Between Rock Band and Guitar Hero, music fans looking for a game focused largely on rock, metal, punk and whatever else you can bang out with a guitar, a bass, a drummer and a vocalist have been pretty well covered. There have been a few deviations into other genres, like Activision's rather splendid DJ Hero series, but hip-hop - as huge as it may be - has gone largely neglected.
That's where Def Jam Rapstar steps up. Essentially a rap karaoke game, Rapstar doesn't try to do much new with regards to its solo or party modes and even commits a few blunders, but is redeemed by some cool features centered around recording videos of your performances, which you can then edit and share with the community.
Each of the 45 included tracks are presented with their music videos and scrolling, karaoke-style bouncing lyric ball. The songs are radio edits, meaning anything profane has been clipped out, but if you know what goes in the blanks then you're free to fill them in without fear of penalty. Unfortunately for 16:9 widescreen gamers, the videos are presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio with the gold cityscape menu background filling in the sides. Why there is no option to substitute the gold for black is curious, or even opt to stretch or zoom the videos themselves to fill it out, and since every single screen has the gold backdrop it never feels like you properly enter a song but are instead just playing over the main menu.
Career is pretty bare-bones, and follows a path similar to Dance Central (or the original Guitar Hero, depending on how snooty you want to be about it). You progress through a series of stages that each include a certain number of songs, and you must acquire a certain amount of microphones (Rapstar's version of stars) to unlock the next set of songs.
Microphones are awarded based on timing, pitch and lyrical accuracy, and the game seems to handle these pretty well. The only one we found to stick out was lyrics, as we knew during certain songs that we were way off in that regard but still pulled in a decently high lyric score. Being familiar with the songs and lyrics boosts your enjoyment of performing tremendously, and in case you need to brush up there's handy song information for each track that includes a lyric sheet and some other information like the album title and year released.
Structure-phobes and anyone else operating under the influence may find more fun in the Party section, where you can create your own set lists and go nuts either solo or with another player. If solo isn't your thing then you can grab another player to go at it in duets or battles. Those who'd rather skip out on the Career mode entirely, well, it seems you're out of luck, as several of the songs are locked out of the multiplayer and Party modes until you've unlocked them in Career. This is a very arbitrary hurdle for a music game made in 2010 and one we hope is ironed out in any eventual sequel.
The included songs tend to make or break these types of games, and fortunately Rapstar shines bright with its star-studded set list that spans a few decades' worth. From Biz Markie to Kanye West, Lil' Wayne to Lil' Kim, Public Enemy to Wu Tang Clan, pretty much any major rapper you'd really want in a game like this is included, and if they're not one of the 45 tracks on the disc then odds are they'll make an appearance through the expanding DLC catalogue. The only really major exceptions to this rule so far are Jay-Z and Eminem, which is probably somehow related to their DJ Hero tie-in shenanigans.
But the brightest point of Rapstar's set list is the ability to record your own freestyles over an included beat. It's the type of thing that really shows that developer Terminal Reality and producer 4mm understand the material and its audience, made even better by the ability to record your performance with either a Vision Cam or Kinect and upload a 30-second clip of it to the community, available for all to see within the game's online area and also on the official Web site, where others can rate and comment on your performance. The video features aren't strictly relegated to freestyles either, so if you bust out a particularly inspired Run D.M.C. verse then that's fair game too. You can overlay effects, animations and ludicrous (not the rapper) stickers for those moments you absolutely feel the need to add a large pink ghost dog to the foreground, which for us was every single time.
Kinect support was finally added to the game in December 2010 for North America, two months after the game's initial release (to date Europe still hasn't received the patch), and the camera is only supported in a video-recording fashion. There are no discernible differences in quality compared to using a Vision Cam, nor does Rapstar take advantage of any of Kinect's unique features.
Def Jam Rapstar is a pretty fun party game and meaty enough for the ambitious solo star, but the Career mode's archaic nature could have used some work to bring it up to modern standards, and locking songs in Party mode behind Career progression is particularly offensive. The inclusion of video sharing helps the game carve out its own ground, though, and hip hop fans looking for a music game finally have one that does the genre justice. While it certainly needs work in a few key areas, Rapstar is a really strong first music-game foray that can go seemingly nowhere but up from here.