We all have our limitations. Elephants can't jump, Mick Jagger can't get no satisfaction, and, according to an urban legend that originated at Newcastle University, cows can't walk backwards. Me, I really can't sing - and as a result my heart tends to sink whenever I have to preview games that involve karaoke-like antics. However, two recent titles have caused me to have a slight change of heart on this matter: Beatles: Rock Band, and Def Jam Rapstar.
While we've had hip-hop tracks appearing on the likes of SingStar for some time now, and poor rapping game Get On Da Mic, the rap music genre hasn't exactly flourished on games consoles. Quite why this is the case is something of a mystery, as the potential target market for the genre is nothing short of enormous. 4mm Games is well aware of this situation. This may be the first release from the new company, formed by Rockstar co-founders Gary Foreman and Jamie King, but it's already clear they're taking the project pretty seriously. I'm told that the build I played in Cologne was strictly a prototype and the featured songs were merely there as examples, but even at this stage the game is looking rather impressive.
At first glance Rapstar appears to be much the same as any other mic-based game. As you'd expect, the basic game design and layout follows a very similar template to SingStar, Lips and any karaoke title you've ever seen, but under the hood you'll find a few new bits of tech. While the melodic parts of each song - i.e. those that are sung - are handled in a familiar manner, your rapping is monitored with a far greater degree of detail than in any game I've seen before. Rapstar doesn't just look at your timing and pace, it also examines what you say; if you fluff the lyrics and rap a load of gibberish, the game will know. I'm not sure what the precise technology is involved in achieving this feat, but I can testify that it seems to work - and that it's a lot of fun, too. And as an added bonus, the game isn't able to detect you making stupid hand gestures like the middle class gangsta-wannabe you really are.
Except, it can, in a manner of speaking. Rapstar is fully compatible with PS3 and 360 cameras, allowing you to record your greatest rhyming triumphs (or your most embarrassing foul-ups) for all eternity. Once you've finished a song, you'll be able to add effects, backdrops and other stylistic flourishes to a 30 second video clip which can then be uploaded to the game's website. Now, you may be thinking that sounds like a bit of a gimmick, but 4mm is deadly serious about turning this aspect of the game into a key asset. The site, so I'm told, will work like a social network. You'll be able to form groups with your buddies, swap videos and enter into rap-battles with other crews. Other games have dipped their toes into similar pools, but 4mm wants to dive-bomb into the water from the top of the highest diving board.
"But yo homes!" you drawl, posing self-consciously as if you're in a sixth form production of The Wire. "What be the point if you can only upload 30 seconds? That be too short, dawg." It's a fair point, but one that is somewhat negated by a very shrewd move from 4mm. You see, the 30 second recording limit is tied to licensing issues for the game's soundtrack - and my guess is that the record companies are a bit itchy about permitting full usage of their tunes. However, in addition to rapping over other people's work, Rapstar will also allow you to record your own stuff. Just select one of the pre-made backing tracks provided by Def Jam, grab a mic and start spitting the grittiest lyrics ever to have been written from the safety of a £1m bachelor pad in Notting Hill.
The potential for such a feature is surely self-evident. In addition to allowing freestyle contests and the like, Rapstar could easily become a massive hub for aspiring rappers across the world - provided, of course, that the community takes off. There's certainly a risk that the musical yutes will regard such a project as being a bit clinical and not very "street", but on the other hand the presence of the Def Jam brand should offer reassurance. This is a highly respected record label after all, and if the network succeeds in attracting some genuine young talent then I'm sure the A&R men will be watching.
The front end of the game is already looking impressively glitzy and self-confident, and if the placeholder songs are anything to go by, the final game should have a diverse range of tracks from the last three decades. 4mm president Jamie King tells me that he wants to cover a whole range of hip-hop styles and flavours, and so hopefully we'll get offerings from the likes of Jurassic 5 and KRS-One alongside the likes of Kanye and Flo Rida. As I said at the top of the article, I normally shy away from games that involve the musical use of my larynx - but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Rapstar. If 4mm can so easily win over a hip-hop wallflower like me, they should have little trouble with the rap-loving masses.
Def Jam Rapstar will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 at some point next year