Def Jam: ICON Review - 09/04/2007

The Def Jam series of games has been surprisingly solid, with impressive editions in Vendetta and Fight for New York, which not only appealed to fans of the culture, but also attracted newcomers in with its simple yet deep fighting engine and satisfying wrestling moves. Surely, with the Fight Night developers now on board, things can get even better?

Well unfortunately, despite the best efforts of EA Chicago, the game doesn't recapture the magic of previous titles in the series, and while attempts are made to innovate the genre, it never quite comes together to form a truly compelling experience.

The previous games have been focused on wrestling, using previous developer AKI's expertise in that field to create some hugely satisfying moves and generally a very impressive fighting engine in a game which you would otherwise expect to be dogged by its high-profile license. Perhaps that's the problem in ICON, because it seems that the series has now become far more about the musicians and less about the fighting, which may appeal to some, but ultimately, for a videogame, isn't all that welcome.

Def Jam is of course a record label over in the USA, and while there are fighters in ICON that aren't part of that group, it's all pretty much centring around the hip-hop scene, with all the gangs, guns and girls that we hear about so much in our peaceful little country. There are over twenty real artists available to fight as, including Ludacris, Ghostface Killah, Lil Jon, Method Man and as a bit of a departure, Sean Paul. They are all recreated lovingly by EA Chicago, and many look just as good as the boxers in Fight Night Round 3, albeit slightly less imposing.

That's a smart dodge, it's a shame that the combat is just the opposite

Most people are going to know at least one of the artists in the game, regardless of what your opinion of this particular music genre is. The key with the old games however was not necessarily about whether or not you like the culture and ethos of Def Jam, but rather whether or not you liked wrestling or fighting games.

The key innovation everyone has been talking about is the way in which music now effects the environment you're fighting in. Depending on your character, and indeed your opponent, there will be a track playing in the background. In multiplayer you can choose your preferred track regardless of your character, but in single player it tends to be one of the two pieces of music by your artist that EA have included in the game. When the song playing hits a particular beat, items in the scenery of each level explode or activate. So when a particularly loud part of the song plays, a speaker may explode in a penthouse, or a pole dancer may turn round and kick out at a nightclub.

These are just two examples, and there's probably close to ten different items in each arena that can cause you damage if you don't stay in the middle of the level, and keep an ear on the music. Of course, the tactic then becomes to hit your opponent towards these items, hopefully timing it with the track. However, EA Chicago have implemented a track scratching control element, which allows you to rewind a song, triggering its respective event. This is initiated with a combination of L2 and the left-stick, and is incredibly easy to use providing you've got a bit of time before your opponent can get at you.

Not a force push ability, but the 'wikka wikka' action of rewinding a record

You can also switch songs from your opponent's one, to your own, which gives you a huge power boost and can change the game dramatically in your favour. It's random as to who's song gets played to begin with, but it's fairly crucial that you knock the other fighter down and rotate first the left stick, then the right one, in order to switch records early on. This often also drastically changes the appearance of a level, with black and white, high contrast, sometimes completely reworked colour schemes drifting into the background and it's a very visually pleasing effect.

However, the crucial element in this sort of game is how fun the combat is, and in Def Jam, it's not up to scratch. You use the Fight Night right stick method to throw various punches and to grab onto your opponent, but it's nowhere near as accurate, leading to calculated attacks on your part being replicated as stumbling lurches on screen. Practice makes perfect of course, but the real question is whether you can stick it out until you get used to the system. Plus, general punches and kicks are mapped to the face buttons, allowing combos in association with the analog stick, and you will find yourself regularly falling back on kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, until you actually get used to the bulky combat system – if you do at all. With all the hotspots in the arenas that you can knock people into, it becomes more about this than actually inflicting the most damage by hand.

Blocking struggles similarly, having little effect on your opponent's attacks. Often the best strategy is to retreat using a double tap of the stick, initiating a dive, and then to lunge back in shortly afterwards. It all feels really clumsy, and while the departure from wrestling gives the whole experience of hip-hoppers fighting hip-hoppers more credibility, it just isn't anywhere near as satisfying or polished as in previous iterations.

The level design is bizarre and innovative, but ultimately limited

The career mode is actually slightly compelling at times. Not in the way that Oblivion or F.E.A.R. are, but it just has a sheen to it that shows a good deal of effort has been put in – initially. However, once you've created your artist, and watched the impressive opening cut scene, the game goes for a pretty boring spell. You begin as a pawn who goes round beating people up for some of the featured artists in the game, and it just goes from there really. Beat up journalist, beat up rival artist, beat up journalist, beat up journalist, beat up photographer…couple this with the fact that there's scant few arenas to play in, and you'll quickly be returning to do the exact same thing as ten minutes ago, only with a different coloured light shining on the level, and a different character model for an opponent.

There is a strong backbone for a good career mode however. You have an apartment to walk around, a computer to check e-mails from the artists in the game, and a high street to go and buy very expensive jewellery or far cheaper clothes and accessories for your character. There are some twists along the way too, and you have to balance payments to artists, girlfriends, police-bribes – as you rise through the ranks you'll have more say in the business of some of the artists, until you begin to control their track releases and dealings. It moves along quite well, but it cannot make up for the pretty poor and dull (after an hour or two) gameplay.

The repetitiveness lets it down, and while some very good voice acting and 'story-lines' that are involving of the Def Jam artists will give fans of the music a buzz, there's little there for anyone else – even hardcore followers of the series are likely to get tired of the single player mode pretty quickly too.

It does look a lot better in motion, and the odd jigsaw objects move with the music to create a visually pleasing effect

The AI isn't too bad, and waits for openings before attacking you. They also switch songs and use the beats at appropriate times, and quite impressively too. Pleasingly, online play is fully implemented on both Xbox 360 and PS3. There are lag issues, and it doesn't compare to playing a full speed, high tension, high-taunting match in your own living room. The PS3 version does not support voice chat, although taunts are included through the controller – the Xbox 360 version also holds an advantage in that it allows you to use a custom soundtrack to import to the game for gameplay music – although this is an arduous process and is not carried out in the usually polished Xbox 360 manner.

Each arena is in contrast to the next one, and most look very nice indeed. Anti-aliasing seems a bit of an issue in places on the PS3, and loading times on the character screens leave a lot to be desired, but the way everything beats with the music is very satisfying to watch – although the explosions get old pretty quickly as they all occur in exactly the same places, to allow for strategic record scratching and throws into objects. Grabbing an opponent is hugely satisfying, but doesn't happen nearly enough in gameplay.

Generally the graphics are smooth and varied, with the rappers looking great throughout. Sound of course is excellent, as you'd expect, and the presentation in menus and the career mode is on par with the best.

You'd better watch out for that helicopter…

The gameplay of Def Jam: ICON unfortunately lacks the depth and playability of Fight Night, but its authenticity with the artists involved so heavily in the story mode warrants a purchase for fans of the music. For anyone else however, a lack of arenas and variety is likely to leave you bored before too long, and the whole hip-hop ethos all begins to feel a little forced and at times laughable, unless you're really into it. However, it is a hip-hop game, so in that sense, it does its job and is a good advert for the genre – just don't expect a casual version of Fight Night, because in terms of gameplay, this really is nowhere near, despite being a good, fun-filled mosh with friends.

- Michael Hazleton


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