When it comes to Lips, Microsoft's first stab at a karaoke game since the long-forgotten Xbox Music Mixer, SingStar isn't so much the elephant in the room as the elephant in 15 million living rooms - or at least the business with 15 million sales - and no one's going to let Microsoft and Lips developer iNiS forget it, least of all us. "What do we think of SingStar?" says iNiS' chief creative officer Keiichi Yano, when we pop the question. "I can't really talk to the other music games, but you know obviously we've looked at it, and we do consider it a competitor, but I really want to do my own thing here, and I think one of the things we're really doing is providing a very deep experience."
After half an hour exploring the Lips package, the claim rings true. The basic mechanics are admittedly familiar - a music video plays in the background as lyrics and pitch lines appear in the foreground so you can sing along, and the game measures the quality of your performance based on pitch and rhythm ("this is pretty standard," Yano deadpans), which means you can get away with humming as long as you fit the tune. But there's more to it at every turn. "If you sing really well, and your pitch is very accurate, you'll score higher," Yano notes. There's also an orange meter along the top of the screen.
This will fill up as you sing along, and when it's full you're asked to perform a gesture. The game can handle this because the microphones are motion-sensitive. You can also go into "starstream" mode when the time comes. "So while it's in the starstream mode, I can pick up these stars for extra points. Even if you're not singing that great, if you can activate starstream and pick up these stars, at the end it will award bonus points," says Yano.
The microphone's motion sensitivity also allows for Rock Band-style percussion, but whereas Harmonix and MTV's band game picks up clapping noises alone, the Lips microphones pay attention to movement. Gentle motions rattle the tiny make-believe cymbals, whereas clapping motions fire them up properly. You can also change the type of percussion to cowbells, maracas, bongos, drums and others.
At the core, says Yano, there's a desire to get the whole room involved; for Lips to be the centre of attention. That's one of the reasons the microphones are wireless, and why they have lights up and down the side that spark to life based on your performance - or just throb quietly on the table, beckoning someone to pick up and clap along. The mics don't rely on a dongle for their connection to the 360, either, which means you can still have four regular control-pads hooked up. If you do, they can be used to play other instruments. It's not meant to be a high-scores Rock Band or Guitar Hero-style complement to the singing (at least not that they've announced), but it should at least ensure that your controllers are covered in sick and beer the next morning.
Another distinctive change is that there's an actual progression system; a persistent character element that allows players to earn "medals" based on their performances. "There is no campaign, but there is the notion of levelling, so you can sing a lot of songs and level up," says Yano. His Microsoft colleague demonstrates that you can build experience by dancing, pressing buttons, adding vibrato to your voice or simply being a good singer. Other game modes include versus, co-op, duet (with harmonising and "all kinds of different variations") and unspecified "party games"; "all sorts of other things you can play with".