19th Nov 2008 | 17:00
Let's get this out of the way then; SingStar. It's the undisputed king of the karaoke game genre (are there any other singing games?) and undoubtedly the target behind Microsoft's unashamed copycat, Lips.
What might come as a surprise to some though, is that Lips turns out to be not a desperate knock-off to get at PlayStation's girls and grannies, but an impressively engineered, visually pleasing party experience from the Japanese blokes who did Elite Beat Agents.
At first glance, it all looks incredibly similar to Sony's counterpart; two coloured bars hop up and down the screen, dishing out awards and explanation marks with great abandon, all while Duffy's big round face sings in a background music video. But beyond this, under the hood iNiS' game is surprisingly a deal more advanced than Sony's genre supremo, starting off with a pair of rather sexy microphones.
As we've been patiently waiting for Sony to adopt since announcing SingStar PS3, the Xbox 360's mics are wireless and look fantastic. They're obviously plastic but feel weighty, and we reckon they could survive more than a few drunken flings towards the television cabinet (Ikea would probably come out worse, to be honest)
At the bottom of the mics are an attractive assortment of LEDs, which change colour more times than the spaceship from Close Encounters to match song rhythm, sync up to the console and indicate their biggest toy of all... the motion sensors.
A quick shake of the 360 microphone lets a second player enter the game. Once your performance has racked up enough points you can tilt or pose with the mic (indicated by on-screen diagrams) to trigger Star Stream, which is similar to Guitar Hero's own Star multiplier.
You can also use the mic's motion trickery to manipulate song backgrounds (when you're not staring at Chris Martin in a music video, obviously) such as tilting it to 'pour' water onto a sparking bomb.
It's hardly a revolution of the established Karaoke game formula, but it adds another much-needed layer to a formula that needs to be simple in order to succeed. And thankfully, the subtle depth doesn't end there; 'tapping' your mic during a song acts as a tambourine, adding more points to your performance.
Other, more shy players can even join in on 360 pads, adding sound effects and crowd cheers from the comfort of their chair next to the cocktail sausages. It's intended as a party experience, and Lips certainly does a good job of drawing (or tricking) more people towards the mic.
But Lips' biggest advance over Sony's series is in its actual scoring system, which feels a lot more inviting and flamboyant to use. For example, where SingStar would usually punish you for powering out A-Ha's Take on Me with the vocal power of Meatloaf rather than simply sticking to tone, Lips' comparatively easy-going computer judge will dish out a Vibrato bonus for your wails.
Awards for pitch, stability and rhythm are still there, but what it means is that Lips rewards players for both their singing and their performance. Where Singstar often encourages dull, note-hitting performances, Lips definitely caters for the non- Mariah Careys among us, who'd rather have fun and wail like an X Factor drop-out. In fact, it's impossible to fail songs in Lips.
In that sense Microsoft's game offers less of a strict karaoke experience and feels more like a Western-leaning toy for post-pub shower singers, and yeah, drunken parties.
But ultimately, every karaoke game lives and dies on its track list. And while Lips' scoring and game mechanics feel like a step up from Sony's series, SingStar has a definite advantage in this area with hundreds of downloadable tunes and three instalments on PS3 already.
Lips ships with 40 tracks on disc, with (in the first run at least) A-Ha's Take on Me included as a free download. The mix of tunes is varied and done well; there's everything from Kylie, to Kaiser Chiefs, to The Police and Alicia Keys. More are promised via downloadable content, but at the moment it's not enough to keep you from putting your hands in your pockets - and that's if there turns out to be a decent selection on Xbox Live.
Microsoft would argue at this point that Lips lets you import your own tracks from an MP3 player or hard drive, thus infinitely expanding its song library, but without the videos, lyrics and accurate scoring of the included tracks this feature probably won't keep your attention for long.
Make no mistake; Lips is the first real competitor for SingStar's throne, and with a few more iterations (and tracks) it could well take it. Microsoft's game offers a more inviting, less regulated party experience - even if that leaves it feeling like less of an actual karaoke game and more of a post-pub experience. Just don't spill wine on the sexy mics.