When it comes to music and video games, Konami may have started the craze, but it has also failed to capitalize the market beyond its core Dance Dance Revolution series. Sure, it has made attempts, but the likes of Karaoke Revolution and Rock Revolution aren't exactly setting sales records when compared to the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. So it was with a bit of dread (and an audible groan) when we first saw Def Jam Rapstar featured prominently at a recent Konami event — at least until we got our hands on the demo.
If ever there was a game that needed to be played to be understood, this is it. On paper, Def Jam Rapstar sounds much like any other music game. It would be easy to dismiss it as a knock-off, but Get On Da Mic this ain't.
Def Jam Rapstar starts out with the basic concepts of a music game — licensed tracks, music videos, microphones — but wraps them into an innovative experience that hasn't been done before. Perhaps the most compelling feature (and one that we wouldn't be surprised to see both Guitar Hero and Rock Band mimic in the coming months) is the video sharing option.
As we played on the Xbox 360, Def Jam Rapstar recorded our entire performance on the connected Vision camera. The game displayed our video on-screen, next to the official video, but the core of the feature became apparent after the song was over. Using a basic editing interface, we were able to choose a 30-second clip to save as well as upload to the Internet. Players will be able to share their performances on the official Def Jam Rapstar community site, as well as YouTube and personal Web sites. Say what you will about the song selection, but this feature alone is guaranteed to be big.
While the final song selection is still to be determined, representatives from Def Jam Interactive confirmed that Def Jam Rapstar will ship with 40 songs from the past 25 years of hip-hop. A DLC storefront is also planned, so expect that 40-song track list to grow quite quickly after launch.
Sitting down to play, it is obvious that a lot of thought was put into the user interface. The design doesn't directly mimic any other music title, though it should feel intuitive to anyone who's ever picked up a plastic mic in the past.
After choosing your song, the corresponding music video plays in the center of the screen. Lyrics scroll by across the top and bottom of the music video, while a window to the left shows your performance live, assuming you have a camera hooked up. Little touches, like the ability to skip the intro or ending parts of a song with no lyrics help keep downtime to a minimum.
Players could choose to go it alone or rap alongside a friend in duet (co-op) or competitive modes. Duet has both players alternating lyrics, while competitive throws you down into a straight-up rap battle — both players have to utter every word, and the winner is the one who's more on point.
Where Def Jam Rapstar stands out is in its focus on timing and phoneme analysis. In short, there's no warbling your way through a song here like you can in other music games — at least not in the rap portions. If you're not on beat and saying something that at least approximates the proper lyrics, expect it to show as a miss. This won't be a problem for some of the songs, but expert level beats with lyrics that shoot out a mile a minute are sure to require a bit of practice before throwing down. Hey, at least the resulting YouTube videos should be fun to watch.
Given the crowds that gathered around the two Def Jam Rapstar stations, the game is likely to have strong appeal as a party favorite. The developers even took the extra step of highlighting player colors directly on the mics on the Xbox 360. If you are using the Lips wireless mics, the color of the mic matches the color (blue and orange) of your lyrics on-screen. It's a basic feature, but one that ensures you never have to hear "So am I the top or the bottom player?" whenever you pass the mic along to the next person in the group.
The Def Jam name has never been a symbol of AAA gaming, but Def Jam Rapstar stands poised to change that. It's a game that will appeal to hip-hop fans and fans of music gaming in general. Rather than try to take a standard game formula and shoehorn the music into a pre-designed template, the developers at 4mm Games have built an experience around the music. It's a subtle difference, but it's one that can mean the difference between an average game and a great game.
To be fair, what we saw of Def Jam Rapstar was only a small snippet of gameplay, but the level of polish and presentation was already on par with that of a retail release. If the rest of the game ends up at the same level upon release, then Konami might find itself as a dominant player in the music genre once again.
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