I'm sitting at the back of Konami's E3 booth, getting my first demo of Def Jam Rapstar. There's me and two geezers from developer-publisher 4mm Games. Best way to show the game? Get on the mic and give it a go. So geezer-man asks me what I want to hear.
There's an impressive set to choose from but I go for Wu-Tang's era-defining anthem "C.R.E.A.M." (appropriate for the amount of money spunked at E3 this year). We're half-way through when the door of the private room opens and in strolls Method Man, giving a pound, spitting a couple of lines and wandering back out.
My jaw's like Castle Grayskull. While we're all still gobsmacked, Redman comes through, grabs the mic and gives us a full rendition of Slick Rick classic "Children's Story". I try to keep it cool but in reality I'm sitting there like I've been pulling on a sherm stick. And then Minkley rolls in with a camera crew and blows my buzz.
But for a few minutes I'm there, top of the world. I'm a massive rap nerd, a 30-something white boy straight outta Leicester. E3's pretty surreal as it is, but when two genuinely dope emcees wander into my demo and start performing for the fun of it, it's almost like an orchestrated plan to get me on board. I had to make a second appointment to see the game again to make sure I wasn't just being swept along with the moment.
Def Jam Rapstar is comparable to the first couple of hours I had with DJ Hero, when I felt like FreeStyleGames had made the game just for me. What's apparent within five minutes of messing with Def Jam Rapstar is it's a genuine game representing hip-hop music and culture - and isn't a clumsy cash-in.
First up, it's a rap-a-long experience. It's hip-hop karaoke. Like SingStar, the basic game is to pick up the mic and spit lyrics along to a pretty fine collection of tracks. With 40 in the box, another 70 mapped out post-release, weekly updates and day-one freestyle tracks promised, Def Jam Rapstar should cover all bases, from backpack to jiggy, hardcore to nerdcore.
You can choose to rap along to the master recording or you can switch off the original artist, and those with bigger balls can even cut out the on-screen lyrics. Players are rated on three levels - pitch, which is judged the same as in SingStar, and then lyrically and on timing.
Lyrical scoring is the software breaking down each syllable rapped (matching your voice against the original master track) using developer Terminal Reality's phonic recognition software. Timing is scored on pace and flow and whether you're on or off the beat.
At the end of the track you're given an aggregate score and rated dope, wack, off the chain and yeah, it feels a little like someone has swallowed the Urban Dictionary. Players can score multipliers by stringing whole sections together professionally, with on-screen prompts such as flames burning up the screen to let you know you're in the zone. You can also pull in a second player to spit alongside you, sharing the verses.
4mm has consciously steered clear of creating and animating avatars to dress up, and it feels like a more credible approach to stick with the original music videos. Avatars inevitably end up as characters with big afros and comedy handle bar moustaches, and that kind of approach is just going to get cussed down by a discerning hip-hop crowd.
There's no mistaking it, this is for the male hip-hop fan. The only problem I can see with that is the game demands you provide vocals for the whole song, so even though you're performing the street talk of Biggie's "Juicy", you still have to sing the girly hook in a high pitched voice. I can't see that going down too well with the screw-faces, but to be honest it helps add some fun to the package.
One of the nicest features is the ability to go back through your saved performance. If you were tongue tied or fluffed some lyrics, you can check out where you made a balls of it. 4mm wants you to see mistakes and get better by learning from them.
All versions of the songs are radio edits, and although the game is limited by the rating the boxed product receives by the ESRB or PEGI (Konami is shooting for a Teen label), 4mm has aired some ideas about getting a dirty-themed DLC pack out in the future. You're never going to get the Geto Boys, Cage or Kool G Rap's "Talk Like Sex" to download, but that's not to say the soundtrack is going to be compromised. Another plus is to consider that 4mm Games was founded by two co-founders of Rockstar. Those were the guys that not only blessed the Grand Theft Auto soundtracks with classic hip-hop, but also made a point of putting the original soul and funk records that hip-hop so heavily sampled in-game too. And then secured legends like Chuck D to present radio stations. DJR is in good hands.
Bouncing around your living room to hip-hop is one thing, taking it online is another. There's a big emphasis on social gaming and sharing with the community here, so players are able to film their performance, edit it, add visuals and them upload to the Def Jam Rapstar site (the game is camera and microphone agnostic by the way. Two versions will ship, one with a wired mic).
Your camera will record the whole performance, and you then have to choose the best 30 seconds to play with and upload. Visually the short video can be customised with stickers and decals, which can be tweaked in terms of colour palettes, transparency, length of time on screen and positioning.
There are also animations and other visual effects to play with including infra-red filters. It's at this stage the master track vocals are removed and you can add you own audio samples, adjust levels, add reverb, slam, echo, reverse and other production quirks.
The simple example is to literally illustrate the lyrics - change colours for "red and black lumberjack with the hat to match" and whack up a picture of a C90 (ask your Dad) when you're talking about letting "the tape rock 'till the tape popped". Again, 4mm is promising more effects on day one, and although it isn't going to turn you into Hype Williams, it gives the chance to liven up your footage. No one wants to see the Pillsbury Doughboy without a little bling.
Def Jam Rapstar is hoping to take the idea of meta-games much further once a video is uploaded to the website, where it can be viewed and rated by other users. Twitter, Facebook and MySpace are integrated from day one, and the idea is you can rise in status once people start nodding heads and approving your performance.
Badges are dished out for first upload, highest rated video of the month and various other criteria, much like Achievements or Trophies. Players can choose to battle others with viewers judging performances over a set period of time, and there's the ability to form crews online and have one person represent in one-on-one battles against rivals. Another user will technically become your rival if you battle 20 times. If you get chucked out of a crew, everyone else in that crew automatically becomes a rival. As Dr Dre said, don't be turning into Benedict Arnold.
As well as licensed tracks, there will be unlicensed beats to freestyle over. There's no scope to use or upload any of your own music due to sampling issues, although 4mm did hint that they could look into creating software that could detect whether something is a sample or an original production.
Speaking of policing, there's flesh detection technology so you can't hold a mic in one hand and your schlong in the other. If any users have issues with content, be it language or anything else offensive, it can be flagged for a moderator to check over. However, the emphasis will be on the community self-policing itself, because 4mm believes users are intelligent rather than morons. We'll have to see how that goes...
This being a collaboration with a real music and entertainment company, Def Jam is promising to use the community aspect to find talent, particularly those that shine lyrically over freestyle beats. The best of the best will be pulled out to get proper studio time with professional producers, the online community acting as another promotional tool for talent in the same way that MySpace and other sites that help that DIY attitude of reaching a global audience.
Provided it's a success, 4mm is looking at this as a franchise. Alongside DLC and themed genre packs, there's some potential there to incorporate motion controls to extend the performance elements - with a particular interest in Kinect.
As I said I'm a massive rap-nerd, but I'm no apologist. Def Jam: Icon was a stinker, Get on Da Mic was an atrocity. But there's every reason to believe Def Jam Rapstar is 100 per cent honest. It's a game split into two significant halves. The simple rap-along-to-your-favourite-music game, which should be as entertaining and as fun any in the genre can be - it's you goofing off to your favourite tunes, after all.
The online elements will be judged over time, and hopefully the competitive spirit there will be more in the vein of traditional back and forth battle raps and "your Mom" jokes rather than escalating into anything unpleasant or dumb.
Hip-hop has had a pretty chequered history in videogames. DJ Hero, Def Jam Vendetta and its sequel, GTA: San Andreas and the soundtrack to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 are the high points in a world of exploitation, painful efforts to appropriate a culture that can't be faked. If it's not genuine it will get sussed out and torn apart. But Def Jam Rapstar comes across as the real deal, and 4mm Games could be about to step up, stand centre stage and set the roof on fire.
Def Jam Rapstar is released 5th October in the US and 2nd November in Europe. A full interview with 4mm Games co-founder Jamie King can be read on GamesIndustry.biz.