Def Jam Rapstar Review

Dan Webb

There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who was so into rap that he thought he might luck it,
He had visions of fame,
But the dude was proper lame,
Then in November 2010, he went out and thought fuck it... and bought Def Jam Rapstar.

Yes, that’s the extent of my lyrical genius folks – okay, it’s a limerick, so sue me! – and for me, and like-minded rap fans, Def Jam Rapstar is the closest to being a rapper that many fans will get. Def Jam Rapstar is the latest title out of Dallas-based developer Terminal Reality, and is exactly as the title suggests, a rap karaoke game, which is about as niche as it gets.

"Biggie Smalls has the glare of a rapist here."

The vast majority of your Def Jam game time will either be spent in its fairly simple Career mode or probably more so, rapping along to your favourite songs with friends – or alone – in the Party mode. The ability to duet or rap battle with friends through the game’s 40 plus tracks is surely where the majority of the fun is to be found and where most people should be spending their time. Invite some friends around and go 8 Mile on each other’s asses. You will have to invite friends round though, as there is no online multiplayer to speak of.

The career mode is aimed more at those who will play the game alone, allowing you to earn microphones – essentially DJR’s star system – based on performance on each of the game’s tracks and unlock more tiers – and tracks – on your way to the top. Each of the 5 tiers within the career mode will offer you 7 tracks to rip through and rap your little heart out to, as well as the ability to unlock a song for the Party mode and get involved in 3 game challenges. These challenges range from testing your timing and your endurance, all the way through to attaining high scores and putting your multiplier skills to the test.

The actual singing mechanics are fairly simple... you rap along to the words on the screen. That’s about as complex as it gets. Weirdly the game does include the odd singing line, depending on the track, but I’m not sure that singing along to Ashanti’s part in Ja Rule’s ‘Always on Time’ is going to appeal to wannabe rappers out there. Especially if they have an awful singing voice like me.

One of the game’s hang-ups from a technology standpoint is its inability to pick up your voice on the odd occasion. Whether that’s an accent thing, who knows, but it’s the simple parts where it struggled to track me, a la the “Fight the Power” line in Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ song. Whatever the issue is, it spoils the experience in quite a few songs. It’s like being told you’re wrong when you know you’re right... “Dear Def Jam Rapstar, I’ve known ‘Push It’ by Salt n’ Peppa for longer than you’ve been able to talk, and I’m 110% certain that I’m rapping “push it real good” at exactly the right time, so why do you tell me I’m not saying anything or I’ve got it wrong?” It also feels at times that you can mumble your way through, which is near unforgivable for a dedicated rap game.

"Meet the young Snoop Dogg. More like Snoop Puppy."

The problem with rap karaoke games - and ultimately one of Def Jam Rapstar’s issues - is that unless you know the track already, you’re pretty much screwed. It’s not like Rock Band or Lips when the track moves at such a laborious speed that you can get the gist of it fairly quickly. Oh no, Def Jam Rapstar throws you in at the deep end and constantly bashes you in the face with the oar – metaphorically speaking, of course.

So how much you get out of Def Jam Rapstar ultimately stems from your knowledge of rap music, but being a niche game aimed at that audience, I suspect the extent of the intended audience’s knowledge is fairly impressive already. Can it introduce newbies to rap via the wonderful medium of games? Fat chance in that happening, because it’ll take at least a handful of playthroughs of tracks you’re unaware of before you get to grips with the rhythm and timing of them. By then, you’ll probably be completely demoralised I suspect. I suppose you could make use of the practice feature, but where’s the fun in that?

On the disc, Def Jam Rapstar comes with over 40 tracks of rap, ranging from classic, old-skool stuff from Public Enemy, 2Pac, Wu-Tang Clan and Biggie to more recent fare from Kanye West, T.I and Lil' Wayne. There’s even region specific stuff as well, so the UK get the delights of So Solid Crew’s 21 Seconds and Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp. Yes, there may be a good mix of rap tracks that looks to cover the various eras of rap in DJR, but it does feel a little light in terms of numbers and there are a few odd track choices from various rap outfits. For instance, Outkast’s ‘So Fresh, So Clean’ is possibly one of their most uninteresting tracks. It definitely needs more 2Pac and even some Eminem as well. To say there are holes and not enough classics is probably about right.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a slew of tracks in the Def Jam Rapstar store already that eclipses some of the choices that 4mm and Terminal Reality have made, which doesn’t exactly breed confidence. ‘Slow Jamz’ by Twista, ‘It Was a Good Day’ by Ice Cube and even Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ are in here. 3 tracks, for instance, which would have improved the line-up tenfold, but instead, they’ll cost you extra.

"Nelly, the only idiot who uses band-aids as a fashion statement."

To appeal to a much wider audience as well, Def Jam Rapstar has been rated T for Teen, meaning all of the naughty words have been cut totally. What that means is that where swear words and such were spouted during various sections of the original tracks, they are totally blanked out in both the songs and the lyrics you rap along to. The end result is that when they appear in-game, it totally ruins the flow. There are even instances where lines of the track have been completely cut, for instance, 50 Cent’s ‘I Get Money.’

At the core of Def Jam Rapstar’s experience are its community features and seeing as DJR is a game best experienced in groups and sharing the experience, this might prove to be pretty popular. The community aspect in a nutshell lets you upload 30-second videos you record (using your Vision cam or Kinect) for others to watch and rate. Then, you can challenge people with other videos and let the community decide who wins. Even now, there are some impressive performances up online including one chap’s genius rapping skills with the insanely fast Slow Jamz and a couple of dudes sat rapping to Kanye’s 'Stronger' while a half naked dancer straddles a mirror behind them. You could get lost watching videos for hours, although in most of them the lighting is terrible.

Def Jam Rapstar isn’t just a rap karaoke game however, and with speciality created custom beats in the Freestyle section, wannabe rappers can strut their stuff and show them off online as well. Whether this will lead to the next big rapper remains to be seen, but with only a 14,000 strong community thus far, I doubt it.

The achievements are a weird bunch and I can’t help but feel that there is too much emphasis on the whole community side. There are some neat and original achievements like, ‘Rep Your City,’ which requires that you get the “on point” rating in 5 songs that mention cities by name, but ‘Presence of Greatness,’ which requires you “get an average rating of 4 stars on any video with over 200 ratings” seems like a chore, considering every video I viewed had a rating of less than 3 stars – what a supportive community. You can net a good 400 points though for ripping through the career, but everything else will take a bit of time and effort... as well as needing a Vision Cam or Kinect.

Ultimately though, for all of Def Jam Rapstar’s foibles, Terminal Reality have created a delightful rap karaoke game, one that is surely going to appeal to any self respecting rap fan. If there is any chance of a sequel, TR and 4mm will surely have to look at making it a mature title – I can’t see any 15-year old wanting DJR as it stands – as all the breaks mid song currently disrupt the core game mechanics and they definitely need to look at the issues with the more simplistic and isolated periods of play that I came unstuck with. With a few more iconic tracks, a bit more polish and a much more refined rap mechanic, Def Jam Rapstar would surely have been shooting for a much higher score.

Def Jam Rapstar’s 40 tracks may span a good 20 years or so of classic rap music, but there aren’t nearly enough iconic tracks in there, with them opting for a few weird choices per artist throughout.

Everything about the game’s menu system tries too hard to be “gangsta’” and bling, but it comes off looking cheap and tacky. It’s nice to have most of the track’s music videos included, even if they aren’t even remotely full screen.

Aside from the aforementioned issues with it failing to pick me up and allowing you to mumble through the odd section, it does a great job of bringing rap karaoke to the masses.

40 tracks that you can rap to and then upload and share with the community, a short career and a Freestyle arena for budding rap artists; there’s enough to keep you busy here for as long as you like. The local rap battles are where it’s at though. It’s surprising there aren’t any online rap battles or anything...

The achievement list puts way too much emphasis on community, rather than the actual game itself.

Def Jam Rapstar is the perfect rap game for any wannabe rap stars out there. With 40 tracks that span the entire rap genre, Def Jam Rapstar is only let down by a few technical issues and not having nearly enough iconic tracks for us to get our 'gangsta' on to.

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