Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Chicago
Release Date: March 6, 2007
In the 1970s, hip-hop was just forming its roots in the music scene with relatively unknown artists, such as DJ Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Fives and the Sugar Hill Gang. They pioneered a sound many had never dreamed of before, as they mixed beats and song samples with lyrical hooks, rhythmic chants and melodic singing. These days, the hip-hop scene has advanced drastically, with new, up-and-coming stars stealing the top spots away from the veterans on the sales charts on an almost-daily basis. Some rap artists will wow everyone with their technical skills and lyrical prowess, while others choose to prove their dominance with a keen business sense. Those aforementioned business-savvy individuals usually move on to form thriving music labels of their own, signing contracts with hot new talents, all the while building small empires. After achieving such levels of success, they move beyond standard recognition in the world of hip-hop to almost legendary status. In other words, they become veritable icons.
In EA Chicago's new hip-hop-induced fighter, Def Jam: Icon, you'll try to do just that as you work your way up from simple enforcer, making transactions with your fists, to media mogul, producing records and raking in those coveted industry dollars. This is EA's third video game foray with the Def Jam license, and it's made quite a few drastic changes from its earlier iterations. The first two games in the series were extremely combat-intensive, with complex countering and grappling techniques, comparable to a wrestling game. EA Chicago, the team behind triumphant Fight Night Round 3, took over the reins on Icon, however, and they've turned the familiar Def Jam formula upside-down. The button-mashing brawls prevalent in the previous Def Jam games have been replaced by a more reserved combat system that utilizes simple directional flicks of the right thumbstick and has a heavy reliance upon the music. At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, "What the hell does music have to do with busting some grapes?" That's a mighty fine question.
There may not be much to Icon's basic combat structure, but that's because the in-game music pumping out of your speakers plays an integral part in the overall flow of a match. The moderate collection of venues, or stages, in the game will literally come alive with the music. You can manipulate your surroundings and lay a hefty hurting on your rivals by tossing them into or near hazards that coincide with the drops and beats of the soundtrack, such as a car that slings itself around wildly, a huge speaker cabinet that booms forth with vigor, or a helicopter that will eviscerate your opponents with its dangerous whirling blades of malevolent destruction. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration on the helicopter, but it does knock off a substantial amount of their health bars. On top of stage hazards, you can also access an invisible turntable and either set off all of the stage hazards at once or sway momentum in your favor by changing songs. Admittedly, you do look rather stupid scratching records in mid-air that don't actually exist, but it does help break up the monotony of the game's overly simplistic combat system.
Def Jam: Icon offers up six different fighting styles, though none of them vary much from one another. While they supposedly each have distinctive strengths and weaknesses, you'll probably never really notice much of a difference between them. They all have very similar fast high and low strikes, and strong high and low strikes, operated by the controller's face buttons. The right analog can be used to administer directional attacks, which can knock your foes into damaging stage hazards, or allow you to grab your opponent and either toss him into a desired location, or perform one of only a few grappling moves. The combat will become quite stale fairly quickly if you don't mix things up with the environments, even playing against another live adversary in the title's rather anemic online mode. Simple, one-on-one matches are all the game's online has to offer.
Luckily, there's more to do in Icon than fight, as you're able to create your own fledgling hip-hopster and work your way up through the music industry ranks in the game's Build a Label mode. Here, you'll be privy to some really well-done cut scenes that set the stage for an epic tale of intrigue, deception, revenge ... and bustin' up fools and their gaudy gold-plated grills! The Build a Label mode's setting and overall atmosphere really does a great job of conveying the hip-hop lifestyle, visually and aurally, and it uses almost RPG-like character-driven elements to track and further your player's progress. You mainly work out of your apartment, and from there you can check your computer for e-mails or voicemails, change your appearance in your wardrobe, or head to the streets to do some shopping or fist-popping.
Initially, you'll work under heavyweight producer Curtis Carver, tracking down raw talent and signing them to contracts before the competition. After you've established yourself in the hip-hop scene, though, you can start producing records on your own. Depending on how much money you have in your bankroll, you choose how much capital you want to drop into each facet of the recording. When your single hits the charts and the profits start rolling in, you'll eventually move into a nicer place, and you'll be able to start pimping yourself out with the newfound wealth. If you're wearing the freshest threads, your character's Style will raise, and more people will take notice of you, including those of the fairer sex. You can take on girlfriends and establish relationships, but the girls vary from soul-sucking, money-hungry urchins to faithful, worthwhile honeys, so you'll want to find out who to keep and who to drop like a bad habit. Your Style also affects your popularity with the general public, as well as the media, because, in the end, becoming a prominent figure in the eye of the public will help your label sell more records.
You'll definitely keep yourself entertained much more with Def Jam: Icon's "story" mode than you will its tedious combat engine, so, at times, you'll wish you could spend more time building your label and less time actually fighting. Producing records, decking out your appearance and charming the ladies are really nice distractions, but they're ultimately just that - distractions. They're only there to give you a reason, one way or another, to move onto your next tiresome fight. Wash. Rinse. Repeat, ad nauseam.
Although the relentless sparring may not dazzle your senses, the game's outstanding visuals may get the job done. Just like EA Chicago's previous title, Fight Night Round 3, Def Jam: Icon has some of the best-looking character models the new generation of graphics has to offer. Your combatants will form bruises, tear their clothing, start to stagger, and even bleed right before your very eyes, taking real-time damage during the fight. One aspect that really impresses me, though, is how your created character never seems out of place amongst the model renditions of the real-life rappers featured in the game. In most other fighting titles with the same option, your created player sticks out like a sore thumb, but here, he always looks like he belongs, and this is particularly evident in the greatly detailed environments.
As I have mentioned, they come to life in pace with the music. Watching the chaos erupt around you while you're trading blows is so compelling, that you may find yourself paying more attention to your surroundings than the action at hand. To back up the game's urban-fused visual style is a fairly diverse hip-hop soundtrack, featuring newcomers such as Young Jeezy and Mike Jones, along with industry veterans in the way of Ghostface Killah and Method Man. The game's well-rounded collection of songs is in no way going to change your mind if you're not a fan of rap music, but there are games out there with worse tunes.
If you're a fan of hip-hop and its culture, there's no way you'll be disappointed with Def Jam: Icon's presentation, but that doesn't mean you're going to get a completely satisfying experience out of it. Ultimately, there's not enough to do in the game to keep you occupied for very long. The Build a Label mode only offers a maximum of six to seven hours of play, and the bare-bones online mode isn't going to give you much more than that. At the end of the day, this title will serve you better as a rental than a purchase - especially at $60. The price tag is even less appealing when you take into consideration that, as of right now, only the Xbox 360 version offers custom soundtrack options. Otherwise, if you desperately need a fighter to play on your PS3 and Virtua Fighter 5 without online capabilities doesn't do anything for you, Def Jam: Icon is pretty much your only alternative. Fortunately, it's not entirely hopeless.
More articles about Def Jam: Icon