At first glance, Lips is Microsoft's SingStar killer. It's a karaoke game with graphics that look remarkably similar to Sony's effort, but scratch beneath the surface and you realise that Lips is much more than that. It forms part of Microsoft's three-pronged Christmas 2008 assault on the casual gaming space, sharing responsibility with party title You're in the Movies and quiz game Scene It? Box Office Smash. Lips isn't just gunning for SingStar, it's gunning for the Wii, the DS, and anything else that's vying for position underneath your Christmas tree.
And yet, working out whether Lips is any good forces you to compare it to SingStar (and rope in your better half, preferably brandishing a bottle of wine). Undoubtedly Lips' microphones are the best on the music game market. They're wireless, from this point forward a requirement for all rival products, and that technology is utilised well. You're able to join songs at any point with a simple shake, BUT, in order to get them to work with your console you have to press and hold a small button at the bottom of each microphone and press the sync button on the front of the 360, then wait for the rings to flash as they do when a normal controller syncs. No-where in the game or in the game manual is this explained, which led to one hell of a struggle getting the damn things to work in the first place.
Still, they feel great. They have decent weight and as a result don't feel like a cheap piece of plastic that might snap after a clumsy, alcohol-fuelled fall. On top of that, there's shining LED lights that adorn the bottom end of each microphone that pulse to the rhythm of each song. This is largely pointless in my view, but that won't be the opinion of everyone. The ball and chain, for example, loves it, bless her, and even made me turn the lights off in the bedroom to make the most of them.
She also loves being able to use the wireless mics as if they're Wii Remotes. Sing well enough and an image will appear on screen that shows a silhouette of a singer prompting a mic gesture, like holding both hands in the air, for example. Strike that pose (or don't - simply violently jerking the mic is usually enough to convince the game you're doing what it's asking you to) and you'll trigger Star Stream, which gives the tone bars a shot of glitter juice and grants you a short period of bonus star potential. Again, I wasn't particularly enamoured with the prospect of actually having to do more with my muscles than hold a mic a couple of inches away from my mouth, but then I'm a 'mourngey git', apparently, and, admittedly, you'll have to at least try if you've got a competitive streak burning somewhere inside of you, since it increases your high score potential. You don't want to trigger it just before a period with little singing, since you'll waste the score bonus period - instead you'll want to save it for just before you have to belt out more banging lyrics than in an Arctic Monkeys tune.
Lips is also pretty competitive. VS is our most played mode, and trying to beat the 'trouble and strife's' end score, dependent on your ability to sing a song's lyrics on key and in time, was my primary motivation. The game is actually pretty forgiving, I found. You don't need to sing like an angel to fill the bar with red or blue. You don't even need to pronounce the words. You can slur your way to victory, if you can slur in tune. For the mega competitive among you, vibrato and well placed Star Stream will be a must - myself and the missus managed 2.37 million singing Coldplay's Yellow cooperatively, which is such a good score it's classified as a Big Bang. Beat that.
The point? There's medals to go for, awarded after every song. You'll get these for pitch, stability, rhythm, party, technique and performance. There's also a ranking system, which every point scored contributes to. You start off as a lowly 'Shower Dreamer', but soon enough you'll be climbing the ladder to inevitable stardom. Still, Lips is unmistakably non-hardcore, the antithesis to Gears of War 2. You can't fail a song, which means you can simply sit back and enjoy the music if you fancy it, but you'll get nul points if you do.
The menu system has awful lounge music but it's accessible and easy to navigate, as well as very, very white. From the main menu you've got a number of options, all scrolled through horizontally. Sing is where you pick songs to sing, obviously. There's a number of options available with any given song. If it's one of the songs on the disc, or a song downloaded via Xbox LIVE Marketplace, you've got three options: You can sing along with the original music video (and perv over a writhing Rihanna in the rain), or have what's called a 'Virtual Music Video' (a dynamic, iPod dancing silhouette advert-esque video that can be manipulated with mic movement) play instead, or pick from one of three mini-game type challenges. One of them, called Time Bomb, requires you to sing well enough to prevent a lit fuse from blowing up a bomb - if it does the lights on the mic flash quickly before turning bright orange. Another, called Vocal Fighters, sees two Guitar Hero type 2D rockers swinging a mic about as if they're having some kind of epileptic fit - swing the wireless mic around during quiet periods of a song and they'll swing their heads around. Rock and roll.
Jukebox mode plays songs randomly, like shuffle mode on your iPod. Get Music is where you, literally, get your music. Here, you can sift through the 40 tracks that are included on the disc (more on that later), any tracks that are on your Xbox 360 hard drive, a USB connected device (more on that later) and anything on a network, like a nearby PC. This is also where you'll be able to buy songs from Xbox LIVE Marketplace.
And finally, My Lips is where all the online features are found. You're able to check out your personal score and history, but best of all it contains a friends list of sorts, which allows you to see what your friends are up to and compare Lips achievements. Although we haven't been able to check it out yet, you can play Lips online, too, which I reckon might be an odd experience, but hey ho.
As with all games of this type, your purchase will be heavily influenced by the songs on the disc (check out the full track list here). It's impossible to please everyone, of course. In fact, it's probably impossible to please anyone, given how personal music tastes are. Microsoft has clearly tried to provide as varied a track list as possible, with an incredibly eclectic line-up. The musical trail takes in everything from Alicia Keys' No One to Editors' An End Has A Start, via Roxette's Listen To Your Heart and Stand By Me by Ben E. King. If you're going to buy Lips you're probably going to buy extra songs. Microsoft hasn't revealed pricing for these yet, or what's going to be available (Aha's Take On Me will be a free day one download), so it's impossible to judge at this point, or compare with Sony's SingStore.
Lips' greatest achievement, met with no small amount of cynicism by the gaming press following the game's announcement during Microsoft's E3 2008 press conference, is the ability to plug your portable music player into the 360 via USB and have Lips simply make your DRM-free songs work. The idea, in theory, was that Lips' track list has the potential to be anything you want it to be, and for free. It doesn't quite work like that. We had a peculiar experience here. At home, on my Xbox 360 Elite, neither my 2GB iPod Nano or the better half's shorter, fatter, better iPod Nano worked with it, with the songs displaying but not playing. On the office 360 Elite, however, my iPod worked fine with the game, with the songs playing as expected, without on-screen information like lyrics, or the officially licensed music video. This bizarre turn of events has us all stumped.
When it works, essentially Lips is just playing a DRM-free track from a USB connected device, with pretty pictures layered on top. You might think, well, that's all it was ever going to do. It's not magic. Fair enough, that's what I thought. But check this out. When you first import a song from a portable device, the game asks you an interesting question:
"You're about to use a song from your own music library. Do you want to send data about this song along with an ID associated with your Gamertag to Microsoft? By doing so you'll cast a vote for the creation of additional content such as videos and lyrics for your favourite songs. Providing this information will also let us notify you when new content for songs in your collection is available."
So clearly Microsoft is looking at providing officially licensed music videos and lyrics for the most popular imported songs, which, I reckon, would be magic. As my better half quipped when we first tried to sing a song from her iPod: "I wish the words would come up." When it comes down to it, how many songs do you know the words to off by heart? For me it's not that many.
Where SingStar wins though is in its ability to save small videos, captured with the PlayStation Eye, and upload them for the community or your friends to see, and listen back to your performance once you're done, even adding voice effects - Lips doesn't have anything like this, which is both a surprise and a disappointment. SingStar also has the added benefit of having a monstrous back catalogue from which you're guaranteed to find an officially licensed track that's up your street, although we reckon it's a bit unfair to criticise Lips for this since SingStar has years of music licensing under its belt.
None of this prevents us from recommending Lips to Xbox 360 owners. It's the only game of its type on the 360, it's got brilliant microphones and it at least tries to allow you to expand the potential track-list to infinity. If you like karaoke, and you have friends or family that like karaoke, it's a damn sight better in-law entertainment option than charades this Christmas, and for that we should be eternally grateful. Now... can I beat Morten Harket's Take On Me score?