Version tested: PlayStation 2
That's the way you do it! Forgive my brief moment of Mr Punch madness, but with Rock Ballads the SingStar series has finally clicked back into its groove. As this marks the tenth outing for the franchise in just a few short years, a production rate which makes even the EA Sports roster look positively lethargic, it was perhaps inevitable that quality would eventually take a back seat to quantity. That's not to say there haven't been tunes worth warbling in the last few updates, but it did feel that SingStar was becoming little more than an interactive version of the interminable Now That's What I Call Music compilation series.
This offering, with a track listing that sounds more like one of those "not available in any shops" Drive Time compilations, finds SingStar joyfully rediscovering what made it work in the first place. And there are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, SingStar finally feels like a game again. While it's great to be able to use your PS2 as a communal karaoke machine, there are scores to be earned and recent editions seemed to be losing track of that element. Instead songs seemed to be chosen solely for their kitsch appeal or demographic visibility. OK, the inclusion of Sugababes in a Rock Ballads set raises an eyebrow but that's really the only track that doesn't fit in here. While noses will undoubtedly be turned up at the presence of Avril Lavigne and Anastacia, there's no denying that they represent the modern evolution of the oestrogen-soaked light rock fare once peddled by T'Pau, Roxette and Alannah Myles, all of who are also present here.
The skew towards plastic pop and bland chart tat may have drawn in Da Kidz and their disposable income but there's precious little challenge in songs that were purposefully designed to be performed by people of negligible vocal talent. Not with this update. These are big blustering showstoppers, towering monuments of soft rock hubris, and you'll need to be a damn good singer to keep up with many of the tracks here. Verses roam up and down the scale for that full bombastic heart-breaking impact, while climactic notes are sustained for lung-taxing lengths. The vast majority of the songs on offer really make you work those tonsils, leaving you exhausted but elated at the end.
All of a sudden, the score becomes relevant again - a true measure of whether you're improving or faltering, like the difference between taking part in a properly organised karaoke night or just bellowing along to Right Said Fred down the local boozer. I was positively giddy when I chalked up a respectable score on Toto's high-pitched classic, Africa, and only partly because of lack of oxygen to the brain from that bloody chorus. It felt like I'd achieved something. More than just a collection of new tunes, SingStar Rock Ballads is a game where talent is of paramount importance. This in turn revitalises the duet mode, as there's genuine competition to be found, while the medleys also gain a new lease of life, becoming marathon sessions that only the most skilled vocalist will be able to tame. Simply by focussing on actual songs, rather than just marketable hits, the game is rejuvenated across the board.
The second area in which Rock Ballads hits the bullseye is in the concept. These aren't the sort of songs you can approach half-arsed. These are big songs, often performed by big men and women, sporting big hair and tight pants. Going small is not an option. Mumble these songs into the mic and you'll look like a prize pillock. No, these are songs that demand to be SUNG, as enthusiastically as possible, and this forces players to get into the spirit of things. When tackling the imposing musical mountain that is Meatloaf's epic ode to bumsex, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That), you just have to go for it, open up the vocal chords and let rip. In much the same way as the best tracks in Guitar Hero demand you stand up and plant your foot on the coffee table, so Rock Ballads insists that you jump up and preen like a star, dammit.
There are, of course, tracks that are less essential than others. The world can easily continue to turn without being subjected to Nickelback ever again, yet This Is How You Remind Me certainly fits the bill as a cheesy sub-grunge sobbing into your beer break-up ballad and - embarrassingly - is the song that apparently best suits my rumbling croak. But for the most part this is a set that serves up crowd-pleasing hit after hit after hit. More Than A Feeling? I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight? Broken Wings? Every Rose Has It's Thorn? A song so powerfully majestic that it granted Bill and Ted access to heaven itself? Truly, this is a feast of delicious cheese.
And that's ultimately what makes Rock Ballads the best SingStar in ages. It's fantastically daft fun, yet offers much more than just drunken larks. It's got tracks that everyone can enjoy, yet still feels thematically coherent. You can segue from any track to another and the game just flows. Sugababes aside, whether the songs come from the 80s or last year there are no jarring mood-breaking switches in style or tone. Compared to the series last foray into rocky waters, with the laughably limp SingStar Rocks (and the only time Keane should used in conjunction with the word "rocks" is when deciding what to throw at their insipid little heads) this is big, ballsy and brilliant. Everything that a karaoke game should be, in other words. Rock on.
8 / 10