The aptly named Karaoke app is uniquely positioned among the offerings on the Xbox 360. It's technically an app, not a game, but it still has achievements. It requires an online connection and streams every song, but you don't need an Xbox Live Gold account to use it. Silver accounts work just fine. It's free to download, but you have to pay for access to most content. All the content that is available is only available to rent. You cannot actually purchase any DLC. All of this might sound a bit confusing to someone who's used to playing Lips or Rock Band, but it starts to make sense when you realize that Karaoke isn't competing with those games. It's something else entirely.
Although the singing aspect of other music games has often resulted in karaoke references, most of them went much further than the traditional karaoke bar experience. For example, both Lips and Rock Band display live pitch tracking on-screen and score you appropriately. Starting with The Beatles: Rock Band, that franchise even added support for two- and three-part vocal harmonies. If you're expecting that sort of accuracy in Karaoke, don't. Even though the developer of Lips worked on Karaoke, Karaoke is not Lips. Instead, it's designed to emulate the kind of machine you'd find in an actual karaoke bar.
To that end, almost everything about Karaoke should be familiar to anyone who's ever dropped a CD+G disc into a machine. The biggest difference is that you don't have to fumble with a worn-out paper song list. The entire catalog is indexed on-screen. Song lyrics are displayed in big, bold text, with orange and blue coloring highlighting the words as they are sung. Despite the fact that all of the content is streamed to your Xbox 360, there was never an issue with choppy performance or a drop-out in the middle of a song. That's not to say the network never acted up — simply that it never acted up while you were in the middle of singing.
Because the songs used by the Karaoke app are actual karaoke versions pulled from The Karaoke Channel library, you shouldn't expect any master recordings. These are all cover versions. Most have a lead vocal track for you to sing alongside and use as guidance, though a handful of the tracks do not. You have the option of turning off the lead vocal on any track.
In general, the quality of the covers was good. There were a few that stood out simply because the cover artist didn't really capture the sound of the original, and there was one track that was just oddly quiet (as if it were recorded at a lower volume than the rest), but all in all, we had no real complaints about the quality. It's exactly what you'd get if you went out to a karaoke bar. It's the navigation of the list which deserves some criticism.
Given that iNiS' Lips games had much smaller libraries, it's not a huge surprise the developer stumbled here. Karaoke allows you to browse by genre or search, but there's no option to browse by artist unless you use the SmartGlass companion app on your smartphone. You can build a queue of songs, but you can't edit that queue or save a playlist. Not being able to save a playlist is mildly annoying for two reasons: one is the aforementioned network issue while the second is the way in which Karaoke charges for use.
The network issue we ran into was occasional, but every so often, the game would say it lost the connection to the server and drop back to the title screen. When this happened, it was always in between songs, making it seem like some behind-the-scenes authentication process had failed. Unfortunately, when it did happen, it would wipe out the queue, forcing us to rebuild it from scratch.
As far as billing is concerned, Karaoke charges for use via blocks of time. There are five random songs available for free each day (you can sing these as much as you like, with no restrictions) or choose to purchase access to the entire 8,000+ song library for two hours (240 MSP/$3 USD), six hours (400 MSP/$5 USD) or 24 hours (800 MSP/$10 USD). The blocks of time are real time, not song time, so time spent browsing is time wasted. You can set up a queue ahead of time and then purchase access, but if you get hit with a random disconnect, that queue is gone.
Since access is provided in real time, the sweet spot in terms of value is really the $5 price point. Two hours is a bit short, but six hours is more than enough for most parties. With the 24-hour pass, you're going to be sleeping for part of that time, so unless you have a weekend Karaoke marathon planned, springing for the six-hour pass is the way to go.
From a hardware perspective, Karaoke is pretty welcoming. It supports wired USB mics (such as the ones bundled with the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games), the wireless Lips mics and even a generic Xbox 360 headset. You can have multiple mics hooked up for duets, though don't expect to get your whole crew on stage. Despite wording to the contrary, the Karaoke pass is only valid for the account that purchases it, and the app only seems to recognize one gamertag at a time. If you own a Kinect, Karaoke uses it to have you strike a pose in the middle of the song for bonus points. SmartGlass allows you to add songs to the queue as well as view the currently playing track. Unfortunately, the SmartGlass app seems to be a bit picky, as it would sometimes work, while other times, we'd press a button and nothing would happen.
For a free app, Karaoke does a lot of things right. It's accessible to anyone with a Live account, even Silver members. It offers up five free songs per day. It supports a wide range of mic hardware. Prices are reasonable, and it's great for parties. Still, there are a few areas where a small tweaks could really improve the experience. Our wish list:
- Add the ability to save playlists
- Make the queue persistent
- Add actual scoring so we can compete against our friends (the current system simply awards points for playing)
- Improve the SmartGlass app quality
- Increase variety on the daily free songs (over the course of a week, we were seeing repeats by day three)
- Let more than one player sign in and compete
- Populate the band with avatars of your friends rather than generic designs
- Remove the forced pause between songs when using a queue (a continuous play "party mode" would be a killer feature)
The Karaoke app may not be perfect, but it's still plenty enjoyable. It's not meant to compete with your Rock Band library. If you think of it as a replacement for that, it fails. But as a party game, it's killer. One of the biggest complaints with music games at parties is the lack of selection. Karaoke makes library diversity a non-issue. Stick with traditional music games for songs you love. Purchase time with Karaoke when you've got a large group with varied tastes. Since it costs nothing to download, you might as well give it a spin.
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