A friend of mine, let's call him Bob, was venting at me the other day about how he felt that music games, far from encouraging people to pick up and play real instruments or listen and engage with different styles of music and new artists, were the sort of thing that the devil would lock the bathroom door for if he had an upset stomach. He felt that such games as Guitar Hero and Rock Band stifled and sapped creativity, taking up time and increasing amounts of money that could be better spent actually going to gigs, buying music, talking to bands and doing the thing for real.
He might have a point...but, then again, you don't get Achievement Points for strumming along to Sweet Home Alabama down your local pub, although that barmaid you've been eyeing up might agree to finally go out with you.
Def Jam Rapstar is about to change that and, on top of that, it might be the most surprisingly impressive game we've seen at Gamescom yet. Encompassing the last thirty years of hip-hop with 45 tracks including the vocal stylings of such artists as Dre, Snoop, T.I., Kanye West, A Tribe Called Qwest, Run-DMC, Method Man, not to mention localised tracks for the four countries in which it's being released, it's striving to be not just the premier hip-hop game out there, but also hoping to set a benchmark for the music genre.
Rap is not something that's been done terribly well as yet. SingStar rapping is an awful experience, as are equivalents in Rock Band and Guitar Hero, all based on rhythm with variable accuracy and no voice recognition. With that in mind, Def Jam Rapstar has implemented a system that picks up and rates your performance on three different things: lyrical flow, timing and pitch.
The last two are very well implemented already but, as many of you will have surely encountered, it's perfectly possible to hum your way through a SingStar track. Not with Rapstar, it'll pick up timing, but you won't get any points for lyrics thanks to the active voice recognition software and your score will suffer.
There'll be three modes to throw down in – Party, Career and Freestyle – and three ways to bust out a song be it on your own, as part of a duet or a battle. The first mode is pretty self-explanatory, if you want to just reel off a couple of tracks then that's the one you go for. Career will be instantly familiar to any music game fans, with a series of levels unlocked by attaining stars, or in this case microphones, based on performance. 10% of the tracks will be locked to begin with, unlockable through Career Mode progression and the game, eyeing up a Teen rating, and considering that due to the videos all of the tracks are radio edits, won't contain any of those naughty swear words that freak out Americans so much.
Jon and I proceeded to have a bit of a battle to 'Gold Digger' and I have to say it was a lot of fun. Moreover, at the end, there was a line by line breakdown of exactly where we went wrong in terms of timing, pitch and lyrical delivery. If you're looking to learn by doing, or just striving for that 100% completion target, this will prove invaluable.
Freestyle is where lyricists will be able to flex their muscles, with big name producers like Just Blaze lending their services to providing some backing beats for aspiring rappers to freestyle over the top of the music...and record. Utilising the EyeToy, the LIVE camera and Kinect, Def Jam Rapstar makes this experience all about you. After your performance, be it covering someone else's track or laying down your own, you can crop the film to 30 seconds and start editing it.
There are 27 slots to play with on every video to bring your dreams of being Biggie or Pac to life. Not only can you add stickers, animations like flames, fireworks and other funky visual, and colour fades and vid effects, but you can position, enhance and customise them too. Additionally, audio effects are mapped to the controller, so if you want to bust out 'Nuthin But A G Thang' with a ton of reverb or some delay then you can. Once you're done, you can upload your masterpiece to the game's website for the world to see.
But it doesn't stop there. 4mm are creating an online community that they hope will not just take the games industry by storm, but might even prove to make a mark on the music one too. The videos that get posted up are all community generated and community rated. There'll be a moderating process to filter out material deemed too offensive (although the road is clear to drop some f-bombs should you wish) but by and large it's incredibly hands-off. You can vote for those you do and pan the ones you don't and, if someone's been running their mouth, you can challenge them to a battle.
There are no live battles over the net here, it's all done by video upload (something our rep said would actually be possible over XBL Silver...an exciting possibility if true, but still yet to fully confirm). It'll be a case of track vs. track, although battle rounds can be up to 3 rounds long, which is especially useful for Freestyle contests. Basically the warring rappers post up their best stuff and the community decides who wins.
The features on display were simply staggering: variable battle voting windows, a pop-up user interface to see your stats at any time, online badges to encourage replayability for pride and respect, an actual Respect meter to chart your successes, a battle calendar to help your remember when and who you're up against next, favourites lists, fan lists, rivals lists. There was crew creation too – think clans, but cooler – and the option to engage in crew battles where each team send a representative to battle for them.
But on top of that there's a real sense of metagaming. Points aren't just there for bragging rights, they can be spent on online ad space, and this is where promoters come in. Can't rap but have a good eye? You can engage with the online community as a promoter, looking to get behind artists and push them up the ladder. If they win battles and do well under your guidance then you reap the rewards too, which can then be spent on banner space at the top of the front page on site and your reputation will soar. Alternatively, screw it up and people will avoid you like the plague. You have tools to help you, integrated synchronicity with Facebook and Twitter should you wish help secure positive voters. There's a big chance that hip-hop fans will really take this one to heart.
We saw some serious crossover potential here, something that was echoed by 4mm's Chief Creative Officer Jamie King in our one on one interview afterwards (will be posted onsite on return). King foresees online competitions resulting in offline events where reps from all over the globe can come to battle in real-time for a shot at stardom, riding a wave of fan appreciation. This is a game that's been a long time in coming, but its highly intelligent features and sophisticated engine mean that it's almost certainly here to stay. I'm chronically out of touch with hip-hop and I can't say that every track on the setlist appeals, but this is a game that I really want to do well. It's a game that has big ambitions and is using those ambitions to smack down console divides (although we hope not console rivalries) and provide a gaming experience closer to an MMO than a music/rhythm title. Make no bones about it, with Def jam reportedly watching over who rises to the top, Rapstar is going to be massive.