Sony is justifiably proud of SingStar. It's sold over 17 million units. Over 4 million songs have been bought and downloaded. It's also almost universally adored by critics. Everyone at Eurogamer plays SingStar, for example, often to the exclusion of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. SingStar's brilliant, and it's a success. So it's slightly bizarre that the highest score it's ever had on Metacritic, across 26 individual disc releases, is 82, with the majority languishing in the mid-70s, if not lower.
The reason for this is also the reason that this is an article about SingStar, and not a review of SingStar Queen and the new wireless microphones: SingStar is now basically unreviewable. Unlike Guitar Hero: Metallica, or AC/DC Live: Rock Band, SingStar has morphed from a game into a service, and defies traditional critical judgement. I might only think Vol. 2 is worth 7/10 when I review it, but would I recommend SingStar overall? Unquestionably. A few jokes about Brian May's hair with a paragraph about the new microphones on the end doesn't really cut it. Besides, I wanted to put the paragraph about the wireless microphones at the top.
They have been worth the wait. The USB receiver is surprisingly large, cluttering up the lounge floor alongside the larger PlayTV box, but the microphones are ample justification: sturdy and professional, with a laptop-style power slider and locking mechanism, they press the Microsoft Lips equivalents further into the depths of my peripheral basket than they were already. In-game, they are indistinguishable from the wired equivalents. The only bonkers thing about them is that they've taken two years longer to come to market than originally expected.
"We really just wanted to make sure it was the right product, at the right price, and to do that sometimes you have to take a little bit more time," says series director Dave Ranyard (the new Paulina Bozek, for those keeping count), speaking to me a week after their GBP 34.99 debut. "SingStar mics have always been manufactured so you feel like you're holding a real microphone, like you would in a band, and you do get that kind of feel from them. I think that actually subconsciously adds to the experience a bit." Indeed - and they are the single most significant thing to happen to SingStar since the launch of the PS3 version and SingStore in 2007.
The good news is that SingStar fans won't have to wait that long again to see other improvements. Ranyard can't talk publicly about new song packs (although we've been told what they are, and they are awesome), but he says that in addition to continuing to stock the Store with additional music and shops with additional discs, Sony plans to continue expanding the game in feature terms over the next 12 months.
The first part of this will be the new voice control update, which launches with SingStar Vol. 4 later this month, and will also be available as a free download for PS3 owners (sadly it's not coming to PS2). "You get into the main game loop and then just use voice, so you can browse right, browse left, select - these are the kind of terms you can use," says Ranyard. "You can say a band name or song name and the carousel will spin to it. And then you can get into the game, play the game, come back out and keep using just the mics." Pausing the game still uses the control pad, because whatever word the team might use could end up in a song lyric, with awkward results, but beyond that, you no longer run the risk of Ellie dropping the DualShock 3 in a pint of Vimto at two in the morning.
And further beyond that, Sony's London Studio, where SingStar is put together, plans to keep introducing additional technology tweaks and features. "I'm happy to say we'll look at new gameplay modes," says Ranyard. "The Store as well - as far as I'm concerned that can benefit from feature development just like anything else, so as content increases we may well work on the storefront... We do have a new section to the storefront coming called SingStar Extras where you can buy, or get for free, other things than just songs, so that's where you might buy features in the future, or you might get the features for free." He says to keep an eye out for announcements at E3.