If you love hip-hop, the rise of the rhythm game genre has probably been a real bummer. Hip-hop doesn't make much sense for something like Guitar Hero, and the token inclusions in games like Lips or SingStar are usually focused on crossover karaoke "favorites" like Will Smith, MC Hammer, and Young MC. Def Jam Rapstar, however, is focused squarely on the genre, with a disc full of tracks that cover a lot of territory and time and a set of features that puts it on par with Sony's karaoke series, with plenty of potential to grow beyond that if the developer's aspirations for the official website come to fruition.
First thing's first, though. I don't need to tell you that if you don't like hip-hop music, Def Jam Rapstar isn't for you. But I do need to tell you that, even if you love the music, excelling at Def Jam Rapstar requires a familiarity with the material that many other rhythm games don't demand. In Guitar Hero or Rock Band, you can sight-read songs and plunk them out on a guitar--even songs you hate can actually be fun to play. SingStar, or singing in a band game, definitely takes things up a step, but if you can fake the melody and know the chorus, you can usually make it through a lot of pop and rock music. Rapping benefits from the rhythm of a drummer, understanding of breath control (like when to breathe and when to just keep rapping), and, to some extent, knowledge of the song. I was able to fumble my way through a few songs that I wasn't all that familiar with, but if you want to do well and have fun doing so, you'll want to spend time either listening to the songs outside of the game or messing around in the game's practice mode to figure out how the rhymes flow. Otherwise you're just going to mumble your way through songs, which gets boring fast.
There's a career mode and a progression to Def Jam Rapstar, where you work your way through five stages of songs, earning up to five mics (read: stars) per song and unlocking a few additional songs and challenges along the way. It's sort of unfortunate that some of the songs, like Rob Base & DJ EZ-Rock's "It Takes Two" or Busta Rhymes' "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See" are locked at the get-go, since it forces you to go through a lot of songs that you may or may not like.
Party mode is the freeform "hey, let's just rap for awhile" mode, and you can set up playlists of multiple songs or just go at them one at a time. You're welcome to go at it alone, but the game's better when you're playing with someone else, either in a battle mode, where both players perform the entire song simultaneously to see who does a better job, or in a duet mode, where players trade verses and earn a combined score. The game keeps online leaderboards, but ideally, the best way to find out how good you are is to get online. The game doesn't have any pure online competition, but you can take 30-second clips of your performances--helpfully recorded by an Xbox Live Vision camera, PlayStation Eye, or Kinect--slap a bunch of video effects on them, and upload them to a central server. Once there, other players can view the videos from inside the game or via the game's official website, effectively letting you share your videos with people who don't even own the game.
The developer's plans for the official website are ambitious, but in its current state, it doesn't do much beyond letting you view videos and battle other users by selecting one of your uploaded videos and having your opponent do the same. Battles are done via user voting, which encourages the combatants to get all Web 2.0 with it and blast the video out to Facebook or Twitter, both of which are integrated into the site. But the site currently lacks a lot of basic features, sorting videos barely works, profile pages don't seem to actually list the videos uploaded by that user, and so on. Granted, the site is listed as a "beta" and will probably improve, but right now it's not quite the draw that it could be.
There are also some issues with the way the songs are presented. For starters, this is a T-rated game, so the songs are presented in an edited format. Actually, they're presented as music videos, which is pretty cool, since there are some classic music videos to be had here. But considering rap videos' penchant for breaking out of the song for a bit for a quick skit, the videos occasionally get in the way of the actual gameplay. While you're waiting for Diddy and Ben Stiller to shut up, you're also losing the tempo of the song a bit, making it a bit rougher to come back in than it needs to be. You can hit a button on the controller to skip long sections of non-gameplay, which is nice, but it also shines a pretty bright light on the fact that a lot of rap videos have a lot of filler in them. Also, a few of the songs are just ill-suited for the format. Salt 'n' Pepa's "Push It" is certainly a classic, but shouting "Ah... push it" into a microphone over and over again while occasionally breaking into some of the most insipid lyrics of all time only serves to remind you that "Push It" is actually a terrible song. It's like Def Jam Rapstar just robbed me of some of my youth or something. Some tracks also could have been broken up a bit better in duet mode, also, as songs like "Brass Monkey" by the Beastie Boys switch players in less-than-natural-sounding spots. You're also asked to sing the hooks on some songs, often immediately after finishing up a full verse, giving you no breaks at all--something that even the original artists don't do, since you're usually performing the lyrics of two or more artists. Some of the track-specific issues are offset by an already-healthy amount of DLC tracks, and it sounds like the plan is to add more tracks on a weekly basis.
In addition to all of the existing material, Def Jam Rapstar also comes with a collection of all-new instrumentals for use in the game's freestyle mode. Obviously, the game can't score you on your freestyles, so this is strictly useful for the game's video sharing component. The variety in the freestyle tracks is pretty good, with a range of tempos for you to employ. You can also choose to go with no backing track at all, but it would have been nice to see some sort of music import feature, to allow people to use their own tracks.
Some of the trimming around the outer edges is shaky, but the core of Def Jam Rapstar is rock-solid, and the community video feature is sure to provide a lot of entertainment on its own. If the game continues to release additional tracks at a decent pace and the community keeps posting videos, this could fill a huge gap for hip-hop fans who have been underserved by most other rhythm games.