Curveballs can be a benefit or a hazard, but in the case of Def Jam Icon the former is clearly the more dominant. Especially those with little interest in either the realm of hip hop and contemporary US urbana or street-style fighting will nonetheless find this one a true gem coming pretty much from nowhere.
Its strength lies in not only excellent production values from the gurus at EA Chicago, who previously gave us the awesome Fight Night Round 3. The latest Def Jam, third in the series, relies equally on a supremely rich substrata of culture and style, allowing a glimpse into its subject matter that's immediately both entertaining and enlightening.
Sure, it may not be included in any urban studies classes right now, but perhaps it should be, for in a couple of hours with DJI you'll learn more about the various artists and reference points associated with hip hop, rap and the so-called inner city than from tome after tome and volume upon volume of academic research. This thing beats sitting in front of BET all day, something that the network probably acknowledged by volunteering for a cameo.
Essentially, players assume the role of an up and coming music producer in the employ of a media mogul who trusts the rookie with building a whole new label. This entails a fascinating story mode, replete with real life performers like Ludicrous, E40, The Game, Ghostface Killa and many others. In addition, cutscenes intertwine to shed more light on proceedings as the main character interacts with both good and nasty playas, from crooked cops and lecherous women (rendered with EA Chicago's penchant for the voluptuous and curvaceous) to hostile competitors. One of the women is done by gorgeous actress Nina Nicole, while Anthony Anderson from The Departed, Romeo Must Die and Scary Movie 4 acclaim puts in a role as a music industry nemesis. He's as convincing as always here and you can't help but like him, which feels good.
Now, aside from being a virtual intensive course in the cultural affairs of the rap community, DJI dishes out a capable street fighting mechanism that keeps the story going along. You see, each time the main character comes upon any sort of opposition, the beef gets untangled via a one on one superimposed over your typical cityscapes: gas stations, penthouses, nightclubs, the hood, a rooftop and so on. Antagonists have individual fighting styles and employ a relatively comprehensive, if not long, list of moves, some devastating, some rather weak. The catch is that EA Chicago decided to use scenery as an arsenal in itself, so the backdrop, which pumps along in rhythm with the song that's playing to the combat, provides a host of lethal traps to snap unsuspecting chumps.
This adds depth to the game, as rivals try to maneuver each other into these pitfalls of exploding fuel pumps, aggressive lowrider cars and kickboxing strip dancers. Yes, that's the kind of mood you should look forward to with DJI. It gets oddly surreal at times, with entire skylines splintering post especially potent combos. Pretty much anything in the arenas can be destroyed somehow, certainly the fighters themselves, who show injuries and bloody marks quite vividly.
Another aspect is that music can be used as a weapon, and you get more damage dealt to your opponents should a special move connect in tandem with beats in your character's selected song. Likewise, environmental hazards can be triggered by using air turntables to fast forward the soundtrack to a point where something bad gets to happen, but this is very simple once you get it and not much of an addition all told.
The fights in the main single player campaign are excellent, and the harder difficulty settings truly are difficult. Everything's presented with EA Chicago's by now trademark photorealistic graphics, and in fact, sometimes one has to think and ponder whether the hip hop magnets on screen are digitized images a la Mortal Kombat or exceedingly well done graphics. This game looks spectacular on the 360. Sonically there's lots of gratifying audio effects, but of course it's the numerous songs that steal the show in this department. DJI possesses a full catalog of tracks, most very recent as of release.
It is also a commendable product in standing up for adult-oriented presentation that's believable in its context and execution. So expect more than enough mature lyrics and dialog that comes complete with the occasional F, S and N exclamatories. This is great, and we applaud both developers and publishers for picking up the ball here and running with it.
One major snag is the online play portion, which unfortunately gets reduced to crafty gamers falling back on the same old moves to repeatedly defeat opposition in the most lackluster, creativity-deprived fashion possible. The fighting system just lends itself real well to this type of semi-exploit, which often transpires when going online with people in this genre of game. The AI, which isn't bad at all once you crank up the difficulty setting, doesn't deploy this frustrating methodology so often, and thus DJI is a lot more enjoyable in its Build a Label single player mode than when engaged in multiplayer with fellow human gamers.
Even so, it's a highly recommended title that everyone should consider, given an appropriate age: Def Jam Icon is ill-advised for young children. Otherwise, get your hands on this action here as it's seriously rewarding and affords a refreshing change from the usually sanitized fare we're used to.
The mildly prejudiced content (whites are noticeably absent even as player characters) does not get in the way since it needs to be taken lightheartedly as part and parcel of a bigger picture, one of cool gameplay, professional visuals and cultural gestalt to be reckoned with.
Rating * * * *
Version tested: Xbox 360
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