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Def Jam: Icon
Score: 77%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA Chicago
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Online)
Genre: Fighting/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
The premise behind the original Def Jam games was silly, but within the context of the game it worked. For the game’s PS3 (and Xbox 360) debut, EA decided to hand development duties over to EA Chicago, the studio behind the next-gen showcase title, Fight Night 3. One of the first changes the studio decided to do was remove the goofy “fight club” storyline and replace it with a slightly less ludicrous one involving record labels, crooked cops, murder and political schemes.

Def Jam: Icon shares the same graphics engine as Fight Night, giving it an eerily real look. All of the featured artists look lifelike, right down to their naturally moving licensed clothes. It is almost creepy to watch some of the cut scenes; they don’t look completely lifelike, but can easily stand toe-to-toe with some of the better CGI movies out there.

Icon’s best visuals come during gameplay. Rather than sticking to the ultra-real look of the story sequences, in-game visuals are more stylized. Environments are alive and react to the music. One of the game’s core mechanics is the ability “scratch” and remix background music. As you do this, the environments also deform and react. Windows break, buildings bend, speakers and video monitors explode… One arena features a helicopter whose blades spin in time with the beat which, of course, you can change with a few rotations of the analog stick.

All of the artists featured in the game also have songs on the soundtrack. Though that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, the way they are integrated into the game is innovative and actually means something. As an artists’ music plays in the background, he receives a boost of power – so there’s a constant tug-of-war between rappers as they try to remix the soundtrack into their music. The soundtrack is uncensored and full of F-bombs and other racial taunts, so if you happen to be turned off by that sort of thing, its here.

The PS3 version is missing the “Music Mode” found in the 360 version, so you can’t import your own songs into the game. However, the mode has been receiving mixed reactions from press and users, so it apparently isn’t that big of a loss.

Getting back to the game’s revised premise, you play as a user-created “Playa” who is recruited by a Def Jam producer after a brawl in a local club. He rewards you with a job as a bodyguard, making it your duty to keep fans and paparazzi away from the Def Jam stars. Somehow or another, the bodyguard gig lands you a spot as a talent scout, leading to more fighting. Sometimes you might need to brawl with a particular artist to earn their respect, while at other times, you might need to fight a rival producer to sign a talent. Eventually you move into a position to manage your own label.

The idea of running a record label and fighting is a little more believable than the whole “fight club” thing, but it is still a little far-fetched and silly. Some elements don’t even make sense; in order to sign one talent, you may need to fight someone completely different. Also, the twists and turns the story takes are ridiculous and almost seem like an over-exaggerated caricature of the culture.

Poor storylines and a flawed premise are two things I’ve learned to accept or at least look past; poor gameplay, on the other hand, is something I’ll never be able to get over.

In some respects, I have to give Icon some credit; the entire fighting system is ambitious and, with some fine-tuning, could be something more than it is. However, the system isn’t where it needs to be and as a result, the entire game suffers. It is clear that the developers don’t have much experience when it comes to fighting games. The entire system is made up of basic high and low attacks as well as some grapple moves. This isn’t the fun, fluid system developed by Aki in past games, but a slower, stiffer one.

Few players will be able to jump right into Def Jam: Icon and deliver a beating. It takes a while to overcome the fighting system’s flaws and even longer to understand all of the particulars due to the lack of a tutorial – something that Icon really, really needs. It is actually surprising that Icon lacks a tutorial considering the great one the studio put together for Fight Night 3. A Practice mode is available, though it doesn’t really explain what is going on or how things work, you just sort of figure it out.

Three difficulty levels are available, but without any explanation about what is going on or how things work, even Easy mode can be a challenge.

There are also a few balance issues present both in the single-player and online portions. Some fighters are way too tough and will usually pull off one or two cheap tricks that completely change the dynamic of a fight. These also pop up during online games, making it seem like there’s no real strategy to anything – you’re just mashing buttons and twirling sticks until someone falls down.

Game Mechanics:
The rudimentary system of punches and kicks doesn’t offer much in the way of variety. There are also a number of fighting styles that seem to have varying degrees of usefulness. Sometimes styles feel like a perfect balance, while others trump each other. The right analog stick, which is used to grab, is unresponsive and broken. Sometimes it takes 3 – 4 attempts before the other character will even recognize that he’s being grabbed – opening you up to a few good, cheap hits.

Def Jam: Icon’s strongest suit is the remixing feature and ability to use environments as a weapon. During a match, pressing the R2 button and rotating the left and right analog sticks lets you scratch and remix songs. This allows you to swing the match in your favor or cause things to explode, inflicting massive damage on opponents if you time it right. As innovative as the system is, it doesn’t integrate well with the stiff fighting system.

In all, Def Jam: Icon is a game whose license may carry it more than its gameplay. It’s not that it is a terrible experience either; there are a lot of cool things going on in the game that never really click all at the same time. With a better fighting engine, Icon would be a better game.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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