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.