NEW YORK — Electronic Arts hasn't announced a track list for the 2007 edition of its "Def Jam" hip-hop brawling series, but a recent demonstration of the next-gen game in New York suggests a 1990 Eric B. & Rakim classic might fit best: "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em."
Expected in March 2007, the currently codenamed "Def Jam" will be the third console game from EA to put the rap label's MCs in the mortal combat of a fighting game. But according to the game's outspoken lead designer, Kudo Tsunoda, it will be the first to make meaningful use of hip-hop by making knowledge of a hip-hop beat essential to one's mastery of a virtual beatdown.
In the new "Def Jam" game, the arenas in which rappers duel will pulse to the beat of whatever track is played, be it the game's or your own custom soundtrack. Environmental hazards will react to that beat. To demonstrate, the long-haired, energetic Tsunoda sat on a couch in the back of a club and fiddled with an Xbox 360 controller.
On the TV screen across from him, he squatted up a virtual Big Boi against his colleague's virtual T.I. The setting was a realistically rendered gas station, with warped, stylized skyscrapers in the background. The pumps at the gas station had already been destroyed. From the speakers, Ludacris' "Get Back" was at a quiet part. The speakers growled a soft beat, then barked a loud one. Just then, flames shot from where the pumps used to be.
"The fire goes off to the beat of the music, and that's the main thing of the game — knowing the beat's coming and pow!" Tsunoda said. "I know the fire is going to go." In the background the skyscrapers pulsed to the beat like a woofer bursting from a bass kick.
Years ago, game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi created a shooting game for Sega called "Rez," in which every fired shot affected the notes in the soundtrack. Last year the developer Inis made a Japanese game for Nintendo DS called "Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan," in which player-driven percussion "motivated" game characters through challenging situations.
Now Tsunoda and his team at EA Chicago, which also handles EA's acclaimed "Fight Night" boxing series, hope to make music an integral part of fighting games. He's even talking about including a midfight feature called turntable controls. Want to switch the beat for a rhythmic advantage tuned to your hip-hop brawler? Trigger an audio scratch with some controller moves and fade to a better track.
Tsunoda, who says the old Japanese-developer "Def Jam" games from EA didn't sit well with him, calls this a new approach for the "Def Jam" series. "We're starting this from scratch," he said, no pun intended. "That other game never really made sense to me. The hip-hop lifestyle really wasn't part of the game at all. It was like a wrapper. Not a rapper — a w-r-a-p-p-e-r."
The old games pitted players in underground fight clubs, mashing knuckles with hip-hop's finest. That's not happening on Tsunoda's watch. "I'm not T.I.'s best friend or anything, but we hung out with T.I. and he's not hanging out in these underground fighting clubs," he said.
So he wanted to figure out how to make his game more authentic. That leaves him pitching a game to journalists with such frequent use of the words "hip-hop lifestyle" that someone could make a drinking game out of listening to him. But Tsunoda wants to prove his team isn't a bunch of poseurs.
"If you look at all the other hip-hop games, like 'Saints Row' that just came out or 50 Cent's game, there was really nothing to do with hip-hop in those," he said. Of last year's "50 Cent: Bulletproof," which featured the rapper in a fictional gun-toting adventure, he added, "It's the same as any other game, but it's got 50 Cent in it so [they call] it a hip-hop game. It's all about killing and jewelry. And that's not what hip-hop's about. It's about the music and style of the artist."
To make a game that's more about hip-hop, Tsunoda and his team have made each fighter's moves tuned to work best when a certain track is playing. The different beats will affect the timing of environmental events like the gas station's bursts of flame.
Players will also be able to jockey the soundtrack. Tsunoda says that, for example, players will be able to see if some Southern hip-hop can beat some New York old-school. A feature planned for the Xbox 360 version will allow players to import their own songs or even make music in Pro Tools and see how they affect the fighters' performances. The designer expects some unusual clashes. "Let's say you like speed metal and I like Sade," he said. "So we both put in our songs and we fight, and I can prove to you that Sade is better than speed metal."
A basic version of the two-track, record-swapping fighting idea appeared earlier this year in the brawling game "Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked." In that game, a flick of the right analog stick on a PS2 controller caused a record scratch and switch from one fighting style to another, but Tsunoda's approach takes that basic DJ idea much further.
Another rap element they're working on is empire-building — a fitting component, given the raps-to-riches rise of Jay-Z, Def Jam's CEO. In the single-player version of the game, players can cut music videos together from their fights, score a track on them and release them as singles, building a rap. They can sign artists and eventually become moguls. And things like those pulsating skyscrapers make the game look and feel like it's set in a rap video. Said Tsunoda: "With next-gen consoles, if all we get is photorealism, we're going to have failed." He demands a sense of style.
Like another sunglasses-wearing, long-haired game designer, Tomonobu Itagaki, Tsunoda is comfortable not just with boasting of what he's bringing to the table but with talking some trash. "There haven't been any real innovations in the fighting-game genre in the longest time," he said. "It's all the same."
He wants to change that up, to prove that hip-hop matters to fighting games. He wants players to be able to take the rhythm to their opponents. And hit 'em.