Despite the deafening racket made by the sheer weight of music games on the shelves, Def Jam Rapstar still feels unique. It's dedicated to hiphop, a massive music genre which is under-served in the games market.
While SingStar and Guitar Hero mine their respective pop and rock fields for tracks, there are well over 30 years of rap just waiting to be sucked in and channelled through the right title. 4mm Games' debut effort is an impressive showcase, putting the tunes up front with the backing of one of the longest-running and most influential record labels around.
As with all the best music games, the rules are simple: pick up that mic and belt out some tunes. Within minutes you'll be smashing through classic rap songs - old-school, pop, UK, gangster, boom-bap, dirty south, jiggy and everything in between. The sheer variety presents the player with the game's biggest challenge, because the hardest part of Def Jam Rapstar is switching rap styles successfully.
With the track selection's chronology dating from way back in the eighties all the way to the contemporary rap scene, the difference between lyrical flows and style can be jarring. Run DMC's "Run's House" is fast with some fine tongue-twisters, compared to Drake's "Best I Ever Had" with its part-singing, part-melodic rap.
Biz Markie's deliberately out-of-tune chorus on "Just A Friend" and awkward rhymes are part of the song's charm, but they're difficult to master compared to the ferocity of LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" or the abrupt flow of Dizzie Rascal's "Fix Up, Look Sharp".
There are some songs that really test your skills - Salt n' Pepa's "Push It" doesn't have many lyrics but the combination of rap, singing and samples flexes the mouth. Public Enemy's "Fight the Power", complete with Chuck D's conscious raps and Flava Flav's interruptions, is another tricky one for a single player to perform. And in Solo play mode, it can be even more challenging to mimic multiple rapper styles in a song like Wu-Tang's "C.R.E.A.M." or Fat Joe's "Lean Back".
4mm Games has done a commendable job of tailoring the music to fit the gameplay. This is particularly evident when it comes to the two-player modes, where you can play co-operatively or battle it out for points.
This is easy enough with a RUN DMC track - one player spits Rev Run's verse, another DMC's, and you both join in on the chorus. On other tracks where there's only one emcee, and on posse cuts, the developer has split verses and choruses or just divided up bars in a verse. This type of decision illustrates that 4mm has an excellent understanding of musical structure and the flow of rap.
There are some quirks to Def Jam Rapstar. In some instances, you don't perform the full chorus every time in a song because a verse overlaps. For example, you only sing three lines of Notorious BIG's "Juicy" chorus until the closing part of the song, when you sing all four. This feels a little odd - although admittedly, it doesn't take much effort to adapt.
The game uses the original uncut videos but you're given the option of skipping skits and intros. Again, "Best I Ever Had" and "Just A Friend" are the main offenders, but it's commendable that 4mm has included options to tackle what could be sticking points for some players.
After your performance is over you can dabble with the video editor (provided you've hooked up a compatible camera), working with 30 seconds of film to customise with stickers, visuals and sound effects as you see fit. It's easy to mess about with, and a welcome option to liven up footage of what in my case was a stumpy white bloke rapping out of tune in his living room in north Wales.
There doesn't seem to be an easy way to sync up timing, so you have to fiddle around with the timer a lot to start at the exact point you'd like. Another downside is you can't cut the performance to less than 30 seconds. If your best flow was over 20 seconds but then runs into a chorus, you're stuck with it.
My only real concern when performing was there appeared to be an audio delay, but I'm not sure if this had a direct effect on my gameplay and scoring. The issue isn't helped by the fact that there doesn't seem to be much of a difference between Easy, Medium and Hard modes.
At the set-up stage you're asked to calibrate your microphone by holding it against your speakers. I had an audio delay of 106ms. At times I could hear the delay and it was a little off-putting, but during some songs I couldn't hear anything and it didn't seem to make any difference to my performance. I also found my performance was much better with earphones, so it may be a case of user lag.
Although there's no tutorial, DJR does feature a practice mode where you can pull out particular verses and choruses to rehearse away from the full song - a helpful feature if you're getting tongue-tied with a line or two. Give it some rehearsal time and it's not long before you're racking up multipliers and big scores.
There are also clear but unobtrusive audio clues when you hit multipliers, so you don't have to take your eyes off the lyrics while you're performing. Once you've finished a song you can check out your performance and the game will highlight any words you missed during verses. This is handy for working out where you're making the most mistakes.
Even ignoring the hand-holding the game is generous, throwing Trophies at you for all sort of achievements and unlocking extra customisation options for the video editor. It takes a lot of confidence to spit classic rap verses and DJR is an encouraging teacher, rewarding you for exploring the game and messing around with features. Almost every attempt at a song leaves you feeling like you're making progress - which is as it should be in a game with so much content and so many features to play with.
Ultimately good music titles are about having fun with music, and Def Jam Rapstar looks like it'll do a blinding job on that level. It leans towards the lighter side of hiphop - more Kid 'n Play than Kid Frost - but there's enough variety on offer to make even the most jaded backpacker pick up a mic.
It's telling that no matter how much I bang on about loving hard, classic rap music, I still enjoyed the pop tracks - although I draw the line at N-Dubz. I was more than willing to try songs a purist would turn his nose up at or that I would never dream of listening to for my own pleasure. As far as I can tell, that is another sign of a successful music game. Here's hoping Def Jam Rapstar lives up to the promise it's already showing.