Version tested: Xbox 360
SingStar, anyone? Judging by more than 15 million sales and more than 2.2 million song downloads, the answer is yes. Microsoft wants in on the action, just as it does with EyeToy (You're in the Movies) and Buzz (Scene It?), and so it has enlisted respected Japanese music game developer iNiS to create an alternative that matches the Sony game almost word for word and hopefully builds on it.
The result is a karaoke experience fundamentally indivisible from Sony's vision of how it should work - right down to an outright refusal to use the 'k' word anywhere near it. Players of Guitar Hero World Tour and Rock Band will recognise the formula too; your singing is rated according to pitch and timing rather than exact notes. However, Lips also aims to outdo the competition by celebrating and rewarding vibrato, rather than punishing it as deviation, and although it often denies you points for brief and low starting points, the way you react to sudden changes in a song's pitch is marked with greater sympathy.
Lips also has solid, flashy and - most crucially - wireless microphones, which none of its competitors has. Each is powered by a pair of double-A batteries concealed by a removable mic head, and some of that acid fires up lights that change colour to show you which on-screen lyrics the mic is waiting to hear. As you sing, you also build up a Star Stream bar above the music, and once it's maxed out you're invited to strike a pose with the microphone, which is motion-sensitive as well, to enter a period of star-earning and points-multiplying. Shaking is also used to activate microphone number two mid-song, and to extend short versions of songs if you want to keep going for the duration.
Much has also been made - not least by us - of iNiS's music game credentials, and the result is three multiplayer modes that go beyond the traditional versus and duet options that are the defaults. Kiss involves coordinating mic gesture timing to get a couple of on-screen silhouettes to embrace, Time Bomb is about using gestures to pour water on a burning fuse, and Vocal Fighters is versus mode with points scored when one player builds a sufficient lead over the other.
Less to do with iNiS, and more to do with the Microsoft Game Studios personnel who occupy twice as many of the credits in the manual, is the line-up of songs. There are 40 in total and there are some classics among them - "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen, "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash, "Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead and perhaps "Yellow" by Coldplay - that lend themselves well to karaoke. Around half, though, left little impression. (We've posted the full UK track-list on the Editor's blog so you can draw your own conclusions).
More disappointing than that, however, is the paucity of online options - something we're not used to saying about Xbox Live. You can post challenges to your friends, which they then have to acknowledge to initiate, but you can't record your singing in video or audio, which has been a standard feature in SingStar since the beginning. Our experience with SingStar's online features has been mixed - the shop sometimes hangs, and we can't always get online - but it works most of the time, and when it does it's hilarious: a vast timesink full of bizarre video that helps fuel a thriving online community via PlayStation Network and the official website. SingStar also has over 350 downloadable songs.
One thing you can do with Lips, at least, is import songs from your iPod or other compatible devices, but our luck with iPods was mixed. Our iPod Touch didn't work and our iPod Video crashed the Xbox 360 outright a number of times. When we finally got it to work, with an old iPod Nano, we duly transferred a few songs across - except it doesn't transfer them, and demands the device be reattached again if you ever want to access them again. There are no lyrics or music videos to back the action, of course, so when you select the songs they're simply played back with the microphones live, and you can adjust mic volume up and down as you can for any of the regular songs. Still, if you can tolerate giving personal usage data away, you can report what you import to Microsoft so the Redmond DLC machine can make decisions about what to license.
Having to buy your songs again later (thanks to the horrendous music industry) is of course stupid, but it's the norm for music games. The reason people do it is for things like the note charts and collaborative elements, in the cases of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and for the competitive and community elements - whether locally or online - for SingStar. The problem that Lips is going to have is that it has no community features worth talking about, and that the competitive elements are fundamentally flawed.
Play through a few songs, and it becomes clear that Lips is easier than any of the other singing games, and with no adjustable difficulty level. Play through a few dozen, and you encounter glitches and hilarious shortcuts to success that neuter the online challenge aspect as well. Beware people who challenge you to rap songs, for example, because they can simply hum a monotone to hit every single note perfectly. For singing, Lips seems to focus on when you're wrong rather than right, and sometimes just gives up and pretends you're wicked, like when you're dragging the mic head back and forth on the carpet during Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" and it reckons you're hitting every note and doing vibrato on the long ones. At one point, player one's mic claimed to be receiving a brilliant but slightly imperfect rendition of every song we queued up, despite nobody making any noise and the TV having been muted. Only after we reset the 360 did it behave properly.
With such a wildly positive - if not simply wild - reward system, it's also debatable whether the gestures affect the outcome drastically. You may benefit from timing the use of Star Stream, but your opponent may simply score higher due to bugs or craftily rubbing the microphone against his leg. The motion sensitivity is hardly perfect, either, and this also spoils the tambourine, which lags behind your microphone shakes. As for tapping away with buttons on the regular 360 controllers, it's a fleeting novelty that allows you to earn additional medals and Achievements.
On a cost basis, at least, Lips ought to be ahead of SingStar, since they're both 40 quid and Lips has more songs and nicer microphones. But when you consider what else SingStar has over Lips, it's harder to make the argument. Thanks to DLC in particular, music games often defy what's-in-the-box reviewing; in the same way that World of Warcraft improves with Blizzard's ongoing support, music games become more attractive as their creators offer a broader range of downloadable music, and it's only fair to reward it once the potential has been realised. It has for SingStar, but it won't be for a while with Lips.
But the saddest thing about Lips is that it suffers in comparison to SingStar's gameplay. We've long moaned about legacy issues with SingStar - that it can't cope with vibrato, punishes you for tailing off at the right time, and has a bit of lag in audio playback - but despite Lips' fancy mics and superficial improvements, it's too easy, too isolated from other players, and too buggy. The irony is that SingStar has glitches as well, now and then, and casual gamers seem to put up with this, whereas Microsoft - architect of the Red Rings - has little goodwill left to cash in on that front. Casual or not, though, you should only buy this if you can't get SingStar.
5 / 10
Lips is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 21st November.