Def Jam Rapstar Hands-On Preview

We get on the mic and unleash the flow, hot songs, and social networking like whoa!

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Though there may be a proliferation of music games on store shelves these days, there is a distinct shortage of games that predominantly feature hip-hop. Enter developer Terminal Reality and the newly formed development studio 4mm Games. These feisty fellows have got it into their heads to give both hip-hop music and the hip-hop community the game they deserve. To accomplish the former, they've paired up with Def Jam Interactive to get the industry connections they need to secure a huge song list that reaches from coast to coast and includes classics as well as modern hits. For the latter, they are designing an online hub where players can post their performance videos, compete in tournaments, and showcase their skills to the world. We visited 4mm Games to take a look at Def Jam Rapstar, check out the community hub, and grab the mic for a one-on-one battle with the company president.

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At first glance, Def Jam Rapstar looks much like other karaoke games. During a performance, the notes and lyrics pop up onscreen. During the melodic sections, there is a bar for you to match pitch; during the rap sections, there are gems that lay out the cadence that you must follow. The original music video plays in the background, and though the majority of the song list was unavailable, we glimpsed tracks by T.I., Rihanna, Young Jeezy, Pete Rock, and The Notorious B.I.G. The developers confirmed that the game will ship with a robust number of tracks and be supported with ample downloadable content from week one, drawing from an already cleared reserve of "hundreds of tracks."

During your performance, there is also a picture-in-picture image of you singing if you have a camera plugged into your console. Nailing a few sections in a row will grant you a multiplier, and keeping a high multiplier going is the key to success. At the end of your song, you receive a score based on your accuracy with respect to lyrics, timing, and pitch. You can perform solo tracks, cooperative duets, or competitive battles, and our hosts also alluded to other multiplayer modes that would facilitate party-style play with more than two people.

It's after the singing and scoring that Def Jam Rapstar really begins to show some of the features that make it more than just another karaoke game. You can watch a replay of your performance and choose a 30-second section to upload to Rapstar's online hub. If you want to spice up your clip with a superimposed crowd or some trippy animation effects, you can do so easily. You can even set a different background for your performance if your living room isn't up to snuff, but you have to set that up by calibrating your camera before you sing. We watched a T.I. & Rihanna duet performance with a tropical beach backdrop, and put in our request for a rooftop background complete with hovering helicopter.

Once you name and save your clip, it uploads automatically while you move on to the next song. Your clip ends up on your profile page along with all of your other uploaded clips. From there, you can take advantage of the many community features that 4mm Games has planned. You can simply browse videos (on your console or your PC) and rate, tag, and comment on other performers from around the world. You can also challenge anyone, be they around the block or around the globe. Players will also be able to form crews of their friends, neighbors, classmates, and so on. These crews can then compete among themselves, and there will be multitiered ranking systems in place so you can see just how you and your buddies stack up. The whole system is designed to feed on the passionate pride that runs throughout the hip-hop community--pride in your skills, pride in your crew, pride in your city. Def Jam Rapstar wants to be an outlet for all that swagger.

But it won't be all about how well you can mimic someone else's performance. Def Jam Rapstar will also include a number of bare tracks, background beats just waiting for aspiring young artists to make them their own. Players will be able to freestyle over these beats and upload their own words and unique performances to the online hub. These videos could be an invitation for someone to come along and show you up. They could also be a way to promote yourself for a gig, or to get noticed by talent agents and other interested parties. Def Jam Rapstar wants to empower players to express themselves, to flaunt their skills as much as they want. With plans to link to Facebook and Twitter, Rapstar is poised to take advantage of social networking and online interactivity in a way that few other console games can.

Of course, our session wouldn't have been complete without a good old-fashioned rap battle. Jamie King, president of 4mm Games, challenged us to step up and show some swagger, so how could we refuse? The song: "Hypnotize" by The Notorious B.I.G. Rapping side-by-side felt pretty cooperative at first, but once we got into the song, we found ourselves striving to rap sharper and stay cleaner. It became a fun mix of competition and cooperation, and the folks gathered near us began to get into it too. When the song ended, the scores revealed the cold hard truth: We had out-Biggie'd Mr. King and showed him up on his home turf. Much smack-talking ensued as we strutted triumphantly and Mr. King talked of rematches. If Def Jam Rapstar can engender that sort of fun locally, we're optimistic that the online features will be able to draw on that energy and create a vibrant, fertile community. Def Jam Rapstar is currently targeting a winter release window, and we'll have more on the expanded community features, song list, and single-player progression in the coming months.

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