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Def Jam: Icon

Platform(s): PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: EA
Developer: EA Chicago

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Xbox 360 Review - 'Def Jam: Icon'

by Andrew Hayward on March 26, 2007 @ 1:03 a.m. PDT

EA Chicago is delivering star-stunning action and bone breaking beats as players live out the life of a hip hop mogul, going from rags to riches. Incorporating hip-hop culture into every aspect of the game, Def Jam: Icon will deliver the intensity of a no-holds-barred street fight but with style and rhythm. Music will effect how players fight in each venue and environmental interactions and hazards will become a key strategy to staying alive.

Genre: Fighting
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Chicago
Release Date: March 6, 2007

Early on in the Build a Label mode in Def Jam: Icon, your aspiring rap mogul character may receive an e-mail from indie favorite Ghostface Killah, a solo recording artist and key member of the Wu-Tang Clan. As one of your recent signings, he asks for $200,000 to help develop a "shaolin-style platform shooter with ninjas and gorillas" — a vanity project, for sure. But what could be more of a vanity project than a game about rich entertainers who beat the crap out of each other in order to sign record contracts?

Sadly, I didn't have the money to help fund his project, but EA certainly has no problem in that regard. Def Jam Vendetta, released in 2003, felt like a wrestling game with tacked-on hip-hop elements, but the pairing worked surprisingly well, spawning a sequel the following year. Def Jam: Fight for New York was largely hailed as a significant improvement over its predecessor, presenting a dark, gritty narrative with an enhanced fighting engine that offered stylistic variety and encouraged the use of environmental objects. It seemed like the perfect jump-off point for future entries in the series, but EA clearly had something else in mind.

In a scenario diametrically opposed to that of Vendetta, Def Jam: Icon is first and foremost a hip-hop game — this time, the fighting elements feel tacked on. EA Chicago has taken the development reins from Aki Corporation, apparently using a modified version of its Fight Night Round 3 engine to power Def Jam: Icon. Like Round 3, Icon is in no way lacking the next-gen glitz and glamour that make it a showcase title for the console of your choice. But unlike the pugilistic wonder, Icon's brawling is remarkably joyless, having paired a confusing control scheme to a murky fighting engine.

Oddly enough, that could be the most realistic aspect of this game. After all, if two coddled celebrities came to blows, would you really expect to see a fluid demonstration of physical prowess and honed abilities? Probably not — and though the fighters in Icon are armed with a variety of attacks, none are especially powerful, and the actual execution of said maneuvers hardly allows for a particularly fast-paced or especially compelling battle.

Basic attacks are mapped to the face buttons, but those serve only to butter up your opponent for the more advanced moves. By moving the right analog stick in one of six different ways, you can activate Force attacks, which include spinning kicks and flying dropkicks. The right analog stick is also used for grabs and throws ... and reversals ... and blocks ... and breaking grabs. With so many actions mapped to one little stick, it's not surprising that you will often perform the wrong move, potentially leaving yourself open for attack in the process.

But even the Force attacks do little to devastate your opponents. The majority of the damage comes from grabbing and throwing an enemy into an environmental hazard, of which there are many within the eight stages in Def Jam: Icon. At the gas station, gas pumps can be destroyed, causing them to erupt into flames and trigger tiny explosions in sync with the beat of the background music. When in da club, you're less likely to run into 50 Cent than you are to be kicked in the head by a dancer or knocked back by the extreme bass from a stack of speakers. Each location has three or four such hazards, and using them repeatedly will be absolutely necessary (unless you want to spend 10 minutes unleashing basic attacks).

Though the environmental hazards activate at intervals in sync with the beat of the song, you can also manually trigger them by scratching the air like a DJ scratching vinyl. Once you've tossed an opponent in the area of a hazard, hold the left trigger and rotate the right analog stick. As you scratch the air (and look rather foolish in the process), the song playing in the background will skip around until the next big bass output, thus triggering the hazard. Timing this properly will likely launch your enemy across the screen, causing significant damage in the process. You'll have to do this about five or six times over the course of the match to finally put him down for the count.

In this regard, the gameplay can be pretty repetitive, as you'll have to rely on the hazards to make any kind of dent in your opponent's well-being. Because of this, the hand-to-hand fighting feels largely unsatisfying, but that also has to do with the general feel of the brawling. With the basic weak attacks, you can string along four hits before the opponent hits the floor, but most of the other moves feel very singular and finite. Once an attack is unleashed, it executes and completes — there are no combos, special grabs, or signature moves. It is very simplistic and oddly complicated at the same time, and without any kind of tutorial, it can be tough to truly excel at the game. This is especially true when playing online. Without the typical give-and-take rhythm and fluidity of a sharp fighting game, two aggressive players will just collide in a heap of frustration and repetition.

Although the fighting fails to impress, the other elements of the Build a Label mode add up to a reasonably solid experience. By using the F.A.C.E. creation tool (ripped directly from Fight Night), you create a "suspect" — a generic thug who you will further mold into a hip-hop mogul by any means necessary. After beating down some fool at the club, fictional record producer Curtis Carver recruits you as the newest member of his crew. Once you have proven your loyalty by dispatching with several rival artists, crazed fans, and paparazzi, you become an A&R man, earning the ability to recruit artists of your own and release singles. This is where Def Jam: Icon gets pretty interesting.

It's actually a pretty simple process; aside from your first artist (Ludacris), you're given a choice between who will fill the three other spots. For example, you might hear from Ghostface and E-40 at the same time, and it will be up to you to pick one or the other. Once you sign an artist, you'll have to keep him happy by picking up the tab for lawsuits and the aforementioned vanity projects, as well as release singles and handle the marketing and production costs. I love the idea of being in charge of a stable of artists (and making bank to spend on clothing and bling), but the potential here is not fully realized. I was able to release just six singles over the course of the six-hour Build a Label mode, and it left me thirsting for more.

But that's how I felt about the narrative, too. The actual story isn't particularly great; it involves a rival hip-hop impresario (Troy Dollar, portrayed by actor Anthony Anderson), crooked cops, a suspicious senator, and a whole bunch of brawling. Though the story isn't especially compelling, the amount of untapped potential here is truly heartbreaking. Imagine a full-fledged hip-hop label simulator that plays out like a choose-your-adventure novel. Instead of solving every single situation with a fight (which you have to win to progress), it would be awesome to be able to deal with problems in other ways (with payments or non-physical negotiations) and actually deal with consequences if you can't win a battle. Def Jam: Icon is too straightforward, not to mention too focused on its bunk fighting engine to really deliver on its immense promise.

What Icon definitely delivers on is its replication of current hip-hop culture. While some prominent artists would likely be insulted by Icon's depiction of hip-hop as a violence-centric art form, that's the kind of attitude that seems to permeate the albums that sell by the hundred-thousand. It is perceived as a rough and tumble culture, and EA thankfully did not skimp on the excessive language that typically accompanies such urban tales.

Nearly 30 licensed tracks have been included, complete with all original expletives, drug references, and amusing sexual content. I expected a lot of lesser-known tracks (albeit from prominent artists), but many of the included tracks have been huge singles over the past year. T.I's smash "What You Know" is here (cascading keyboards and all), as well as Jim Jones' "We Fly High" and The Game's "It's Okay (One Blood)." It's a fairly comprehensive "who's who" of hip-hop from the last couple of years, as previous hits from Lil Jon, Ludacris, and Mike Jones help fill out the soundtrack. All of these artists pull double duty as playable characters, as well, along with a dozen other prominent artists. But where the heck is Jay-Z?

Def Jam: Icon opts for a heavily stylized visual look, almost like a music video shot in front of a green screen. Though the fights take place in realistic settings, the visual effects that occupy said locations give the game a thoroughly unique presentation. Clouds in the background speed up and come to a crashing halt, sound waves are visible, and the colors become overly saturated when someone is about to throw in the towel. Due to the lack of a HUD, you'll have to look out for that color saturation (it's pretty obvious) or keep an eye on the visible damage being done to each character in the form of open wounds and ripped clothing. What all of this adds up to is a very surreal look for the game. Everything looks sharp and sweetly rendered, from the rappers to their surroundings, but there's always something distinctly unreal about it all.

Could it be the fact that nearly everything thumps to the beat of the music? Skyscrapers jump in place, rooftop shingles boogie with the bass, and chaos becomes a constant when you're blasting the hottest hip-hop in Def Jam: Icon. But what if mainstream rap just isn't your thing? The Xbox 360 version of the game has an exclusive custom soundtrack feature, and sure enough, the settings continue to react to the songs of your choice. In fact, the destruction seemed to come much more quickly when playing outside tracks from my iPod. Using other music might create an odd contrast between the music and the surroundings, but some match-ups work better than expected. Air Supply's "All Out of Love" seemed perfectly matched to the burning gas station. Seriously!

Def Jam: Icon is undeniably stylish, sporting wondrously surreal next-gen visuals and bumping the latest and greatest of mainstream hip-hop. But for all its flash, the fighting engine disappoints, coming off as sluggish and unrefined. They may be onto something with the Build a Label mode, but it is still too limited at this point to really justify the investment. If EA can drop the emphasis on fighting (or drastically improve the engine) and create an expansive hip-hop lifestyle simulator, the Def Jam franchise may still thrive under the care of EA Chicago.

Score: 6.5/10


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