Remember back when mixing karaoke and videogames together was enough to rank as truly revolutionary all by itself? It may seem hard to believe now, but it was just five years ago that Konami's Karaoke Revolution proved that a game could be successful just by scrolling some song lyrics and measuring how well the players were singing the notes behind them. Sony's SingStar series reinforced this proof, gussying up the basic concept of Karaoke Revolution with music videos and a wide mix of songs spread out over a dozen European expansion discs since its initial 2004 release.
Of course, the rhythm game genre hasn't remained static since then. Games like Rock Band and the upcoming Guitar Hero 4 have enhanced that basic, karaoke-based gameplay with drumming and guitar playing, providing a relatively varied four-player party experience in the process. Suddenly, a game that merely lets one or two players sing along with their favorite songs seems more tired than inspired. Suddenly, the SingStar series and its karaoke game ilk are on the brink of obsolescence.
Thus the scene is set for the PlayStation 3 version of SingStar, Sony's last-ditch effort to save the series, and indeed the entire genre, from becoming a minor footnote in the history of the rhythm game. The game largely succeeds in this mission, not by revolutionizing the karaoke gameplay itself, but by expanding it into a new frontier of online features that will hopefully give some legs to the ailing concept.
It's a shame that basic gameplay remains unchanged, because the core of the SingStar series could definitely use a revolution of its own. Instead, this latest version continues the awful interface conventions that have plagued the previous PlayStation 2 editions. Unlike Karaoke Revolution, which scrolls notes and lyrics in one long, continuous right-to-left stream, the on-screen lyrics and note bars in SingStar are chopped up into distinct screens that are thrown up in front of the player just before they need to be sung. Each new screen can have an entirely different rhythm and pitch range than the one that came before it, a fact that forces the player's eyes to jump around the screen to keep up. Even worse, the lyrics themselves appear on the very bottom of the screen, far from the notes that they go with, making it nearly impossible to keep track of both at the same time. The result is an interface that seems designed to thwart players that don't have intimate prior knowledge of the song they're singing.
Beyond the interface, the game is pretty accurate at detecting which notes you're singing. Unfortunately, it seems to have a little trouble detecting exactly when you're singing them in relation to the music -- there's a small but persistent delay between the start of a sung note and the appearance of that note on the screen. The game has a built-in tool that tries to automatically correct for this delay, but it didn't have much effect in my tests. Still, this delay ends up being a relatively minor annoyance, only really noticeable on the faster songs. Much more annoying is the "rap scoring" mode for songs like Outkast's "Hey Ya", which assigns a score to spoken lyrics that has no relation to the actual performance, as far as I can tell.
SingStar's lineup of 30 songs on the disc provides a decent, if pop-heavy, mix to start things off, but these initial songs are really only the tip of the iceberg this time around. The real motherload of song selection is in the online SingStore, which has hundreds of downloadable tracks (and their accompanying music videos) available for $1.49 each. After all these years, it's extremely freeing to be able to build a karaoke library based on your personal tastes rather than the forced bundling of disc-based distribution.
The store has an excellent interface for scrolling through specific genres and artists, and previewing short snippets of the downloadable songs and video couldn't be simpler. Still, I found myself wishing that the songs I downloaded could be extracted into MP3s that could be played independently of the game -- I paid for them, didn't I? While we're at it, the SingStore makes the whole idea of packaging 30 songs onto a $50 disc seem a little archaic. Why isn't there a $10 downloadable version of the core game that leaves me more money to pick out my own downloadable song list?
Of course, the SingStar online experience isn't only about downloading new songs, but also uploading performances to be shared with other players. It's here that the game really takes the karaoke videogame to a new plateau. Players can upload their saved vocal stylings, of course, but the most popular and appealing online feature involves using the PS3 EyeToy camera to capture 30-second video snippets of a particular performance.
Hundreds if not thousands of European users have already inundated the service with their video clips, and simply browsing them was at times more fun than the singing itself. It's like a karaoke-fueled version of YouTube -- a vast melting pot of content that features everything from dancing Wookies and emo kids on guitars to cute lisping kids and a whole lot of families sitting awkwardly on the couch around Christmas time. Some enterprising users have even figured out a way to put jump cuts and multiple camera angles into their online videos, although I'd be lying if I said I knew how. All in all, these videos provide an entrancing, engaging, entertaining look into the playing habits of others that is practically worth the price of admission on its own.
It's a shame that the video viewing interface doesn't match up to the content, though. Even bare-bones functions like pause and fast-forward are nowhere to be found in the extremely basic video viewer. While there is a ranking function to help users self-segregate the quality videos from the dreck, there's no way to search for videos of a specific song or from a specific region of the world. If you do somehow find a good video, there's no way to bookmark it for later viewing or to save a copy to your hard drive. Viewers can leave comments, but only for specific users, not specific videos themselves, and there's no easy way to subscribe to updates from strangers whose videos you might like (though you can do this with friends on your PlayStation 3 friends list).
Despite these interface problems, the online options bring definite added value to the somewhat tired SingStar formula. While the ability to download and upload songs and watch video performances isn't quite revolutionary, it's at least a healthy shot in the arm for a genre that's growing more tired by the minute. And despite the interface problems with the game itself, it's hard to deny the fun of getting together with some friends and belting out your favorite tunes. Maybe there's some life in the karaoke videogame after all...
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.