Def Jam: Icon Review

Previous Def Jam titles were essentially wrestling games that pitted hip-hop artists against one another; surprisingly enough, this formula was actually very enjoyable and worked on multiple levels. Def Jam: Icon is a step in a different direction. Developed by EA Chicago (the guys behind Fight Night), Icon is now more of a boxing game than a wrestling game — unfortunately, this change wasn’t for the best.

At its most basic level, Icon is just like Fight Night Round 3, which is the definition of what a boxing game should be. It managed to capture the atmosphere and the pace of a real boxing match, two of the most crucial elements in the genre. Icon’s take, however, is slightly different. The pace is somewhat quicker (clearly not as fast as a wrestling game) and the environments play an extremely significant role in the fight. The levels pulsate to the beat of the music, focal points explode or lash out and the music can be changed on the fly.

There are a lot of great ideas here. The way parts of the environment act as a barrier or as part of the background — a parked car or car wash, for instance — suddenly throw you across the level to coincide the with music is brilliant. Learning the nuances of each level, as well as how and when they react to each song, is a great take on the things you traditionally "need to know" in a fighter. But with the change in style, all of it seems out of place. A straight copy of Fight Night Round 3 with different levels and fighters would have certainly been frowned upon, but surely there must have been more appropriate alterations that could have been made.

Those environments and their over-the-top effects sure do look pretty, though. Everything is very crisp and fluid, especially characters’ outfits and their reaction to collisions and being thrown around. When you really take a look at the environments, they’re actually quite small. But the spacing is used very well and provide the illusion that they are much bigger, meaning that an explosion which launches you across the screen is super dramatic, leaving you to say nothing more than, "Ouch."

Parts of the background that are almost entirely static (as opposed to something that is still but can be broken if someone is thrown into it) do look fairly lifeless, but that’s where the music comes in. The environment reacts to the music, meaning that it remains still when the music is calmer, and then bursts to life by suddenly popping out of its place and becoming bigger for that moment when the song hits hard. Think about a stereo in a cartoon, where the speakers enlarge when the song hits a significant beat; that’s exactly what happens here, and it’s as cool to watch as you think.

The fighting itself is fairly simplistic. Each of the face buttons is mapped to a basic attack, and a combination of the right trigger and right analog stick handle blocking. Right there is enough to play the game at its most basic level, as combat is simplistic, with the traditional quick/strong high/low attacks that do just what they advertise. And while each character can use one of the several different fighting styles, none of it ever feels particularly distinctive. Visual differences aside, the game plays out similarly regardless of your character choice. This leads to stale matches, which is only partially saved by things such as the destructible environments and DJ controls.

The extra layer of depth (or, I should say, the only layer of depth) comes from knowing each level and song’s nuance, and making use of DJ controls. Each fighter has a theme song, and the two fighters can switch between the songs by using the analog sticks like turntables. It creates a vivid effect as the environment bursts to life with a huge explosion, and in the process, that fighter receives a small boost to his fighting skills.

But it just isn’t enough to make the fighting feel all that varied. Music, environments and character choices are the only changes that feel apparent as you go from fight to fight. Luckily, there are some things that help add to the game’s longevity, such as creating a character. The customization isn’t particularly noteworthy, but since you’ll rarely be seeing your character up close and personal, the lack of being able to add the finer details doesn’t matter much.

You’ll need to create a character to enter the Build a Label mode, which is the game’s story mode. To put it bluntly, it’s not very good. The storyline feels like nothing more than a contrived afterthought used to tie the mode together. It has its moments, but ultimately I just really didn’t care what was going on.

Taking on the role as an aspiring music mogul, your goal is to become a hip hop icon through signing artists, making deals, and protecting your investments. But the entire process feels extremely arbitrary, in that at one moment you’re fighting off the paparazzi, and the next you’re deciding how much money should go into manufacturing one of your artist’s new tracks, with no explanation of what you’re doing or how to make these decisions. This problem is carried over onto the dating portion of the game which, just like finances, has an impact on your success without ever being given any indication of how to make a good decision. Trial and error isn’t a good way to discover things in a story mode like this.

The cutscenes used to advance the plot don’t have the same solid look and feel that the actual in-game content does. If it weren’t painful enough to listen to the characters’ spew of crap or to look at the awful lip-syncing — which makes characters, yours in particular, look like they have the lips of a platypus — the animations all seem very stiff, creating a further juxtaposition with the game’s otherwise good-looking graphics.

If you’re a fan of hip-hop or rap music, then the game’s soundtrack will definitely appeal to you. Big Boi, Lil’ Jon, Mike Jones, The Game — many of the industry’s best are featured, both in the game’s roster and soundtrack. There are a total of 29 songs in the game, and the Xbox 360 version sports the My Soundtrack mode. Using that, you can take advantage of the aforementioned features by applying them to your own music collection. It works surprisingly well and I found myself experimenting with many different styles of music (from the Halo soundtrack to Disturbed to Nick Cave) just to see what happened.

One seemingly small issue that ultimately turns into a major annoyance is the godawful load times. Actually loading up a fight requires only a matter of a few short seconds, but selecting a character can take upwards of 5-10+ seconds, and that’s just to see what he likes look. Be prepared to invest a lot of time in browsing through the game’s characters; not because the roster is deep. You would think that, after all of these years, developers would be able to cut back on load times with all of this advanced technology. Instead, we’re forced to wait 10 seconds to see an avatar of Lil’ Jon appear on-screen. So much for next-gen.

Def Jam Icon is really a step backwards for the series. The change in tempo to the more boxing-oriented style has potential, but it seems like all of the other ideas used to fuel the experience would have been more appropriate in a wrestling game. Exploding environments and a great soundtrack or not, Icon is too flawed on the most basic of levels to justify recommending anyone but the most hardcore of Def Jam fans pick Icon up.


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Author: GamerNode Staff View all posts by

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