Since American Idol first graced the airwaves back in 2002, a number of similar shows have stepped up to deliver the singing superstar search process season after season, including - since 2011 - NBC's The Voice. In this Wii U title based on the show, The Voice translates into a karaoke game with a tournament structure, a soundtrack split between rock, pop, R&B, and country, and a welcome suite of exercises for real-life vocal training. A spectacularly generic presentation and lack of personality hold it back from a star performance, but fans of the show - and singers interested in improving their pipes - will still find some fun on this stage.
Jumping into The Voice, the first option most players will go for is the tournament-style Season mode. Here, as in the TV show, you'll start with a 'blind audition' of a single song, where you'll perform for four judges seated with their virtual backs turned away. If you sing well enough to pique a judge's interest, they'll turn around, indicating that they want you on their team. At the end of the song you'll be able to choose your coach from among any interested judges, and then it's off to the races.
Along with the rest of your chosen vocal coach's 'team', you'll go through several stages on your way to the top, including sing-off style battle duets and a series of solo rounds leading up to the one-on-one season finale. For each performance you'll get to choose between a few randomly selected songs to sing out of the larger overall list, which runs through thirty tracks of Top 40 hits, 80's and 90's favourites, and a smattering of country tunes. “Hey, Soul Sister", “Counting Stars", “Apologize" and “Outta My Head" share billing with “Ain't No Mountain High Enough", “Girls Just Want To Have Fun" and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot", though they're all cover versions, rather than the originals.
When the curtain lifts you'll sing along to your chosen track using the included mic, with notes and lyrics appearing on-screen in a stylized, staff-like format similar to the vocal notation in Rock Band or SiNG Party. Pitch tracking is generally decent, but the interface does have a few issues. For starters, it only shows a single phrase at a time, and rather than sliding or gradually transitioning into the following bar it simply cuts to the next phrase instantaneously - often leaving you mere milliseconds to react and hit the first note. The lyrics for the next line are displayed under the music, but there's no way for players to scope out the upcoming notes, which means that unless you already know the song you'll frequently find yourself flailing at the start of a new bar.
As in many music games, you'll occasionally run into some special triggers, including Long Notes, Power Notes, and Improvisation sections. Long Notes, as the name suggests, are simply pitches that need to be held for an extended duration - make it through without running out of breath, and you'll score bonus points. Power Notes come into play during particularly punchy parts of the songs, like pre-choruses, and singing them with extra volume will net you some extra points. Finally, Improvisation sections encourage you to come up with your own vocal runs for a measure or two, with points awarded for anything on-key.
In theory, these three new note types should add a good bit of variety to the gameplay, but in practice they just don't make that much of a difference. Whether you really nail a Long Note or whiff it entirely doesn't seem to matter much - we've gotten credit for Power Notes while singing barely above a whisper - and the Improvisation sections appear to be A-OK with you belting out notes on-key in any key. It's still nice that they're there, and singers who really get into the spirit will enjoy emphasizing Power Notes and improvising whether the game tallies up extra points or not, but we do wish the implementation was more consistent.
One addition to the basic karaoke formula that The Voice does very well, however, is the Vocal Coach option. Accessible from the main menu and between every round in Season sessions, the Vocal Coach mode features a collection of sixteen exercises that attempt to actively help you improve your real-life singing. From guided warm-ups like face stretches and arpeggiated lip trills to instruction on techniques like portamento (sliding smoothly between notes), melismas (multiple notes sung on the same syllable), and harmonizing, there's a lot here for budding vocalists to explore. The short exercises are presented well - without assuming prior musical knowledge - and usually consist of a short explanation and demonstration, followed by an interactive, graded call-and-response section. Even if you're not so serious about your singing, they're worth a look just for the surprisingly catchy meta-songs and their mnemonically-derived lyrics: “These notes are long / they are all long / you have to sing loud / you have to sing out".
The Vocal Coach mode is a great idea, and certainly helps set The Voice apart from other singing games on the Wii U. In general, however, the whole package suffers from an overwhelming feeling of blandness. A large part of this comes from the loss of the celebrity judges from the TV show; instead of Adam, Gwen, Pharrell, and Blake, we have judges named - apparently - 'Rock', 'Pop', 'R&B', and 'Country', each with only a new-to-Facebook-style silhouette for a character portrait. As you might expect, very little personality comes through here, which will be a big letdown for fans of the show.
This anonymity also extends to your fellow contestants - as a single player in Season mode, you'll face off against memorable foes like MARCUS, AMANDA, and RICK, whose hypothetical parents boldly broke both gender and capitalization norms in naming their future stars - we sang a memorable his-hers duet with TODD, whose female FMV counterpart truly knocked it out of the park. TODD's impassioned performance aside, the graphics are pretty generic as well. There's nothing special about the menus or interface, and the track backgrounds consist of real-life models singing and dancing along to the music, sandwiched between lava lamp-style visualizations and large, Helvetica callouts of key lyrics - admittedly appealing in its cheesiness, but ultimately rather forgettable. The songs themselves, meanwhile, are plenty catchy, but the shortened, 'as made famous by' cover versions here can be a bit hit or miss. Most commendably capture the energy of the originals, but a few have a Kidz Bop feel that fits in unfortunately well with the faceless judges.
Of course, as any karaoke fan can tell you, the fun isn't in a flawless performance, but rather in the bonds of friendship that come from communal off-key crooning, and few of The Voice's faults will matter if you can gather a few friends (and fellow fans) to play it as a party game. In addition to a dedicated, head-to-head 'Voice Party' multiplayer mode (which requires two mics), you can also play through the entire Season mode with a friend, passing a single mic back and forth. With the right crowd, this can be a lot of fun, and it's certainly where The Voice shines the brightest.
Interface issues and an impressively generic presentation keep The Voice out of prime time, but if you're a big fan of the TV version - and especially if you've got friends who are too - there's a chance you'll have a great time, depending on what exactly you enjoy about the show. If you crave the drama and personality that come from the celebrity judges and hopeful contestants, there's very little for you in The Voice's video game incarnation. But if the songs, tournament format, and emphasis on improving vocal chops are enough to keep you glued, you'll find plenty to turn around for here.