There are a few Big Things being championed in the videogame industry these days, and some of the ones we hear about most often are casual, music and party games. The thinking goes that there's a huge untapped market of spendy twentysomethings who are currently sitting around their loft apartments on Saturday nights twiddling their thumbs when they could be playing games instead.
Microsoft has made several attempts to cash in on this demographic with party games such as Scene It! and You're In the Movies, and the results have been mixed. But the company's latest effort in this area, Lips, is a little slicker and smarter than previous tries, partly because it relies on an age-old truth: People like to get drunk and sing.
Developed by Japanese company iNiS (Elite Beat Agents, Gitaroo Man), Lips is a party game disguised as a music game, which serves as both its strength and weakness. Play it in a room by yourself and it grows stale extremely quickly. But gather some friends around, and it turns into a true living room karaoke experience with flair and style, something the Xbox 360 has been lacking to date. Whereas the Karaoke Revolution games feel more like toys for teens, Lips is something you can confidently bust out at a party without feeling too silly.
However, that doesn't mean it's a very good game. In fact, it's not really much of a game at all. It's far too easy to offer much enjoyment for hardcore gamers, the single-player mode is fairly dull, there's no real sense of progression, no online play and none of the now-standard music game features. Games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are well-suited for casual gatherings where friends can bang away at fake instruments while sipping adult beverages. But those games also stand strong on their own for solo players, offering varying difficulty levels, career modes, opportunities for improvement and vast replayability. Lips has none of those things.
What it does have is a collection of 40 songs, all of which are master tracks with lyrics included. Those from the MTV era onward also include a music video, which you can set as the background while you belt your heart out. The $70 Lips bundle also comes with two beautifully designed wireless microphones that possess the uncanny ability to elicit gasps of delight from both 13-year-old girls and 30-year-old men alike. From my brief time with these sleek, light-up mics, I found them to be well-made and satisfying to use, and I'll never look at those wired Rock Band mics the same way again.
The menu system in Lips is slick and easy to use, and the focus is squarely on the main event – loading up songs and singing them. Just choose a song by clicking on its corresponding album cover, pick your options and clear your throat. Once the song gets going, just shake one of the wireless mics to begin singing along, and away you go. Once the lyrics begin, you'll see the words pop up in large letters at the bottom of the screen.
The current lyric will be highlighted in white, and the upcoming one will wait in gray below. Meanwhile, the phrase you're currently singing will slide by on gray bars in the center of the screen. As you sing the right notes at the right time, those bars fill in with color, letting you know you've done it right. Score enough points and you'll see a silhouette pop up telling you to strike a pose with your motion-sensitive mic to trigger a Star Stream, which gives you a score multiplier for a limited time.
Unlike some music games, you can't fail in the main mode of Lips. Whether you miss a phrase or two, botch a lyric or pass out in the middle of the track from drinking too many Floradoras, the song will play until the end and only your score will suffer. The first track I tried was Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart." I botched it badly but somehow gained 743,000 points and attained Super Nova status, despite the fact that I spend the last 30 seconds of the song muttering gibberish over the words in a range of crazy voices. By my second song, Avril Lavigne's "Complicated," I'd powered on up to Big Bang (the highest level) and even went up a Grand Rank, from Shower Dreamer to Sunday Soloist.
Moving up in rankings like these has no real benefit other than bragging rights, and even your score is fairly irrelevant. Sure, it's nice to see that I scored more than 3 million points singing R.E.M.'s "The One I Love," but it didn't really do
anything, so what's the point, really? All 40 songs are available at the start, the various backgrounds and color schemes are all there from the get-go and there are no extras or secrets to be found. Doing well doesn't open up stages or skins or trophies or anything at all.
If you're the competitive type, there are a few variations on the main theme. The Vocal Fighters vs. mode displays two images of two animated characters and declares a winner at the end of the song; Kiss has you sing to try and make two silhouettes smooch; and Time Bomb fills a virtual glass with water as you sing correctly, then you move the motion-sensitive mic to tip the glass on a lit fuse in order to prevent a bomb from exploding. All three are more gimmick than true substance, and I found it to be much more fun to watch a music video play while I sang than to prevent cartoon explosions.
All of the above makes for a pretty lackluster single-player experience. However, thanks to Lips, I can now scratch one of my all-time fantasies off my ever-growing list: singing along with a-ha's "Take on Me" video in front of the television with a glowing microphone as my voice comes through the speakers. Unfortunately I can't show it to you because, unlike Sony's competing karaoke game SingStar, Lips doesn't support custom videos and uploads. It doesn't recognize the Xbox Vision Camera, so you can't record ridiculous videos of yourself and upload them to your friends to comment on.
It does have a My Lips section that Microsoft describes as a "social network," but it's little more than place to track your points, view your most-played songs and challenge people on your friends list to top your scores. In the manual, the My Lips tagline is "Two's company, three or more's a community!" I beg to differ. You can't challenge or sing along with your friends in real time over Xbox Live because there is no competitive or co-operative online multiplayer in Lips. The only thing you can do online is download songs from the Get Music section, which has not gone live as of this writing.
Downloadable tracks will be a key part of Lips' ultimate success or failure, because the 40 songs included on the disc are a solid start but quickly begin to lose their luster. To view a full list of the tracks that shipped with the game, click here
Microsoft has already announced new downloadable tracks for Lips in the weeks to come, and all will start at 160 Microsoft Points ($2). Tracks by Coldplay, Jason Mraz, Supertramp and Smash Mouth are scheduled to hit the Get Music store in the next two weeks with some holiday fare to follow in December. If the download system works smoothly and the high-quality tracks begin to flow, then Lips could begin build up a hefty library. But in the meantime, you can always just hook up your iPod and rock out with your own playlist, right? Well, sort of.
One of Lips' much-ballyhooed features is the ability to import tracks from your own music library for sing-along fun. In theory, you can hook up your portable personal music player via the Xbox 360's USB port and the Lips Get Music section will recognize it, displaying the device's contents for you to browse through. Just choose which tracks you want to sing along with and they'll be sent over to the Sing! section as a new track selection. That's all well and good as long as you own a Zune or a last-generation iPod. Sorry iPod Touch and iPod owners – the Xbox 360 doesn't recognize your new toy and neither does Lips.
Luckily I had an old iPod Nano lying around and hooked it up to my Xbox 360 Elite with no problems. Lips recognized it as an external music device, displayed my entire Naked Brothers Band discography and allowed me to both preview and sing the tracks at will. However, I did notice that some imported tracks did not work with Lips, which might have something to do with DRM (digital rights management), although I can't be sure. But the biggest problem with Lips' song import system isn't that it won't function with a huge number of music players. Rather, it's that there's really no point to doing it.
Karaoke is attractive because it gives you the words as you're singing, which is extremely helpful for people like my wife, who loves the song "Umbrella" by Rihanna but, until she sang it on Lips, only knew four of its words, one of which was umbrella. I tried singing along with a number of songs from my own playlist and found it frustrating at best and annoying at worst.
Because the game can't pull the lyrics or a music video from your personal music player, you're left looking at a generic video with no words while you're being scored arbitrarily. I managed to rack up 500,000 points by singing The Decemberists' "The Sporting Life," but I'm completely in the dark as to why or how. So really, if you're going to sing along with your favorite music, you're better off doing so while driving in the car or sweeping the floor. It's more straightforward, you won't feel inadequate for flubbing the words and you'll get something accomplished in the process.
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