Sometimes we just feel like poor old Darth Vader. We can feel his exasperation. "Why doesn't this pitiful offspring of mine understand the power of the dark side? If only he knew, he wouldn't question it." Too many people are reluctant to play SingStar because they think it's karaoke, which they assume they don't like. These people are, sadly, fools. Obi-Wan never told them just how much fun you can have with it. How it's the best and most universally appealing party game since Twister. How it's not only designed to make you sing, but how it's made singing into a viable competition, and how many things there are to make you laugh - through playback, voice filters, EyeToy video-capture, and through the exposure of unlikely falsetto voices in once-reticent couch-dwellers. If you don't play it, or continue to evade it, you're only delaying the inevitable. It is your destiny.
Christ on a mic
First of all a short reminder of the way SingStar works for the three or four abstentions lurking sulkily towards the back: you pick a song, it starts to play (usually with a video or some sort of EyeToy-driven visualisation in the background), the words appear along the bottom of the screen, and a series of bars specked with blue or red blobs represent your singing. The idea is to sing along as best you can; the game measures pitch, tone and timing rather than your ability to hit the exact notes (or even sing the right words), and scores you (and your opponent, should you be 'battling') accordingly. It's simple, it works; everyone can pick it up immediately.
However it's also pretty boring at this point. A bit like old Darth itself, the old SingStar still has the rhetoric and reputation on its side, but no longer stands up to an evening of sustained abuse - particularly at the hands of serial sopranos. 30 tracks there may have been, but in Sony's anxiousness to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible the result is that probably less than half will appeal to any one gamer. There are some good novelty and showpiece tracks that everyone can revisit time and again - in this house, most notably The Darkness' I Believe In A Thing Called Love and Motorhead's Ace of Spades - but the core has been more or less spent.
No wonder we were so pleased to hear about SingStar Party, then, and little surprise also that within about half an hour of our review code turning up that we'd already sewn up our Saturday nights for a month and a half; the increasingly tolerant duo downstairs destined to drown in a new range of poorly imitated vocals from the likes of Alicia Keys, Bob Marley, Cyndi Lauper, Spandau Ballet and Scissor Sisters. The package itself also sounds like an improvement - a new duet mode that allows for collaboration on well known duets (of which more later), party modes catering for group play, more EyeToy functionality and even the chance to swap in the original SingStar disc in order to take advantage of the new game modes using the old songs. Yet ironically, while we suspected we'd never get round to doing that (With 30 new songs? Why would we?), in the end it proved to be more or less essential...
SingStar Party isn't exactly beset by problems, but it is disappointing to see how little it's moved on in the intervening period since it won our hearts earlier this year; it is, effectively, an expansion pack consisting of 30 new songs. If there are any technical improvements here then they're insignificant, and old problems remain - playback is still slightly off-kilter, with the voice lagging behind the tune, making you sound like even more of a prat (admittedly an effect eased by the passage of drink), there are no new FX filters to make your voice sound daft (and we can't seem to mute the artist on playback any more either), and probably most critically you still don't actually have to sing the song.
You can still get away with mumbling along or singing anything you like for that matter as long as it's roughly the right pitch, tone and timing for the bars on the screen. And while the little snippets of video that the EyeToy camera captures still have the power to make you laugh, they're spaced so that most pick up the tail end of a sentence and the first word of the next, or some other obscure, unpalatable combo. We had the most fun with SingStar's EyeToy functionality when this reviewer discovered that, by switching quickly between clips just as the first audible word died out, we could build improbable Hawking-esque sentences out of them. We got "You. Die. Here" out of Franz Ferdinand's 'Take Me Out'. Fact.
Meanwhile the new game modes prove less than essential. Battle mode - where two players sing along to the same song at the same time and compare scores - is still the game of choice. Pass The Mic, which allows you to coordinate games with players split into singing teams, randomly selecting songs and singers and so on, is simply impractical unless you're in a party of more than a handful of willing participants - and despite the greatness of SingStar it's still unusual to encounter universal complicity in our experience. People need to be cajoled. Heck, it can be half the fun.
And with the exception of some needless high score tables, that leaves Duet mode, which we're not completely sold on that either. Splitting well known duets (or just regular songs) into their respective parts is an obvious move, and in some cases it's well handled (Elton John and Kiki Dee and Sonny and Cher seem destined to see some replay, if you've got the range), but it's a little on the hit and miss side of things for our liking, and it's not unusual to find the game split a popular song into "fun bits" and "boring bits" seemingly on purpose. Buggles' 'Video Killed The Radio Star' is a good example - one person gets to do the irksome nasal verses while the other gets to belt out the female chorus and "Oh, Oh-oh-oh, Ooooh"s.
Unsurprisingly, then, the fate of SingStar Party ultimately falls to its track listing, and obviously that's going to prove even more divisive than anything else. Examine the list closely, work out whether it appeals to you, and you should have your answer. You should do. Really. Except... We thought we did, only to be disappointed. The thing to remember, reckons we, is that "I like this song" doesn't always equate to "This will be good in SingStar". It just doesn't. We may have a soft spot for Maroon 5's 'This Love' when it comes on the radio, for example, but actually singing it to a decent standard is like trying to make a hobby out of hyperventilation.
In short, the listing can sound a lot better on paper than it proves in reality. And compared to the original SingStar, the quality - the showpieces, the novelties - seems to be spread thinner. Songs like Bob Marley's 'No Woman No Cry', Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' and Spandau Ballet's 'Gold' will always result in classic larks, but they're less anthemic, less grandstand-able and the latter two in particular plain harder to sing than their counterparts in SingStar, and they're forced to share space on the disc with uneasy companions like Javine's 'Real Things' and Blu Cantrell's 'Hit 'Em Up Style', songs that just don't work like Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti' and Pink's 'Just Like A Pill', the wrong tunes from artists with vast back catalogues like Elvis's dire 'Way Down 'and The Beautiful South's 'A Little Time', and some just plain baffling crap [hey, it's kitsch comedy gold -Ed] like Ashford and Simpson's 'Solid'. The number of songs with unknown verses has gone up, and the endless cycle of rotating the menu to find a song that suits both battlers now seems to take longer.
In the end your reaction to the songs is still the deal-breaker. At Ł20 or less the price is just about right. You'll definitely get a few good nights of entertainment out of SingStar Party, and the concept and execution is still far enough on the right side of "good" to sustain our enthusiasm. On the other hand, we're not that impressed by the lack of attention paid to the last version's problems, and the song selection seems to be trying to cover too many bases with too few quality tracks. Managing to pick an Elvis song this reviewer didn't even know pretty much sums that up. We're not sure what the answer is - genre packs, volumes for particular decades or movements, or what-have-you - but we hope Sony figures it out before the next SingStar inevitably rolls around, and applies a bit of spit and polish too, or we might not be so forgiving. As it is, for all its charms this is straying a bit close to "rental" territory, and that makes us want to scream, not sing.