Imagine a world where the biggest chains, best grills and quickest hands and feet made the rules. In Def Jam: Icon, the third iteration of Electronic Art’s popular fighting series, that sweet dream is no longer a fantasy; it’s reality. Yet, while Def Jam: Icon has a lot of redeeming qualities in its presentation, no amount of grills or chains can fix the biggest flaw it ha—its gameplay.
In Icon’s main mode ‘Build-a-Label’ you play as a relative nobody who catches the eye of, fictional rap mogul, Curtis Carver after you put the screws to an enemy of his. From there, he signs you to take charge of signing artists to his music label and making hit songs. The story evolves from power struggles between music labels, to all sorts of deceit and trickery. Surprisingly, the story is extremely solid and a lot more interesting than you would expect from a Def Jam fighting game.
Once Carver has hired you, he’ll give you a crib to stay at, which acts as the central hub for the game. Its core design is very much like a franchise or general manager mode that you would expect to see in a sports game, where you have a computer that allows you to receive important updates, and a cell phone to start fighting rappers and progress through the story. All of the fights you encounter have some sort of back-story to them; for example, the other label’s artists are trying to mess with your business, or crooked cops are screwing with your rappers. The mission structure seems to have been thrown together with not a whole lot of thought, but it works well enough to drive the story along.
While the story elements give you at least a plausible reason to fight, the actual fighting in Icon leaves a bit to be desired. This is not to say that the core fighting action is necessarily bad, but there are some minor annoyances that overshadow what is actually a pretty solid fighting system. Outside of your basic quick/strong high and low attacks that are mapped to the face buttons, Icon also has attacks mapped to the right analog sticks that perform more powerful attacks. These attacks are the probably the most vicious and satisfying moves to connect with—the sound of impact is music to the ears. The last aspect of the fighting system has to do with EA’s integration of music into the gameplay.
There are specific areas within the each of the eight fighting locations where you can use the environment against your opponent. For example, in the gas station map, if you kick or throw your opponent near the pump, you hold the L2 button and rotate the right stick to make the pump explode and set your opponent aflame. Environmental attacks do a considerable amount of damage, so if you’re going into the game thinking that this is a straight-up brawler, you’re going to get your teeth kicked in. You must use the environment to your advantage.
However, one of the main problems with this system is that the precision on throwing your enemies onto these hotspots is somewhat spotty. Sometimes, instead of throwing them into the gas pump, your character will slam their head against the wall. Other times they’ll throw in a totally opposite direction from where you wanted your opponent to fall. Because environmental damage is almost a necessity at times to turn the tide of a fight, it can become extremely frustrating if the game does not afford you the precision needed to win the fights. Sadly, this isn’t even the biggest problem with the system. In most of the fighting locations, there are random items falling from the ceiling that drop on regular intervals throughout a song. Why did EA include this? When you’re focused on bashing Lil’ Jon’s face in, the last think you should be thinking about is a light fixture falling on your head. (While taking considerable damage for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) This showcases no skill on the part of either the player or the AI and simply should not have been included. It’s regrettable that it was, because environmental hazards aside, the core gameplay is passable and has definitely has its high points.
Where Icon’s gameplay is mixed, there is no doubt that its visual and audio presentation is top-notch. Everything about the graphics represents what the next-generation promises in visuals. Face and character models are all extremely realistic—from the snarl of Big Boi to the gentle face of Ludacris, all of the rappers on the rosters look like the real-thing. The animations are smooth and transition tremendously well between punches and kicks, helping the fighting system feel more fluid. The environments in Icon are all highly destructible and each location exudes its own sense of scenery and character. As for the audio, Icon has probably one of the better, licensed track lists seen this year. With songs from Paul Wall, Mike Jones, T.I., Akon, Young Jeezy and more, fans of rap music will not be disappointed. The voice acting is also surprisingly well done, with a plethora of rap stars lending their voices to the in-game message system, as well as cut-scenes in the game’s Build-a-Label Mode. All of the rappers that lent their voices had great dialogue to work with and delivered accordingly, while actor Anthony Andersen (of The Departed fame) probably made the biggest impression in the game. The only blemish to the presentation is the painfully long load times, which averaged about 30 seconds from the time you selected the fight to the actual donnybrook.
Besides the roughly 6-10 hour Build-a-Label Mode, Icon also has a couple of other modes, the most significant one being its online capabilities over the Playstation Network. Yet, given the online population (there were five—count ‘em five—people playing Def Jam at 6 PM EST on April 20th.) and some moderate lag that interfered with the fluidity of the game, there is a lack of value with Icon’s online offering. Though, if you really want to play Icon online, there are friend and overall leaderboards, which is good to see. There is also a Practice Mode that allows you to train against an A.I. character until you get bored, but seeing as there is no real penalty for losing in the Build-a-Label mode, you’re better off getting your training there.
Def Jam: Icon does have a lot of good qualities about it, most notably in the impressive visuals and killer audio, but the gameplay doesn’t have the necessary punch to it to make this recommendable to everyone. If you are interested in hip-hop culture, want something to show off your PS3’s graphical capabilities and aren’t too stressed about fully balanced gameplay, Def Jam: Icon is for you. However, for the rest of us, a rental would more than likely suffice.
[Editor’s note: While the PS3 version of Def Jam: Icon scored higher than the 360 version, this is due to two different reviewers on the same title for different platforms. Both writers have no reason to believe that either version is superior to the other, only that they have slightly different opinions on the title itself.]
Originally Written By: Art Green