Lips: Number One Hits
We may as well get it out of the way right at the top here. Lips is the Xbox's answer to the PlayStation's hugely popular SingStar karaoke games. If, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Sony must be feeling decidedly flattered when they look at Lips as there's little doubt it owes a lot to their party favourite. However, after years of relative stagnation in the SingStar camp there's a real chance that Lips: Number One Hits, the second in the franchise, could beat Sony at their own game.
On paper the games are largely identical. Both are karaoke games, both grade your performance via a combination of pitch and rhythm scoring, both come on a disk packed with a wide selection of songs and both allow you to download additional tracks from an online store. As ever though, the devil is in the detail and its here that Lips makes a decent stab at bringing some originality to the genre.
To start with there's little things like the fact that the online store is helpfully built into the song list (DLC you don't own appears in a separate section below the songs already in your library) rather than requiring you to go to a whole new screen to browse the content. The online and friends list based scoreboards at the end of every song are another plus and help add a welcome extra element of competition to proceedings. The motion sensitivity built into the microphone comes in handy too with the game awarding a performance bonus if you can swing or shake it when prompted on screen.
All these add up to a subtly more game-like experience rather than the pure singing one SingStar players are used to. This is pressed further home by the inclusion of things like Star Stream Power Bonuses (think Guitar Hero star power) that's built up by singing well and activated by shaking the microphone. There are also a variety of medals to be won in each song, these sit alongside your high score as an added indication of how well you did and are awarded for achieving specific things like including perfect pitch and great rhythm.
Despite all of this good stuff there's a fairly lengthy list of niggles too which do take the shine off things to a degree. Most annoying, from a usability point of view, is the preview panel that appears on the song selection screen when you stop moving around the list for more than a split second. Since it takes up a decent chunk of the screen and hides part of the list in the process it's never possible to just sit there and look at the list without half of it being hidden. It only sounds like a small thing but honestly, its horribly annoying when you're thumbing through your collection wondering what to sing and could so easily have been hidden behind a button press rather than appearing automatically.
Talking of the song list screen, it's also annoyingly slow to load at times locking you out on the main menu screen while it builds the list and saves with alarming regularity. I'd imagine part of this is down to it listing the DLC in the same screen requiring it to check the Lips servers for any changes. But really, does it need to do it every couple of minutes? The aforementioned preview panel is also horribly slow when previewing DLC songs, we're talking ten seconds plus for the preview sample to load; not really acceptable in this day and age.
The appearance of Avatars is nice at first but isn't without problems. Anyone singing without an account on the Xbox in question will have their scores attributed to the currently logged in account. Not a huge problem on the face of it (especially if they're good and it's your account) but anyone used to SingStar's quick and easy player profiles will know how they enable you to setup new accounts for anyone playing in a couple of seconds which adds to the fun when you have friends round all competing against each other.
This being the second game in the series there's also a disk swapping feature that's intended to allow you to move between content on the two disks with ease should you own them both. It's a fine idea, and SingStar has proved how useful it can be, however here it's far too clunky for its own good. Not only does the load when you swap a disk take that little bit too long but you're also required to swap the disks back after each song again just to access the menus rather than them being stored in memory as in SingStar.
For those playing against someone else the head to head battles return from the original game. Anyone who played Vocal Fighters, Time Bomb or Kiss last time out will find them completely unchanged here which is a shame as they weren't that great then and remain little more than curios here, albeit ones that are worth a look if you fancy a change from the bog standard music video or funky visualisations.
The ability to use your own MP3 files also makes a reappearance. As with last time however, it's nowhere near as impressive as it may sound. Rather than it doing anything clever with regards downloading lyrics you simply get your song playing over one of the games random visualisations and the chance to sing over the top, nothing you couldn't do with a bog standard music player and a hair brush if we're being honest.
Content wise Number One Hits is a decent enough mix of forty songs, as ever how decent will depend entirely on personal taste but as a good place to start your Lips collection it does the job. Songs like I Don't Feel Like Dancing (Scissor Sisters), Disturbia (Rihanna) and Viva La Vida (Coldplay) are familiar enough to most people while others like Heart of Glass (Blondie), Karma Chameleon (Culture Club) and How You Remind Me (Nickelback) broaden out the selection somewhat. Where Lips as a series falls down significantly when compared to SingStar however is in the volume of tracks available to purchase as DLC. Sony's SingStore hosts over nine hundred tracks including over five hundred English language ones where as Lips users have to make do with a little over one hundred at the moment. Granted the SingStore has been around a bit longer but even averaged out there's way more content (and of better quality, although that is admittedly subjective) being continually added to SingStore which is something Lips really needs to address sharpish if its not to find itself hopelessly out gunned in the content race.
Thankfully there are no changes to the already excellent Lips wireless microphones so if you already own a set you're already good to go. Talking of the microphones, it's a shame that in these days of cross compatibility between our music game peripherals that the Lips microphones still don't work (at the time of writing) in Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour despite functioning just fine in things like RB: Beatles and GH:5. They're the nicest mics around and it'd be nice to be able to use them for everything.
Lips still isn't quite the SingStar beater Microsoft wants it to be, it's simply not slick enough yet and lacks the huge library of songs SingStar fans will be used to. However in terms of fresh ideas and when viewed purely as a game it's edged it's nose ahead with relative ease. Put it this way, if there was a chance to sing the same song on either game I'd pick Lips every time. However, my scarily large collection of existing SingStar disks and the variety on offer in the SingStore means that, despite it not being as good in many ways, Sony's game will remain my go to karaoke game of choice for a while yet. Just.