Hip Hop or Rap Music as it is commonly referred as, has had a bad rap over the years with many black, and white communities speaking of the dangers that glorified violence being portrayed in Lyrics has on young impressionable males. It’s been like this pretty much since it began back in the 80’s and I remember the uproar when artists such as NWA or Two Live Crew came on to the scene with their explicit sexual over tones and gangster lyrics. Hip Hop seemed to stick two fingers up at the established order and became an urban voice and urban commentary for many. Since then things have changed but on one hand have not as some artists still want to rap about how bad ass they are. I think the mainstream media has long since accepted Hip Hop on its own merits as a voice for freedom of expression, yet still the finger gets pointed in its direction from time to time. This brings us to Def Jam Icon, a new game from EA which not only adheres to social stereotypes within rap music but is also a video game which seems to be the new focus of attention when things go wrong in society.
Def Jam Icon is clearly a fantasy game, there’s really no doubt about that because it depicts well known artists and producers kicking each others butts in glorified fighting. From a gaming perspective this is fun but at the same time the whole premise of the game seems to just be a melting pot of all things supposedly bad about video games and Hip Hop.
Def Jam Icon at heart is a fighting game which features Hip Hop artists signed to the record label Def Jam. The game features a few modes of play although for a fighting game is rather limited in options compared to other fighters such as Dead or Alive 4. The main meat of the game and where gamers should start out is the Build a Label mode which offers gamers the chance to work up the ranks from no body to top producing mogul. It’s a story mode of sorts that allows gamers to create a character and then head off into the industrious world of Hip Hop production.
Using an easy to use character creation tool, gamers can change the appearance of their character to suit their needs. So if you want big afro hair and a styled goatee beard then this is all possible. It’s not as in depth as some other games but certainly offers enough freedom to add a personal touch to proceedings.
Once the character creation is done then the story begins by introducing the main players in the tale. It seems in this fantasy world at least that managing artists is a cut throat business where if you want things done then you are going to have to fight for it, and I mean that literally. In between getting into fights with other artists, the odd cop and stalking fans, gamers have to manage their record label by signing artists. Once artists have been signed then gamers have to keep them happy (by fulfilling their requests) and setting budgets for record releases. It’s pretty straight forward and with some experimentation you can start to earn some serious money. There seems to be little point in having money other than for setting record budgets. You don’t have to make payments for new artists to come into the fold and so you are left with tons of cash to spend, on yourself. This means heading off to the local stores to buy “Bling” (expensive jewellery), Tattoos and clothing. There are a fair few items to buy and unlock through play and so gamers can make their character look as smart or as street as they choose.
The fighting itself is very basic and takes place in various areas including a TV studio, Night Club, Petrol Station, Block, Penthouse suit, Office and Rooftop. You move your character around a 3D space rather than being in fixed positions and the camera simply stays side on to view the action. This poses some problems as it can become hard to judge distance if say your opponent is in front of you as opposed to the side. A more dynamic panning camera might have helped here.
Players can perform various attack moves from a roster of 6 or so fighting styles which are loosely based on real martial arts and street brawling. The build a label mode requires styles to be unlocked and then you can choose which one you desire before each fight. There are four main attack buttons which are quick high, quick low attacks and strong high and strong low attacks. With the right trigger held, players can block/counter and with the right thumb-stick can then block high or low. It’s very similar in design to EA’s Fight Night games. With the right thumb-stick you can also unleash stronger attacks by performing half/quarter circle movements. Finally you can perform grab moves using the right thumb-stick. Once a grab has been initiated you are then able to throw your opponent in any direction or perform a takedown move which is activated by simply pressing the D-Pad in a direction. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t take very long to master at all.
The main feature of the fighting is the actual background music and the stages themselves as it is here where advanced playing techniques come into play. What is clever is the fact that the stages are filled with hazards that come alive in time to sections of the background music. For example in the Club level there are pulsating speakers that produce a massive shock wave at certain times in the music. If you are close to these hazards at the wrong time then you are likely to sustain a lot of damage, more than regular attacks. This means that when fighting it is crucial to either time your attacks to the music so that if you perform a grab move you can then throw your opponent onto the stage hazard just as the music activates it. This isn’t always practical and would require great knowledge of the music in the game to truly exploit this and so what is also very neat is the fact that players can scratch the music with an imaginary turntable and rewind the music to activate the hazards. This is performed by holding the left trigger and then rotating the thumb-sticks. Players can also change the music track playing in a similar manner by rotating thumb-sticks. I couldn’t see what difference this made other than simply allowing you to learn a particular track and timing your attacks to suit. Again I couldn’t work out if more damage was received from using hazards in time to the music or using the rewind feature. Either way battles do tend to lean towards stunning your opponent with power moves and then going in for the grab to throw them onto hazards. Luckily there is a grab break move available so as not to cause too much frustration especially as the AI likes to grab a lot on the hard difficulty setting.
Outside of the Build A Label mode gamers can choose to play in single matches against AI, on Xbox Live or with a friend and it is here where gamers can choose from a number of Def Jam artists such as Redman, Sean Paul, Mike Jones, Luda, Ghostface Killa and many more. EA also decided to let you play the game with your own music in a Soundtrack mode (not the story mode) and having experimented with the feature I can say that using fast paced beats from things like Drum and Bass does make a difference to the hazards. However it’s not entirely flawless as the hazards seemed to trigger off beat compared to the regular tunes in the game. I even tried a battle with Halo 2 music and again it worked but wasn’t as good as using the in game offerings.
Graphically Def Jam Icon looks pretty slick and with some excellent likenesses that perhaps can rival those seen it Fight Night means that Hip Hop fans will instantly recognise the fighters on screen. The fighters animate very well although in terms of game play movement seems a little on the sluggish side. There also seems to be some problems with the responsiveness of the controls at times. The environments are equally impressive and seem to pulsate to the background music. The visual effect here is very distinctive and to a certain degree feels like some animated music video. With no health bars on display (although you can switch them on if you choose) the only indication players have as to the state of their health are the scratches and bruises they receive. When things get crucial then the screen colour warps and changes to suit which creates a kind of look you would perhaps see when looking at photo negatives.
The menus and general level of presentation is also pretty slick and easy to navigate and so you can’t really fault the visual quality of the game. That said there are very few fighting stages for a game of this type and does make me wonder why more weren’t included?
Def Jam Icon is all about sound and if you are not into Hip Hop then perhaps the game is going to appeal far less; the same applies for the characters in the game. On the other side of the coin, if you are an avid Hip Hop fan and especially love the artists on the Def Jam record label then this game will certainly please and entertain you no end. There’s a decent mix of tunes in there and fighting alongside your favourite tunes is an awesome experience. I think gamers could still enjoy what the game has to offer even if they are not up to speed on who the fighters are or what music is being played. The voice acting is pretty good during the story despite being on the stereotypical side. There are some good performances all round and the way the presentation mixes with the sound means you should get drawn in to the overall plot of the game; so thumbs up there. Other sound effects are as you would expect including taunts from the various fighters during combat. I’m not sure if the voices were provided by the artists themselves or sound a-likes?
The Build a Label mode is in fact far more in depth than most fighting games; in fact I’m going to say more in depth than all fighting games to my knowledge so some respect has to be given here. However the lack of other modes such as team battles, survival modes and even things like tag means the replay value is low once everything has been unlocked. Sure, you can replay the Build A label mode again and again perhaps making slightly different choices as you go but essentially you’ve seen what the game has to offer during the first play through. That leaves versus mode with friends and the aforementioned Soundtrack mode to mess around with. If you are connected to Xbox Live then of course you can log in to the EA servers and challenge others to bouts of combat. I found these actually very fun although player skills vary a lot (as you would expect) and so you’ll either dominate if you’ve played through the story mode first or get whipped by some real pro’s out there. In particular I liked the lobby system where you could chill and type messages to each other or set up a game on the fly with someone mouthing off.
Sadly due to the lack of depth to the fighting itself the game is pretty easy to master and so for long term appeal I don’t think it holds up well especially against the likes of DOA 4 as an example. Again unless you are a truly devoted Hip Hop fan then the appeal will wear off quite quickly due to lack of content in the game.
There is no doubt that Def Jam Icon is a fun game that is easy to play and full of neat ideas for a fighting game. However due to the lack of depth and variety to the game play means you are left with a basic brawler that simply looks very nice. As I said earlier, if you are into Hip Hop then this is a must have game and one that will most certainly keep you entertained for a while. If Hip Hop isn’t your thing and you truly hate it then perhaps you should stay well clear. Those of you in the middle ground would do well to check out the game for the sake of sampling the unconventional game play. I would perhaps go as far as saying the game is akin to a party game more than anything which isn’t a bad thing but will perhaps turn off fighting purists.
Amidst the banging beats and meaningful lyrics I have had a good time with the game both on and offline but if I were to be honest I would say the game is pure rental material rather than a full blown purchase. It’s fun yes but simply too short and lacking in killer punches to make it a keeper. After playing Def Jam Icon it’s clear to see that EA are attempting something new with the game and with more ideas thrown into the pot, the next game could have all the right ingredients to make it more than just a game for Hip Hop fans in the long term. As far as positive black role models in video games are concerned then I think Def Jam Icon breaks every rule in the book, in a nice way of course. If your parents, loved ones or housemates hate your love of Hip Hop then this game will do little to appease them. I suggest turning up the volume to 11 for added effect when you are playing this game.