Karaoke has never been my cup of tea. When people suggest a late-night trip to Lucky Voice and the idea is met with drunken cheers, my heart sinks like a limbless swimmer. Want to see my Road Runner impression? Just pull out a copy of SingStar and - meep meep! - I'll be over the horizon in seconds.
Now, thanks to Def Jam Rapstar, I can honestly say I've lost much of my antipathy towards microphones. It's surprising really, because once you strip away the bling and the online community features, this is very much a Karaoke game - albeit one where your ability to sing in key has far less importance than normal. I can't even claim to be a massive hip-hop fan; when the kids at school were discovering gangsta rap, I had my head buried in mostly-rubbish Britpop (remember Cast? Me neither - I'm doing my best to forget). I've since broadened my musical tastes, but it's equally true to say that playing this has deepened my appreciation of the genre.
Appearance-wise, Rapstar resembles a shinier, gold-tinged cousin to the usual sing-along setup. The official music video for your track appears in a window, with a bouncing ball skipping over the lyrics that appear in the space below (and above, if you're taking part in a duet or battle). So far, so familiar - but as I've noted before, Rapstar immediately makes a smart move by analysing the player's rapping in three separate areas: timing, lyrical accuracy, and where appropriate, pitch. If you test the system by simply reading the correct rhymes back into the mic, but without bothering to stay on the beat, you'll still pick up some points for your efforts. This is important, because when you eventually start to take on the harder, more complicated tracks, you'll invariably hit a tricky section where you'll stumble over the pacing.
It’s impossible to fail a song, and on the lowest difficulty settings the marking is quite forgiving. However, as with most rhythm titles, Def Jam Rapstar really comes into its own once you start playing on Hard. Here you'll have to pay close attention and really make an effort to hit chains of correctly-delivered lyrics, leading to all-important score multipliers - up to a maximum of 8x. It's more of a game-like experience at this level, and it's also the best way to hone your skills. You may choke and splutter in the early days, but over time it's enormously satisfying to feel yourself getting better. By delving into the feedback menus at the end of a song you'll be able to pick through the lyrics, with the game highlighting individual words and phrases that gave you trouble.
If you're having issues with a particular section, there's also an option to practice specific verses - and in fact this is really the only way to master tracks like Scenario by a Tribe Called Quest, where the pacing switches and twirls on a regular basis. The bouncing indicator isn't much use if you're not prepped for a sudden turnabout, and needless to say it's pretty hard to get anywhere if you're attempting an unfamiliar tune for the first time. In fairness, the whole game is really geared around learning the songs: once you're confident you can removes the vocals, leaving your own voice naked in the spotlight, while the unlockable Expert setting removes both vocals and lyrics. If you can cut it at this stage and get a high score, you'll know you've got genuine skill.
Rapstar's career mode shepherds you through five tiers of tracks, requiring you to hit a specified performance target before you can ascend to the next group. It's a familiar arrangement, but aside from the fact that each tier also offers an unlockable track and a few rather useful timing challenges, Career mode feels a bit basic. It would have been great to have some equivalent to Guitar Hero's duels, or something which offered a bit of advice from the pros on the fining points of rapping - perhaps even an 8 Mile style story, of sorts; as it is, the career merely serves as an excuse to work your way through the game's catalogue.