Version tested: PlayStation 3
Karaoke can turn the bleakest of evenings around. Such as the stag-do we recall which, due to an email-related error, was attended only by the groom, the best man, a homosexual gentleman and a woman. Or that New Year's Eve party where the host nearly kicked out one guest who refused to observe a two minute silence, opting to pay his respects by repeatedly shouting "Is there any more cava?" from the bottom of the garden.
Both evenings could have gone horribly wrong but were saved by the healing, unifying power of karaoke. And drink, obviously. Something magical happens when you combine pop records, shouting, showing off and public humiliation. And drink.
Sony recognised this several years ago and created the SingStar series for PS2. More than 10 million copies have since been shipped around the globe and, we'd wager, more than 10 million evenings have ended in hilarity rather than disaster.
Here comes the first next-gen instalment, simply titled SingStar PS3. The basic format is the same. You sing into microphones (the game works with the old PS2 mics, but wireless ones are on the way) and score points based on pitch and timing. You can watch the original music videos while you sing or, if you've got a PlayStation Eye, yourself. You can sing solo, duet or battle with another player. Up to eight players can play Pass the Mic, a team game involving a series of different challenges.
It's all terrifically lifestyle. You can tell that just by the placeholder names they've chosen for the high scores table (Nathan and Tobias, Dom and Sergio). There's a nice lifestyle intro where some lifestyle people do lifestyle shouting over pop music, and some stylish lifestyle menu screens. The background music's inoffensive, the sort of thing you won't mind waking up to at half-past five in the morning with an ashtray on your face, wondering why your life isn't like Nathan and Tobias's.
So far, so familiar. But SingStar PS3 introduces an important new dynamic designed to overcome a specific limitation of the PS2 games. In the olden days you were stuck with the choice of songs on the disc you purchased, but now you can download tracks from the healthy library in the SingStore.
There's also a new feature called My SingStar which allows you to upload videos and photos, view stuff others have uploaded and build a friends list. Yes, it's MySpace meets YouTube meets Facebook meets pop records and shouting. And public humiliation on a grander scale than ever before.
You could just ignore all the online stuff as SingStar PS3 comes with 30 tracks on the disc. However, the selection isn't stellar. There are tracks here for pop princesses (Toxic by Britney Spears, Beep by the Pussycat Dolls) and manic depressives (Radiohead's No Surprises). Party animals get Hey Ya, Alright and I Don't Feel Like Dancin', and for miserable women in bad relationships there's Macy Gray's I Try. There are plenty of songs for angry young men to shout over including Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis, Weezer's Buddy Holly and the one about the monster coming over the hill.
However, the selection lacks widespread appeal as almost all the songs are from the last 15 years. The exceptions are Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It and the genius inclusion of Musical Youth's Pass the Dutchie (all together now, "Dang ga dang ga dang mong middley bong, dong biddley biddley biddley biddley biddley biddley bong").
There's no Elvis, no camp classics, no rock anthems, nothing for Grandma. Unless you count Somethin' Stupid, but it's the Robbie and Nicole version and the sight of that sweaty thug's biroed back heaving on top of that perfect porcelain angel might push Grandma over the rainbow bridge.
It doesn't stand up well against the track listing for the original SingStar on PS2 (Like a Virgin! Ace of Spades! Suspicious Minds! Bedingfield!). But you could argue (Sony probably would) this is missing the Whole Point - SingStar PS3 is all about building up your own library of songs according to your own personal tastes. You could also argue (Sony probably wouldn't) it's a cynical ploy to get you spending more money in the SingStore.
There are 44 SingStore tracks promised for launch, with further batches to be added on a regular basis. In the test version we played there were more than 300 songs available, including plenty of genuine classics along with some more obscure stuff.
Scrolling through this selection, it became clear how easy it will be to throw money at SingStar. At GBP 1 / EUR 1.49 each the tracks are reasonably priced. However, with such a limited offline selection, such a huge choice online and a group of friends making requests thrown into the mix, you're likely to empty that PlayStation Wallet quickly.
At least the My SingStar features are free. Here you can build a profile which will automatically record your best scores. You can upload photos, videos and audio recordings of your performances. There are plenty of options for interacting with other SingStar players - you can view their profiles, rate their uploaded content, see and write comments about them and build a friends' list.
Cynics will say it's just Sony jumping on the user-created content bandwagon, trying to be trendy by giving it all web 2.0, but it's a perfect fit. Sure, there will be people who have no desire to share their private karaoke moments with the world. An awful lot more will relish the opportunity. If you like showing off, dressing up, recording your silliest moments for posterity and sharing them with others, you'll adore My SingStar.
There are a few niggles. You can only record and upload 30 second videos. You can't choose which 30 seconds of your performance is recorded either as the game does this automatically, usually picking the first chorus. If something hilarious happens three-quarters of the way through a song you've no way of recording that. It seems odd that you can't record longer videos considering the size of the PS3's hard drive; it would have been good to have the option of editing the length of your videos and pick out highlights yourself. There's also the issue of the PlayStation Eye's rubbish resolution, which makes everything look like it's made out of felt.
The interface is slick and for the most part intuitive thanks to a permanent button legend at the bottom of the screen. But there are some odd instances where Sony could have done with looking more closely at how social networking sites actually work. For example, you can't just click a button to add a friend. You have to do it by pressing START to access the PS3 browser, then manually enter the profile name and send a request.
Searching for SingStar players can also be a pain as you have to scroll through the entire list. You can skip through letters of the alphabet but it's still time consuming, and it's hard to see how this will work well when there are thousands of players rather than the 50 or so currently up there. You can do a search, but you can only search for players by the first letter of their name.
Still, Sony has often talked about longer term plans for SingStar PS3. It seems likely that along with extra SingStore tracks you can expect improvements to the interface and perhaps better video editing options. Then there's the potential for community features such as contests, charts and so on.
SingStar PS3 is not a perfect karaoke game. The track selection on the disc is weak, options for recording and editing your performances are limited and the My SingStar interface is flawed. Besides, the perfect karaoke game would come with an unlimited collection of free songs and a barrel of vodka.
It's not too far off, though. SingStore and My SingStar are brilliant additions which significantly change the SingStar experience. Karaoke, downloadable content and social networking go together like pop music and shouting. It's a superb party game, and in our experience one you'll still be playing once the novelty of Wii tennis has worn off. An essential addition to any PS3 owner's Christmas list.
8 / 10