Leather-tongued, lead-headed, dizzy and worryingly positioned with my head in a pile of dirty socks, I awoke this morning surrounded by empty bottles and overstocked rubbish bins with three thoughts buzzing through my head. 1) SingStar Popworld is a major return to form for Sony's competitive karaoke series. 2) Given the amount of alcohol required to truly enjoy it, it's arguably the only PS2 game with a subscription fee worth paying. 3) Doo-wah-diddy-diddy-dum-diddy-doo!
The original SingStar, which you should certainly own by now, definitely struck a chord when it came out last year. Karaoke has always been fun, but the way SingStar measured your performance basing its assessment on your ability to hold a tune rather than simply hit notes gave the karaoke a much-needed competitive edge. It played videos at the same time, too. It was so much its own thing, Sony reasoned, that it discouraged its official website writers from using the 'k' word in describing it.
There were a few problems. Player voices were slightly out of synch with singer voices on playback, you were expected to pick the right component of a harmony instinctively, which didn't always pan out, and it was possible to fool the game into giving out a high score simply by humming (or even blatantly singing the wrong lyrics - in our editor's case, a string of expletivesr) as long as you were in tune. Meanwhile the game fooled you by penalising you for any little flowery vocal embellishments. Presumably why there are no Christina Aguilera songs. (Man, imagine if there were no Christina Aguilera songs!)
But all of these faults are tolerable within the context of mass alcohol consumption, uninhibited comedy singing and 30 songs, the majority of which will suit just about anybody's vocal chords - or at the very least get them excited enough to prove otherwise. Which is why SingStar Party (or "SS Party" - a truly inspired abbreviation, I'm sure you'll agree) was a big disappointment for us. The track line-up looked tremendous on paper, but a few road tests later it simply had us reaching for the original again. And then grumbling about the lack of new features and the fact that old flaws hadn't been fixed.
(Mind you, at least we all got some replacement microphones out of it. The Sony-supplied duo are fairly robust, but they do have a tendency to conk out after they've been thrown, twirled and generally knocked about by grown men who think singing Suspicious Minds with a crap Elvis accent and doing the screechy backing themselves whilst pumping their loins will endear them to the girl sitting on the other side of the room with her hand over her mouth. It doesn't, chaps. Trust me. And that's not laughter she's holding in.)
SingStar Popworld is a much worthier sequel all round, easily erasing the memory of "the difficult second album", and that's mostly down to the songs. There are some changes to note, but only some are of note. There are some fun party modes now, which give the competitive element a bit more structure if you're looking for that. And there's a system of measuring your ability to rap in certain sections, which, whilst not as well-honed as the main singing element, does a good job of rewarding you for delivering every syllable with a bit of punch and rhythm and punishing you whenever you lapse into mumbling.
It's also nice to see rejigged "effects" on the playback side of things, with slider bars to govern the degree of distortion you're cruelly applying to your friend's exuberant rendition of Kylie's In Your Eyes until he sounds like Cher singing that hideous Do You Believe vercoder nonsense. And like SS Party, Popworld retains the ability to swap in the previous SingStar discs and access that music using new game modes.
Technically, it's still not quite a convincing harmony. The synch on track playback is still fractionally off, it seems, so you sometimes sound less capable than you actually are, and for some reason the "Mute Artist" button seems to have disappeared. I'm also not sold on the "Medleys", which task you with conquering different segments of similar songs in sequence. SingStar may be a high-score game for some for all I know, but my crowd seems to prefer performing songs in front of friends rather than spitting out a chorus and then mumbling deficiently over something they're less familiar with as part of the same "act".
But, as I said, its Popworld's track listing that sells it. Highlights include the likes of Keane (whose Somewhere Only We Know proved to be my finest hour), Natasha Bedingfield (I love it I love it I love it I looove iiiit), Ronan Keating's take on Father And Son (it certainly wasn't time to make a change; we managed 10 run-throughs in one evening), The Hives (whose Main Offender brought out little kicking jumps whenever the poor chap yelled "Whyyyyy me!"), Joss Stone (Super Duper Love - because everyone enjoys the wobbly bits), and of course Robbie Williams & Kylie Minogue's Kids, which is perfect for duet mode. While drunk. With that girl you like.
Special mentions must also go to Steppenwolf's Born To Be Wild, which is not quite the new Ace Of Spades in SingStar terms, but similarly cacophonic, while Tom Jones' It's Not Unusual really is the new Suspicious Minds for crooner-loving SingStar types. Indeed, even some of the guiltier-sounding pleasures lived up to the 'p' word part of this sentence. Hoobastank's dronesome The Reason gave people a reeeeasooooooon to griiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin... with its loooooooooooong and monotonous woooooooooords... while even the much-maligned Blink 182's What's My Age Again was worth it - if only just to realise that I didn't actually know the lyrics. For example, "I walk alone" is actually "I wore cologne". Deep.
There are some weak links, certainly, but these are only comparatively weak, and still went down fairly well in some quarters. Nobody I know can sing Beyonce's Crazy In Love convincingly, for example, while the inclusion of Outkast's Roses is baffling. It's an enjoyable song, but it's one of those that you're only convinced you can sing because the radio usually drowns you out. Hey Ya would've seemed a far more obvious and popular choice, as it hits all the right notes (wahey) with its falsetto, rapping, crowd elements, and general jiveyness.
Frankly though there are only a few real disappointments. In the case of Girls Aloud's Love Machine, for example, the song is obviously awful (sorry girls), and hormonal teens will be disappointed to learn that the video isn't even faintly pornographic either, despite the siliconeponents, while the likes of Good Charlotte, Jay Sean, McFly, Marilyn Manson and Erik B. and Rakim in particular were all swiftly abandoned during group playtests.
Of course, musical taste is ridiculously subjective, and to declare that SingStar Popworld is definitively better or worse in content terms than either of the previous games would be somewhat churlish. I can say, however, that having played it in a room with a core audience of around five and other people filtering in and out all night, there were definitely more songs that everybody wanted to sing and that incited laughter and general excitement than there were in Party and, surprisingly, even the original. And more of these songs not only inspired people to wrestle over the microphone (another cause of breakages, I'll wager), but were also reasonably easy or fun to wrap one's vocal chords around. Your mileage will inevitably vary, but on balance probably not too much. The balance seems to be about right.
Something else destined to prove less divisive this time around is Sony's continued insistence on releasing moderately rejigged 30-song packages once every six months or so. To me, SingStar is and always has been crying out for some sort of periodical release model that sees new songs released in smaller, cheaper doses. Genre packs. Mix and match. Online downloads. That sort of thing would bury the competition, which is virtually negligible anyway. But while that isn't precisely what's happening, the release of SingStar Popworld in a package sans microphones for less than 20 bob is foot-tappingly good form. It will happily fuel a decent party for several hours once every few months, and that's good value.
As I fade out, I'm reminded of this morning again. And that third thought. It helps sum Popworld up quite nicely. It's a winner because it inspires memories, putting you in the spotlight far more even than the majority of regular, character-driven games. This being a musical debate more than anything, it's not one with a "correct" score in a pair of senses, but for this devoted fan of the series it's a seriously high note, and deserves a seriously high score as a result.