Singstar is a bit of an oddity from a reviewer's point of view. When the first versions of the game were released, we could write about how it worked; how solid the microphones felt, how well the game picked up people's voices, how much fun the competitive modes were. Even after the original game, a couple of innovations like duets and the (admittedly somewhat dodgy) rap meter remained to comment upon in subsequent versions.
Now, however, with seven Singstar discs already on shelves in the UK and an eighth sitting in my PS2, things are trickier. There is absolutely no substantial difference to the technology or presentation of Singstar Pop Hits as compared to the last four games in the series. All of the reasons to like Singstar remain solidly in place. At heart, it's still the best karaoke game ever made, with an astonishingly compelling central mechanic which will magically turn the most shy and reticent partygoers into hyper-competitive divas. That's a good thing.
However, it's also an old thing, which presents a dilemma. Singstar Pop Hits features thirty new music tracks, so the content is entirely fresh, but the execution is exactly the same thing as we've seen before from the series. If this was a traditional videogame, right now we'd be grousing about the lack of innovation and the failure to build on previous successes, and we'd be justified in doing so. A sequel - let alone a seventh sequel - which just featured new levels but no new moves, puzzles or weapons, would be slammed.
Singstar Pop Hits isn't a traditional videogame, though, and it's impossible to review it in the same way. Thirty new music tracks make this into a fresh experience even if the core idea - sing at the right pitch to score points - is exactly the same. We're into strange territory here, in ways; reviewing a new Singstar game is more about reviewing a compilation of music than about reviewing a game. Singstar itself is proven, tried and tested, and lo, we have seen that it is Good. Now we just have to decide whether the 30 new tracks on Singstar Pop Hits constitute fun or not.
Pop Will Eat Itself
Obviously there's no point in offering a musical opinion on these tracks. Here is the track listing; have a look through and work out for yourself whether it appeals to you. As the title of the game suggests, it's a relentlessly mass-market parade of music, and for everyone who rolls their eyes at the presence of Britney, Avril, Dannii or Jenny From The Block, there are plenty of people who will want to drink a pint of Lambrini and sing along.
Let's not beat about the bush - in terms of personal taste, this isn't the music I listen to, for the most part. Last.fm helpfully informs me that my favourite artists are Rip Slyme, Infected Mushroom and Ben Folds, and out of Singstar Pop Hits' thirty tracks, only four can be found in my iTunes library (of which, thankfully, only one is somewhat embarrassing). However, Singstar has never set out to be some kind of gold standard for musical quality, or to appeal to niche tastes - it is good, clean, mass-market fun, and it's proud of it.
On that front, Singstar Pop Hits is a huge success. Even people with limited exposure to chart music will be familiar with the artists and tracks in Pop Hits, and even if Evanescence's Bring Me To Life and Travis' Sing are enough to make you switch radio channels at the best of times, there's no denying that they're popular, well-known, catchy and, crucially, fun to sing. They're ideal karaoke fodder, and that goes for the bulk of the tracks in this collection.
Where the approach falls down a little bit is in the actual compilation on offer, which feels somewhat contrived and directionless. Previous Singstar iterations have managed to bring together a collection of songs which followed a common theme without losing the sense of variety that makes karaoke sessions such fun, and so accessible. The ultra-camp and vastly enjoyable Anthems is a perfect example; by sticking with cheesy gay disco classics, the game put together a compilation which was light-hearted, bubbly and varied, but which stuck with a common theme to thread the whole set together.
Pop Hits is less successful on that front. Love it or loathe it, Britney's Baby One More Time is a genuine pop classic and a perfect karaoke track, but it seems to sit rather uncomfortably next to the likes of Akon's Lonely, Goldfrapp's Oh La La or My Chemical Romance's Helena. This is a return, in ways, to the origins of the Singstar franchise - an attempt to make a compilation of everything that's popular at the moment, and shove it all onto one disc.
Pop Goes The Weasel
Somewhere in the world, we're sure, there exists the group of party people this disc is aimed at: some kind of mixed-gender, multi-ethnic, vastly differentiated market research sample, where all of the country's music tastes blend seamlessly and the ideal Singstar is one which truly offers something for everyone. However, it's not my group of friends, and it's probably not yours, either. While the boys gravitated to certain tracks and the girls to others, there were entire swathes of Singstar Pop Hits' content which remained untouched over the course of a boozy evening.
This jack of all trades approach makes Pop Hits into a master of none. While you may well find that you end up singing different things to the ones that we did, it seems likely that almost any group that will end up with as much as half the disc which just isn't relevant to their interests or tastes. With the more carefully themed Singstar collections, you could look at the back of the box, decide whether you liked the theme and the content, and make a buying decision; Pop Hits, being a mish-mash of all manner of genres, offers something for everyone, but good value for almost no-one.
Of course, for many people the opportunity to simply increase the size of their Singstar library will be enough to entice them to buy Pop Hits, and, frankly, most fans of the series will probably be in that camp. Adding another ten, perhaps fifteen, perhaps even twenty songs that you and your friends will enjoy to the repertoire is enough to make Singstar Pop Hits worthwhile for many people, and there are some tracks in there which will definitely make for legendary drunken performances. At its most basic level, Singstar remains one of the best reasons ever to have a PS2 in your living room, and that's not to be sniffed at.
That doesn't, however, take away the fact that Singstar Pop Hits is the weakest release in the series. Even the early "mish-mash" efforts, Singstar, Party and Popworld, had a solid base of karaoke classics to draw upon. Pop Hits, by comparison, feels like a loosely thrown together collection of what the charts say is cool, with little regard for what will make for a fun karaoke party. You can make your own decisions on the musical quality of what's on offer; in terms of simple fun and entertainment, what's on offer here is still a great accompaniment to a crate of beer or a couple of bottles of wine, but is nonetheless a step backwards for Sony's karaoke marvel.