A music game that's just about singing? That's so 2003. Or if you're the SingStar franchise, it's so, um, today. Sony's PlayStation karaoke series has proudly focused on grading vocals for years now, but that's about the change with this fall's release of both SingStar Dance and SingStar Guitar. I got a chance to try both of these games at Sony's pre-GamesCom press event, and have written up some quick initial impressions after the break.
The comparisons to Harmonix's highly anticipated Dance Central are inevitable, and at first it seems like SingStar Dance will come out of the comparison looking pretty bad. After all, Dance Central tracks your entire body, while SingStar Dance just keeps track of the one hand that holds a PlayStation Move controller (leaving the other free to hold a microphone, we guess). Dance Central provides a small queue of upcoming dance moves on screen, so you can prepare for the next step, while the video dancers in SingStar Dance just throw moves at you and expect you to emulate them immediately and without warning.
But as I waved my arms and shook my behind to a rousing rendition of "Baby Got Back," I found it a bit hard to care about these supposed deficiencies. I was so focused on trying to mimic the somewhat repetitive set of on-screen dancers that I had to kind of take it on faith that the game was accurately grading my performance. If the game said my dancing was "Bad" or just "OK," I was horribly ill-equipped to disagree.
Of course, some gamers will be tempted to cheat, moving only one arm instead of their whole bodies. But they'll only be cheating themselves out of the silly fun of dancing. The grading almost seems incidental to using the game as an excuse to make a fool of yourself in front of some (hopefully drunk) friends. Or even strangers -- the producer who danced alongside me said he thought sharing dance videos through SingStar's online network would be one of the game's most popular features. As someone who watched dozens of videos of bad karaoke singers (who were often impromptu dancers as well), I do not find this hard to believe.
Here the comparisons to Rock Band are unavoidable, and it's nearly impossible for SingStar Guitar to come out looking good. First off, each SingStar Guitar song only has a single guitar part with three separate selectable difficulties. This means that the second-player bass line that has been an industry standard since Guitar Hero 2 is just totally ignored here; if two people want to play guitar here, they'd better want to play the same exact part.
Secondly, the interface is just plain... well, plain. The guitar parts come scrolling down in sets of five colored columns that will be familiar to any virtual guitar player. But the lion's share of the screen is still devoted to the lyrics and singers' note tubes, leaving the guitar part looking cramped and tiny. There's no visual flair to the large, colored circles that indicate each fret and strum, with just the barest color change when you successfully hit or miss a note and no visual indication when you bend with the whammy bar. It's also hard to gauge your performance mid-song, as there's no way to keep track of your current combo of matched notes.
So what does SingStar Guitar do better than Rock Band or Guitar Hero? Well, there's a feature that lets the PlayStation Eye take your picture when you raise the guitar neck, which we guess some people might prefer to activating a score multiplier. Oh, and you'll be able to buy the guitar parts online separately from the singing parts, which might save a few pennies for those players who don't want the whole package. And of course there's the series' signature music videos, which fill the background just as well as ever.
But these differences aren't nearly enough to distract from the fact that this game is essentially Rock Band chopped in half.