Some things are simply more pleasant when you're in the company of a friend. A round of pool, a candlelit dinner, a three-hour game of Monopoly - none of these things are quite so enjoyable if you're experiencing them on your Jack Jones. Now it seems that we can add 'rapping' to that list, because on the evidence of my experiences with preview code for Def Jam Rapstar, it's way more fun to spit lyrics when you've got a buddy by your side.
At the outset, this link is tied to inevitable feelings of awkward self-awareness. As with any karaoke-like game, it takes a bit of time to get into the swing of things. As you bob up and down on your living room carpet, clutching the mic in one hand and gesturing wildly with the other, you begin to suspect that you might look like a bit of a twat. And guess what, you probably do. But hey, it's okay - because your friend / sibling / work colleague is standing next to you, and they look even worse. Look at Bobby over there, pretending to be Snoop Dogg! What a bellend!
The thing is, you only look stupid if you feel stupid - and after you've run through some of the easier tunes, or the ones with which you're more familiar, you'll start to find your flow. This is one of the key things to note about Rapstar, one of things that should help to guarantee its success: it's extremely rewarding. It might take a few repeat attempts, but with time it's a near-certainty that you'll get better. Because the game measures your efforts on three separate levels - pitch, timing and lyrical accuracy - it's clear to see where you're falling short, and indeed how you're improving. If your timing is slick but you're faffing the lyrics, you'll reap dividends from taking the time to actually read the words in front of you - even if your timing suffers a bit as a result. Unlike Singstar and Lips, there's little to be gained from crooning utter nonsense into the mic... unless, of course, you're in Freestyle mode - but we'll come to that in a moment.
Once you've found your tongue, you won't want a mate around for moral support any more. No, at that point you'll want them around so that you can utterly destroy them in a head-to-head battle. We've seen this kind of stuff in other sing-em-ups, of course, but the aggressive nature of hip-hop makes it the perfect vehicle for this kind of contest. It's the music of ego, of swagger, of showing off skill in such a way that you own the room. You may not believe that karaoke can deliver this kind of empowerment, but when you hit your stride and nail the hardest section in C.R.E.A.M by the Wu Tang Clan, you'll feel pretty damn good about yourself - particularly when you glimpse at the scores and see that you're hammering your opponent.
Even if you're feeling a bit less bellicose, Def Jam's duets seem to work really rather well. This is partly due to the songlist, of course: multi-vocalist tracks like Public Enemy's Fight The Power are a natural fit for co-op rhyming. The game naturally supports two mics at a time (the Singstar ones, or others you might have lying around), but when you're stuttering through the likes of So Solid Crew's 21 Seconds in Party mode, it feels totally natural to start passing the peripherals. Even in the context of Career mode, it can be quite helpful to have an accomplice helping you out. As you might expect, Career uses the established template of forcing you to win a number of tokens - in this case, microphones - which unlock the next tier of songs once you've reached the required quota. The addition of Rapper Number 2 causes your target scores to increase slightly, but this is offset by the fact that certain verses will only be handled by one player or the other - allowing you a much-needed breather.
I've yet to sample everything on offer, but from what I've played so far the soundtrack seems to have an impressively diverse selection of hip-hop cuts (you can see the nearly-full list here). You've got Run DMC and Public Enemy representing the '80s, and early '90s numbers from Dr Dre, Snoop and Notorious B.I.G; you've got contemporary stars like Kanye and Drake; and you've got grime artists like Chipmunk, Dizzee Rascal and Bashy - the latter two are UK exclusives. There are a couple of surprising choices, too - you get the feeling that Salt n Pepa and Nelly are here to attract a more mainstream audience, like the Sting and Coldplay tracks that pop up in the Guitar Hero games. Still, there's a pleasingly broad range of music here, one that does a good job of uniting several different genres without feeling too disparate. It can be quite a challenge to jump from Ludacris' growling on Stand Up (the current office favourite) to Biz Markie's off-key crooning on Just A Friend.
And of course, let's not forget that the whole karaoke aspect of the game - both the Career and the Party mode - is just half the hip-hop pie. There's also the Community side of proceedings, which encourages you to upload 30-second videos of yourself to the Rapstar site. While you're welcome to use clips of yourself covering the existing tunes, the real idea is that you create freestyle rhymes of your own by rapping over the bundled backing tracks. You're also given the option to add visual effects and cartoon stickers to your videos - although at the moment I've only used this to give Martin an oversized pair of shoes during one our rather strangled renditions of Gold Digger (we're getting better, honest).
At the moment the Def Jam Community is understandably a rather quiet place, although I did manage to find an amusing video of a large German man eating crisps at his desk. Was this part of a QA test, a new form of music, or a wry commentary on the nature of modern consumer society? I don't know, but I rated it four out of five stars anyway. I've only just begun to dabble with the Freestyle stuff myself, but some of the backing loops are quite superb - though I can't say they're good enough to rescue my fledgling attempts at rhyming (sample lyrics: "I went to the shops and I stole some wine / You know what, mate? I'm feeling fine.").
As I've said before, the whole Community aspect of Def Jam Rapstar has great potential, but there's an awful lot hanging on the question of whether or not people will take to the competition en masse. That's still up in the air, and indeed it will continue to be until the game launches in the States next month. At the very least, it looks like we'll soon be getting the rap-a-long game that the genre has always deserved - and for that we should be truly thankful.
Def Jam Rapstar will be released on November 5 on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii.