Review: Singstar (Sony PS3)

Singstar
Genre: Singing/Rhythm game
Developer: SCEE London
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: 05/20/08


Despite the continuous and ever-expanding success of the “band game” with products like Rock Band and the recently announced Guitar Hero 4 set to take the music genre to new levels of fake instrument playing awesomeness, karaoke games are still popping out here and there. A few months ago (February, to be exact) we discussed one of the two “franchise players” in the karaoke genre when Konami released their first current-gen Karaoke Revolution title, and now, here we are three months later discussing Singstar. Singstar is an interesting product in comparison to Karaoke Revolution: American Idol Encore for a few reasons; like KRAIE and unlike its prior North American brethren, it trades up having a musical theme for having a diverse song selection… unlike KRAIE, it’s a console specific property exclusive to the PS3 (which makes sense, as it IS a Sony property)… and much like KRAIE it has opted to offer up a selection of downloadable songs online for the music game enthusiast.

But perhaps the biggest difference of all is that Singstar is, in almost every way imaginable, superior to KRAIE and, dare it be said, pretty much worth your money no matter how jaded on the genre you may be. As karaoke games go, it’s pretty damn good, if not at all perfect.

So, okay, yes, there’s no story, so let’s talk gameplay modes. There’s solo and duet singing, as well as the typical “Pass the Mic” play that lets you switch players mid-song to compete for points in various ways. Generally speaking, there’s plenty of gameplay variety here, and as there’s nothing to unlock or compete for, it’s really all about the singing for fun, which is actually pretty entertaining; the game fulfills its requirement as a party game that you can just grab some friends and play without having to spend hours unlocking everything (*coughEveryNintendoGameOnTheWiihack*) to get maximum enjoyment out of the experience. There’s also the option to upload videos and audio clips of yourself singing online for other people to judge; while many of us are, most likely, atrocious singers for real, it’s nice to know that we might be able to listen to people who don’t butcher songs on the service, if such a thing appeals to you.

Visually, Singstar departs from the Karaoke Revolution formula entirely; instead of having a customized digital avatar sing and shake their booty on-stage as scores are earned, Singstar simply shows you the music video of the song you’re singing (which is amusing if you’ve forgotten how awful 90’s music videos were, if nothing else) and the interface (words to sing, pitches to hit, the normal). Generally speaking, the videos are all top quality, and the interface looks good enough and works well enough in context. As far as the audio goes, the songs are the exact songs as they were originally recorded, so they’re pretty much spot on, and the one or two background tunes that pop up during menu selections and such are cute and inoffensive; generally, the aural presentation in the product is of top quality, though your mileage may vary insofar as actual content is concerned.

As far as gameplay is concerned, well, as I’ve said before, it’s a karaoke game; if you know what that means (whether it be from Rock Band or Karaoke Revolution or whatever) then hey, great, skip the next paragraph. If not, well… uh… normally this is the part where I Ctrl-C Ctrl-V the gameplay description from Karaoke Revolution Party (if it works, go with it), but Singstar doesn’t play quite like Karaoke Revolution. So, instead I’ll have to edit the description a tiny tad, as such:

“The gameplay in Singstar consists almost entirely of singing, which probably isn’t much of a surprise. As in previous Singstar games, the words are displayed at the bottom of the screen, along with a series of bars that appear directly above it, some of which may be glittering. Your objective is to match the pitch of the actual song, so that your vocals trace across the bar, thus earning you points, moreso if you complete the glittering bars. If you’re off-pitch, your vocals will pop up either or above or below the bar you’re aiming for so as to indicate how off you are so that you can adjust, so you can adjust your pitch to try and score regardless. Depending on how you do, you’re given any one of a number of different descriptors like “Hopeful” based on your score. The game judges neither words nor tone, so you need not sound like Villie Valo to sing “Right Here In My Arms”, nor do you have to sing the actual lyrics. The downside of this is that you can simply hum and earn points with no penalty, but on the upside, if you’re so inclined, you can feel free to come up with your own words to the songs and sing those instead. The game seems to respond well to your voice, and so long as your microphone works and you can match the pitch of the song, you should have no issues to speak of with the gameplay.”

Aren’t uniform gameplay mechanics wonderful?

Karaoke Revolution and Singstar differ from one another, as noted, in how the lyrics are displayed; KR games show the lyrics as the blue bars come onto the screen, while Singstar games show the lyrics and the pitch bars one section after the next, with completed sections disappearing as new sections pop up. Basically, both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, but if you’ve played one, you can adjust to the other well enough, and if you haven’t played either one, you can still figure out how the game works with little to no difficulty. If you know how a song goes, you’ll obviously be better off than if you don’t, but you can learn the song well enough with a little time, assuming you want to, and if you can match the pitch, you’re golden either way. Singstar differs from the various Karaoke Revolution games in that it also offers rap sections in songs (most notably with the Faith No More song “Epic”, for instance), where the song grades your “rapping” by judging if you match the tone of the original rap, more or less, without forcing you to hit the appropriate notes exactly. Singstar also offers up “Freestyle” sections where you can pretty much do whatever you want (the game doesn’t score freestyle), so if you want to make an ass of yourself or whatever by making up your own little freestyle rap or song, by all means, knock yourself out, though if you don’t, you’re not obligated to do so either.

Any music based game lives or dies by its song list, and Singstar would probably be something of a disappointment if not for an interesting feature that ends up saving it in spades. Basically, Singstar includes thirty tracks, fourteen of which come from the “International” track list, and sixteen of which are specific to the American list. The end result is about what you’d expect; you get about four songs you actually want to sing, four or five songs you’d sing if you had nothing else to play with, and about twenty or so songs you’d sooner shatter the disc and use the pieces to kill yourself with than ever sing on purpose. Songs like “Toxic” by Britney Spears and “All the Small Things” by Blink 182 I can understand being transferred over, but looking over the list of replaced songs, one kind of has to ask questions like “Why was “ËœWe’re Not Gonna Take It’ replaced?” or “Why did they leave in songs by artists who have no real name recognition in the US and take out acts like The Gorillaz and Macy Gray who at least have US notoriety?”

I mean, come on. You’re ripping out musicians like Gwen Stefani, Macy Gray, Twisted Sister, Gorillaz and Junior Senior, replacing them with acts like Amy Winehouse, Corrine Bailey Rae, and the Pixies, and leaving in acts like Scissor Sisters (who, yes, are American, I know, but you wouldn’t know it by their success here compared to abroad), and The Automatic. Yes, certainly, there are plenty of songs that only appear in this game and nowhere else, and it’s wonderful that I can sing “Let’s Dance” and “Cherry Pie”, but, um, this is still rather confusing. And, oh yes, thirty tracks is itty-bitty in comparison to the forty or fifty tracks other games come with.

This is off-set, however, by the Singstore. As the title cleverly implies, this is an online store you can access through the Playstation Online Network which allows you to download tunes; for the low, low cost of $1.49 apiece, you can download any one of (at this time) over two hundred tracks for use in your game from an astonishingly large collection of artists. Seriously; you’ve got, off the top of my head, tracks from Duran Duran, The Rasmus, HIM, Guano Apes, Billy Ocean, The Spice Girls, Blur, Blondie, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Culture Club, David Bowie, The Weather Girls and En Vogue, and that’s not even a quarter of the artists available. There is, literally, something for everyone available in the Singstore… if you’re willing to part with the cash for it. Though in fairness, it’s not like you can sing HIM or Spice Girls songs in many other karaoke games, really, so one must take the good with the bad. Oh, and on the off chance that you already own Singstar mics from the PS2 version of the game, you can safely buy the “game only” version of Singstar (which is about $20 less), as the PS2 mics worj with the PS3 game… though if you lack the mics, you’re beat; you can’t use normal USB mics in place of the Singstar equipment.

The online component of Singstar amounts to being able to make a profile online where you can post your high scores, audio clips of you singing your karaoke (which the game seems to record in the background as you’re playing… which is very frightening if you sound anything like I do), and short video clips of you doing whatever, if you have an Eye-Toy. You can also pick your way through other people’s video and audio recordings; the audio recordings are often pretty rotten, but the video recordings can be amusing at times. Granted, half of them are large-chested girls singing karaoke (poorly) or little kids singing (AWWWWWWWW whatever), but occasionally you’ll stumble across Captain Jack Sparrow or Chewbacca singing and dancing and that generally makes it worthwhile.

In other words, it’s basically Youtube for people who like singing.

Unfortunately, even with the astronomical variety of the downloadable tracks, the amusing (and free) community videos, and the generally solid gameplay variety and mechanics, there are problems, some more puzzling than others. The biggest problem, of course, is that this is just another karaoke game, for better or worse, with a bare-bones design to it. If you like Singstar as a brand, this is exactly like all the others, only sans a theme; if you don’t, well, this is exactly like all the others… only sans a theme. Downloadable tracks are something of a nice addition to the product, to a point, but the fact that there are only thirty tracks in the game itself coupled with the fact that you may well be turned off by half of the tracks from the word go depending on your personal preferences, well… it makes the game feel like something of an overpriced product; had the core game cost something closer to $20 or $30 (the core game, sans mics, is $40; with mics, it’s $60) it might have been more reasonable.

And on that same line of thinking, this is a freaking Blu-Ray disc for crying out loud! I understand the whole “we can only fit so many songs on the disc” mentality when DVD’s are brought into play; judging by the download size of the songs, each song is somewhere between 50 to 100MB in size, so thirty songs, even at the 50MB size, would take up a minimum of a gigabyte and a half of space, probably closer to two or three gigs at maximum. But, um… Blu-Ray discs have more storage than that. I mean, that’s the entire selling point of the things, right? 25GB of storage space on a single-layer disc, 50GB on a dual-layer disc, this was one of the major talking points of the technology… and yet, we’re being handed a game that, by all indications, could have fit onto a single-layer DVD and being charged full-price for it? Please; unless the front-end for the game is something like 20GB in size, the impression here is, shockingly, that Sony isn’t doing very much with their next-generation technology that they couldn’t do with a DVD.

Hey, someone has to say it.

Then there are the confusing problems. The game starts out with an amusing little intro video of people singing along to the Wolfmother song “Woman”. It’s cute, it gets the point across… and it’s confusing because “Woman” isn’t available in the game. It’s not on the disc, you can’t download it, it’s just… not there. This further becomes a problem when you run into the problem where you notice someone has a high score in a song THAT YOU CAN’T PLAY. “Oh, hey, they have a high score on a Pink song, lemme go download… wait… why can’t I download that?”

Yes, yes, they only paid for the rights to distribute the song in France or something, I get it. I also don’t care. This might surprise you, but I can identify Pink and Daft Punk by name, and would pay money to download their songs; conversely, I cannot identify Maximo Park, Wizzard, and The Zutons by name, and would NOT pay money to download their songs. Thus, when it becomes apparent that other countries are being offered downloads of songs I would pay money for while I’m being offered downloads of songs that, realistically, NO ONE should be paying money for, well, that’s very confusing and a little weird.

So. Taken at face value, with no further expectations or scrutiny, Singstar is a fun, amusing karaoke game that offers a wide variety of musical tracks to choose from and a ton more to download as well as a bunch of different ways to play around with them, and if you are the sort of person who likes these sorts of games and owns a PS3, you really should own it. It’s simple to play, fun, and offers a lot of variety if you’re willing to fork over the cash, and hey, watching people making videos of themselves doing stupid things never really gets old (as Youtube has proven). Upon inspection, however, it’s really the exact same thing as every game before it with the ability to download content (at a cost) and watch short videos (which is entertaining so long as there are videos worth watching) added in, and the fact that there are only 30 songs when the game is PS3 exclusive and built onto a disc that could hold easily three times that amount of tracks is kind of insulting… and the track distribution decisions often make little sense. If you’re looking for another singing game, hey, this will do it for you no questions asked, but if you’re looking for something that’s good to go out of the box, or something that does a little more than last generation’s titles, you might want to rent Singstar first to see if it’s worth shelling out the cash on the game AND the songs you’ll end up having to download to keep the game entertaining.

The Scores:
Game Modes: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: GOOD
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: BAD

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Singstar for the PS3 is a generally entertaining, amusing, fun and enjoyable party game that will easily see plenty of play time if you’re willing to make the maximum investment in the product. It’s great to play with friends, features a wide variety of songs, offers a ton of songs to download to keep the game going strong, and it’s generally a pretty slick piece of work. That said, thirty tracks is on the lean side, watching videos of people making fools of themselves while playing only has so much entertainment value over one period of time, and while downloadable songs are neat, and so many at one time doubly so, it’s vaguely annoying having to download songs because there are so few provided, especially considering that more than a few songs are available on the service… just not in the US. That said, since Singstar games never really go down in price, $40 isn’t too bad if you love the genre or are new to it, but if you’ve been playing along for years, you might just be better off playing with what you already own another time.

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