When it comes to reviewing games, not every critic agrees. Some decide that it's their job to score games based on what their readers would want, while others choose to center their final decision on their own personal opinions. In the case of Def Jam Rapstar I feel that I have no other choice but to come clean with all of my preconceived notions and biases. This is not going to be one of those reviews where the reader can simply look at the score and be done with it, because my C score comes with a surprising amount of caveats.
Let's start with the most important piece of information -- I am not a fan of rap music. I have nothing against the decades of hip hop, but I've always sided with alternative rock and the so-called college radio scene. Along the way I have managed to pick up a number of hip hop records, though it was rarely from me spending personal money. So going into Konami's newest music game I understood that I was at a significant disadvantage.
Def Jam Rapstar is easy to explain, it's karaoke with hip hop songs. If you've played Microsoft's Lips or Sony's SingStar series, then you'll know exactly what to expect from Rapstar. The gameplay is as simple as grabbing the nearest microphone (one comes with it for a few extra dollars) and rapping out the lyrics that pop up on screen. It's a concept anybody can understand, which is probably why this game will be appealing to so many hip hoppers who have felt shafted by the likes of Rock Band and Guitar Hero.
If you're a fan of this style of music, you'll definitely find something to love in Rapstar. You get old school hits from LL Cool J ("Mama Said Knock You Out"), Beastie Boys ("Brass Monkey") and Biz Markie ("Just A Friend"), as well as recent chart toppers from Lil' Wayne ("A Milli"), Drake ("Best I Ever Had"), Kanye West ("Stronger" and "Gold Digger"), T.I. ("Live Your Life"), Soulja Boy Tell 'Em ("Turn My Swag On") and 50 Cent ("I Get Money"). In total there are 45 different songs, running the gamut from catchy little numbers to songs I never want to hear ever again.
Like SingStar and Lips, Def Jam Rapstar features the song's music video as the background. It's a nice feature, but most people are going to be too busy keeping up with the speedy lyrics to notice what's going on in the background. It's also worth noting that not all songs have music videos. The Beastie Boy's 1987 hit "Brass Monkey" was successful without a music video, so players won't be too distracted by the audio channels bopping up and down.
For a lot of people that prospect of having a karaoke game full of hip hop is enough to warrant a purchase. While I certainly understand this mentality, I do have some issues with the game that I simply cannot overlook. Let's start with the most puzzling, the game's apparent lack of Dolby Digital support. Yes, this may seem like a minor problem, but the sound is noticeably muted in the standard stereo. After coming off of Guitar Hero and Rock Band (not to mention every other music game released in the past five years), I found the lack of Dolby support to be a little jarring. This is a music game after all; I expect the sound to be at the highest quality possible.
Another problem is the T-rating. Usually the ESRB rating doesn't play a part in my opinion of a game, but here it feels like something is missing. If you've listened to rap in the last few years, then you already know that many songs are littered with four-letter words and derogatory comments towards women. While some might argue that it's better without non-stop profanity, it does make some of the songs feel a little goofy. In Drake's hit "Best I Ever Had" there are entire lines that have been excised from the song. A word here and there isn't the end of the world, but when it's several lines in a row it's easy to lose your funky fresh flow.
Like all music games, you're going to get more out of the game if you are familiar with the songs. I found that I didn't know half of the songs, so jumping in to rap them was more than a little difficult. We're talking about rappers who don't always keep a consistent beat, which means it's probably best to listen to the song a few times before looking like a sucker MC on the mic.
You would think that the game's bouncy ball would help you keep beat, but it doesn't work out that way. The ball jumps from one syllable to another, which is only really helpful if you already know how the song goes. And even then it jumps so quickly that it's easy to miss a few words, get behind and have a terrible time catching up. This is made even worse by the limited lyrics that are on the screen. You get a short line, then it disappears to make way for another short line. Thankfully you get a preview of what's ahead, but the game has a tendency of rushing into the next line without giving you any notice. And don't forget that many of these songs are lyric driven, so it's common to speed through a half dozen lines in a matter of seconds.
On top of the bouncing ball, the game also forces you to harmonize during the singing sections. Unfortunately, this too has a lot of problems. It's common to go from a beat-heavy rap section and then have to sing another person's part. This is certainly the case with T.I.'s "Live Your Life." You'll spend much of your time speeding through hip hop lyrics only to discover that you also need to harmonize with guest vocalist Rihanna. And because the game doesn't use a scrolling lyric chart (a la Rock Band) you'll have next to no time to prepare for the singing. This has been a problem with past singing games, but never before has it been as apparent as it is in Rapstar.
When you're not following a bouncing ball or trying to hit the right pitch, you'll find yourself stuck watching lengthy rap videos. I had forgotten how much production goes into a standard rap video. It seems like just about every song has at least two minutes of bad acting before (and sometimes after) the video. Hell, some of the videos stop the song for these cheesy sequences. Thankfully you can skip them, but I stuck around just to see how poorly some of those old school videos have aged. There's something unique about a rap video, though it's not always conducive for a karaoke game.
Like real karaoke, Rapstar is incredibly shallow. The game features a paltry 45 songs and a bare bones career mode. Here you try your hand at seven songs and then move on to the next batch. There's no real story here, just a list of songs for you to perform. This was clearly designed with parties in mind, which may explain why the Party Mode is the very first option. With one or two players, Rapstar seems like the kind of thing somebody might pull out when friends are over. It's a shame there isn't more for a single player to do.
That's not to say that Konami didn't try to differentiate this from the rest of their karaoke games. I was impressed with the online modes, which allow you to upload your own rap videos and compete against your friends. As of press time, there's a not very surprising lack of videos to view on the service. I also found it disconcerting how short the videos were and how long it took for them to download. Let's hope this will be worked out as we get further away from the initial release.
As I played through the game's set lists, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed by the limited scope. With a game like Rock Band 3, you get guitars, drums, keyboards and singing (including back-up singers). But here it's nothing more than a few dozen music videos you can sing on top of. It's not even one of those games where the original vocals will go away if you don't participate; this is just a music video you sing over for points. Obviously there's a market for that, but part of me feels like this is the absolute bare minimum a company could do. I'm not sure what the alternative is, but there's a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between the ambitions of Rock Band and Rapstar.
Perhaps that's not fair, since this isn't a game about fake plastic instruments. But if all you're doing is writing down lyrics, animating that bouncing ball and converting a music video, I don't see why Konami didn't double the set list. Rock Band and Guitar Hero routinely have more than 80 songs, and that includes charting multiple instruments for several different difficulty levels. And the fact that the downloadable content is the same price as the Rock Band tracks ($2) is borderline offensive.
A lot of people are going to overlook many of these problems simply because this is the only rap-oriented karaoke game on the market. There are a lot of hip hop fans that are starving for this type of game, and Def Jam Rapstar offers the absolute bare minimum to make people happy. For me it's not about the music (which I mostly didn't care for), but rather how limited this product is. With only 45 songs and very few modes, there's almost nothing to keep players coming back. I suspect it's only a matter of time before somebody comes up with a real rap simulator that makes everybody forget about this very average product.
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* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
If all you're looking for is a karaoke game featuring hip hop's biggest stars, then Def Jam Rapstar is worth checking out. Just be warned, it features a limited track list, some questionable design decisions and very few compelling game modes. This is a good idea that needs to be retooled before it becomes a staple of the music game genre.