What do you get when you put a plethora of Def Jam-licensed rap music, some “gangsta” artists and a story of corruption, death, and greed into a game? The answer: Def Jam: Icon.
Thus begins the journey into the third iteration of Electronic Arts’ hip hop series. Developed by EA Chicago (known for the excellent Fight Night Round 3), Def Jam takes a drastic departure from its previous over-the-top wrestling roots. Instead, it offers up a mix of standard fighting and “DJ controls”. Unfortunately, while this transformation strengthens some aspects of the series, it leaves the core gameplay feeling relatively shallow.
The primary draw of Def Jam lies in the Build A Label mode. You begin by creating your character via the F.A.C.E. character builder. Customize your physical appearance, then pick your fight song and fight style of choice (more become available later in the game) and you’re off.
Immediately, you’re plunged into a story full of deception, backstabbing, and music. Yes, music. You start by meeting Curtis Carver, a mentor of sorts who sets you up with his record label (a la the Build A Label name). Between doing favors (a.k.a. knocking someone’s teeth in) for Carver and others, you’re given the task of signing artists and managing their careers. You can also check your e-mail and shopping for different clothes and accessories. These aspects certainly add depth to the otherwise monotonous story early on. However, around 5 hours into the story mode when Carver is gunned down in the street, the plot twists and turns before arriving at a surprising climax.
The actual core fighting is tolerable at best. There are over 20 different playable rappers with even more fictional characters available, yet only six different styles of fighting (Street Kwon Do and Ghetto Blaster among others). These provide fairly limited move sets which can become repetitive quite quickly. The blocking system becomes slightly frustrating too, as it requires the use of the R2 button along with the right analog stick. The saving grace of Def Jam: Icon lies in two interconnected aspects, the DJ controls and the environments.
By pressing down L2 at any time during the fight, one can activate the inventive DJ controls. From there you have two options: switching or scratching the song. If it’s on your opponent’s song, then you should opt to switch the song. So while continuing to hold down L2, you first rotate the left stick 360 degrees counter-clockwise, and then the right stick 360 degrees clockwise. If successful, the song switch will be complemented by a swap of the color palette. Your song gives you the ability to do quicker and stronger directional attacks. However, you need to be careful whilst DJ’ing as your opponent can tap L2 at any time to send you on your back; so you might want to make sure he’s lying face down on the ground before you give it a go.
Your second option is scratching the song. Rotate either stick back and forth to scratch a song, activating several key points within each unique environment. Speaking of environments, they are simply awesome, almost compensating for the lack of appealing fighting. Not only do the environments look fantastic, but they are also highly destructible and as much the characters as the people are. The eight different arenas bump along with the beat of each song (literally, it’s like they have a heart). At key strong beats or after disc scratching, different parts of the environment activate, effectively setting off different traps that you’ll have to take advantage of if you want to be the best fighter around. Speakers are common set pieces located in several areas. However, for the most part each venue has several unique hazards which can be used in a variety of ever-so-satisfying ways. You’ve got to love that exploding gas pump…
As Def Jam: Icon is developed by EA Chicago, it naturally shares some similarities with Fight Night Round 3. Nearly all modes are the same if you simply swap the Fight Night career mode for Build A Label, and Hard Hits for Beating With Bass. In BWB, DJ controls cannot be used, so you truly have to master each song in conjunction with the environment to use it as an effective weapon.
Another similarity found between the two titles is the lack of a standard HUD. You’re supposed to be able to judge character damage based on the character alone. However, the character models in Def Jam aren’t nearly as accurately rendered as those in Fight Night so we recommend you turn the HUD on. When one character’s life gets low, you go into something similar to “the zone” from Fight Night. Though, instead of implementing this zone via audio like Fight Night, Def Jam: Icon does this visually, saturating all colors onscreen instead. Frankly, this looks awful, and we wish the developers had stuck with the Fight Night method.
Audio is astounding, as it should be for a game essentially based around music. The in-game sound effects and voice acting are surprisingly solid, but the real draw here is the soundtrack. It features 29 fully uncensored songs by some of the world’s top rappers, including the likes of Ludacris and Lil’ Jon.
Offline multiplayer is decent, but unlike most other fighting games, it does very little to sell the game. After playing through each of the stages a couple of times, you really lose the desire to continue, as there isn’t enough depth in each of the already limited move sets.
With online, you’ve got all of the modes you had in offline multiplayer. You can play either ranked or unranked games as you compete. If you’re new to online play, sticking to unranked games initially is probably the best course of action, otherwise you may find yourself being dominated before you’ve had a chance to learn the ropes.
Although Def Jam: Icon doesn’t have your PlayStation Network buddy list built into its online play, the inclusion of lobbies makes it easy to find your friends while playing. With the exception of the sometimes unreliable EA servers (occasional disconnecting) and the issue of lag from time to time, online is a respectable experience which complements a reasonable game.
Those of you that are fans of the Def Jam series will probably enjoy this title. But in light of other successful ventures like Fight Night, and its shortcomings in variety and multiplayer, it’s difficult to see Def Jam: Icon finding a permanent place next to your PlayStation 3.