them with for life.
Watching someone play DJ Hero, however, is about as exciting as watching someone repair a Freeview box. This is still the perfect party game, then, but the performer has moved from the front of the room to the back, coaxing the evening's soundtrack to life while other people trip drunkenly over expensive furniture, get off with their best friend's sister, and talk about GCSE cramming techniques involving Red Bull and Prozac, or whatever else it is young people do now. Actually, speaking of whatever it is that young people do now, I would probably bet on DJ Hero becoming a part of it fairly sharpish.
DJ Hero is due out for PS2, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 later this year.