Def Jam Rapstar
‘Style over substance’ – it’s a term that many game (and indeed film) critics come back to time and time again when critiquing the latest blockbuster or triple-A release. Increasingly, dollars are poured into every facet of visual design and graphical edge while at the same time we are let down by staid or even broken game mechanics. You’d have thought then that for a game which places its sole emphasis on hip-hop and rap that the same mentality would apply, where rap videos and street cred are governed by dapper suits, gold bling and a healthy dose of egotism. Why do we bring it up? Because Def Jam Rapstar sways in the other direction, positing more emphasis on deepness in features, where a clean visual upgrade could lift the game from being ‘average’ to something much greater.
Of course, we’re not begrudging Terminal Reality for this, per se, since the abundance of neat features and fantastic approach to social connections and networking rivals more wisened rhythm-action series (most notably Rock Band, which has gone from strength to strength in its intellectual design). It’s a shame then to see some glaring omissions to the ’style’ in this karaoke rap game – one of the first to focus exclusively on the genre, but hopefully not one of the last. The Singstar series is the most immediate comparison, certainly in terms of how the game is presented when being played, with a music video playing in the background to the initial singing UI. It’d be so much nicer though if videos were in a 16:9 ratio, whereas they are stuck, somewhat strangely, in a small 4:3 window in the centre of the screen. Nevertheless, the videos themselves are excellent and help to add authenticity, especially when some of the older rap videos are on show – contrasting the new and the old in rap and hip-hop history better than any of the ‘Info’ sections before each song could ever hope of doing.
Which brings us into the set-list that, whilst initially seeming to be lacking at 55 tracks, charts the history of hip-hop nicely, with a diverse stretch through eras, style and rap scenes; from Salt-N-Pepa to Run-D.M.C and Snoop Dogg, to the more recent; Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em, Kanye West and 10 UK-exclusive tracks, including Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’. The feeling of progression through tracks though is woeful and fails to muster the techniques of more ‘gamey’ mechanics that Rock Band, Guitar Hero et al have since tuned to perfection. Def Jam Rapstar feels nothing more than a souped-up karaoke game with some sparkling, gold-tinted graphics – the ‘Career’ mode is a tedious step from one song to the next in a long line of tracks with five separate stages, where a certain number of ‘mics’ need to be earned to progress to the following stage and ultimately become the ‘Def Jam Rapstar’. At the end of each stage are Challenges that work very well and stand alone in trying to add anything to the mode. Ranging from ‘Timing’ (hitting as many ‘rap targets’ as possible in a section of a song), to ‘Endurance’, ‘High Score’ and ‘Song Unlock’ challenges; each adds something different to the sometimes laborious process of going from one song to the next in a very similar fashion.
But onto Def Jam’s show-stopper which is a karaoke system that accurately tracks and scores your performance on lyrical accuracy, timing, and pitch (for the more traditional singing section with a wave-form). Being able to pick up (more or less) on whether what is coming out of your mouth matches the lyrics on-screen and the accuracy of your timing, brings Def Jam one step ahead of the usual karaoke game, where a muffled hum can more or less achieve a 5-star rating. The UI now takes the form of small orbs that glow if you hit on time and on-key. You’ll have to know tracks inside-out though for the top scores as a tempo, style and flow all change on the fly, as comes with the territory. Just one niggling issue arises in terms of timing. A spark flies above the words (that thankfully, have another line beneath to cue up) to highlight when to rap, although there is no governing time scale so that it would be obvious when to sing aloud, when to stop, or when to hold the note in these sections. Perhaps it’s a little critical when a firmer knowledge on the tracks is needed, but it still dampened our spirits on those we struggled with.
The dedication to the community and social features is another glowing endorsement from the overall package and the steps it takes to promote user videos and their own freestyles (yes, you can freestyle with added backing tracks unlocked through the career) is admirable. Videos can be rated and commented on whilst you’ll also have the ability to ‘battle’ other players, with the two songs voted on by other users to find a winner.
Overall, Def Jam Rapstar is an excellent entry to the rap karaoke genre and goes some way to achieving what fans would have been wanting from the game. With a little bit more fine tuning here and there, Def Jam Rapstar has the potential to be a very serious contender within the music game market. It may be a much more niche product in the grand scheme of things, but its accomplishments are impressive nonetheless.
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