Def Jam: Icon

   08/04/2007 at 11:10       Jason       6 COMMENTS. - Score 4/5
Um... Wassup?

This game isn't aimed at me. "S'up?" is something I do with a beer. "Yo-yo" is a child's toy and not an acceptable form of social greeting. Up until six months ago I was under the impression that Tupac Shakur was a Jewish holiday. I don't listen to hip hop with any great passion and I am neither gangster nor gangsta. And yet I find myself coming back to this game over and over again to swing the bling at some of hip-hop's (apparently) finest artists.

One of the reasons I picked this up was because I genuinely loved the first two games. The original Def Jam featured a hefty roster of rappers which were little more than skins and personalities grafted onto a rather excellent wrestling engine. The second - Fight for New York - changed this formula slightly, going for a more gritty grab-the-environment-and bash-their-heads-in-with-it style. Icon makes an even bolder step away from the original template. Here, it's all about the music, baby.

Represent, boi!

There are about two-dozen rappers on offer here (some unlockable as you play through the story mode). Each has one of a handful of fighting styles, giving a reasonable range of moves (although we're hardly talking Tekken - or even DOA - levels of choice). You can play a thuggish brawler, for example, who is more adept at grapples and counters, or a balletic - and faster - Street Kwon Do type. The face buttons offer up the Mortal Kombat-ish light/hard high/low attacks, while more complicated and brutal techniques are activated my manipulating the right stick. Fight Night fans will certainly recognise the system here, but while I never threw an angry punch with the stick in that game, here you really do need to get to grips with the rather unique combat system. It's hardly intuitive, but practice makes perfect. The right trigger is used to block and counter (in synch with more right stick shenanigans) while the left trigger deals with the "scratching" feature. Multiplayer options are kept fairly simple. You're limited to one on one encounters, either locally or on Xbox Live, with your options limited to music/level selection. There is a reasonably entertaining story mode to work your way through (featuring a character you design yourself using EA's now familiar "game face" system). This tasks you with working your way up the music industry ladder; buying bling and signing stars, pandering to their excessive whims and getting them out of trouble when they need it. Most of this, suffice to say, involves rigorous use of the beat 'em up controls. There is a very minor management side-game that tasks you with setting the financial levels of each artists new release and trying to get to number one/make a ton of money. It's a new addition to the Def Jam series, feeling a little tacked on to the main story mode, but it fits, to be fair.

Environmental Warrior

When you think about it, what else is there to do with the humble one-on-one beat-em-up? Two men enter, one man leaves has been the motto since my days of Way of the Exploding Fist on the 48k Spectrum. Wrestling games have tried to spice things up by using the environment as a weapon, DOA introduced the more sprawling vistas. But... well, it's all a bit samey, isn't it? Icon finally tries to do something completely unique - and it's probably cost them as many fans as it's made. In this game, the backdrop isn't static. It reacts - completely - to the soundtrack playing during your fight. At the start of the round, you're looking at a typically stunning backdrop, ranging from rooftops, to a gas station, to penthouse apartments and densely populated nightclubs. The world has a pulse however. You'll notice litter on the ground hopping about in time to the beat, the rather brilliant effect of the sky sliding and scratching across the top of the screen. On the gas station level, entire city blocks can be seen trembling in time to the music... and then you start to fight. With a pinch of rhythm action to the brutality, players are encouraged to leather their opponents in time to the music. The effect of this is to wake up the world. Suddenly those docile tenements are pogoing, the trash is throwing itself into the air. Bystanders are getting into the groove (seriously, the forty or so nightclub patrons dance in time to whatever music is playing... as do the pole-dancers). The levels are also peppered with environmental hazards, most of which you can wake up by smashing your opponent into them a couple of times. Gas pumps explode, low-riders slide around on spinning tyres, water hydrants and drain covers erupt... and an awful lot of stuff explodes. You'll have witnessed the fire taking hold in the demo, but until you've seen it spread across the ceiling of the penthouse level you really haven't seen the game at it's best. It really does look remarkable.

And, despite my enormous scepticism, it plays pretty well too. You can play the game as a standard fighter, dodging the environmental hazards and laying the smackdown, but you really aren't getting what Def Jam is about if you restrict the game like this. The environment isn't twitching like the world's hardest EQ system without reason. That music in the background that you don't normally notice in other games? Crank it up, son. Start timing your attacks to the music and the whole screen begins to show it's appreciation. Even the simplest environments start tearing themselves up. Everything becomes insanely pyrotechnic. Get into the groove and it's possible to utterly decimate your opponent - and the game world - and it's a great deal of fun to do so. Icon sets itself a peculiar benchmark, and when you gel with it, it's obvious that it reaches it. So, why the apparent apathy in much of the gaming press/forums?

The Basement (Demo) Tapes

'What the f*ck is this shit?' As I recall, those were my first words upon downloading the demo from the Live Marketplace. I'm extremely fond of the whole demo idea. More than once the service has recommended a game I wouldn't have looked twice at otherwise (Saints Row). Other times it's managed to put me off a game I was really hyped for. Just occasionally I've taken a chance on a game where the demo really didn't do a great job of winning me over (Chromehounds, Just Cause and, of course, Crackdown). The demo for Def Jam: Icon falls into the latter category. Having played the full game, and then gone back for a second look at the demo, I'm of the opinion that whoever put it out should lose their job. Yes, it's representative of the full game, but it's just so ... wrong. For a start it feels slightly slower. Then there's the choice of characters: the first is one of the most cumbersome characters in the full game. The character you face off against is one of the quickest and has a much more exciting move set. If EA had set the demo to accept imported tracks and given more thought to the character roster - and choice of level - I'm positive the game would be selling far better than it is. Poor demos can do incredible damage to a game's reception, and the quality of them is something developers need to give far more thought to.

"I'm Luke, I'm five and my dad's Bruce Lee..."

As mentioned at the start of the review, hip hop isn't high on my list of musical priorities. As one of Icon's big selling points is the ability to import you own tracks, I thought I'd test the bastard to it's limits. You can make a playlist or just stream your music from the hard drive (mine was wirelessly imported from a laptop straight into the game, without any hitch). You select the EQ settings at the start of a soundtrack match (Classical, Rock, Pop, Country, Folk, etc) and the game world then reacts according to your own music, and the way you fight to it. I'll be honest, I really didn't think it was going to work. At best you'd get a few cursory animations, but you'd simply be playing a fighter with your own tunes in the background. How wrong I was. The system works incredibly well. In one nightclub stage the walls are an EQ system, jumping in time to your track. The pole dancers move in time and the whole floor at the rear of the screen is filled with jumping and screaming patrons who react. to. the. track. you. put. on. I've tested it with slow tunes as well as fast. These aren't simply repeated animations, they genuinely are tailored to the individual song. Once I realised this, I made it my mission to try to break the game.

Bizzarely, Icon seems to react better to rock and pop tunes than the hip hop tracks included in the game. Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Going Down", almost tore the game world in two, with the action becoming so heated the combatants almost disappeared amid the flying debris. Imagine a fight in the middle of a hurricane, and you're part of the way there. A few MOR tracks didn't gel so well, so I pulled out a Tony Christie double-header of "Amarillo" and "Avenues and Alleyways", both of which Icon loved. After that I took it up a notch and blasted my way through the whole of System of a Down's "Toxicity" (an album Uncut magazine once labelled unlistenable). Spectacular results all around, but particular mention should go to "Chop Suey". I'm not quite sure what happened here, suffice it to say Sean Paul "represented like a motherf*cker". Seriously, it's his Rocky anthem. He's a big soft shite any other time, but put this track on and you're all over. After that hammering it was time to take it down a notch. Madonna's "Hung Up" went down very well in the studio level, producing similar levels of destruction once I found the beat. After that, where else could I go but Johnny Cash? The Man in Black was the Man in Black and Blue by the time "A Boy Named Sue" had finished. In fact, there's very little that doesn't work well in the game. The system is incredibly receptive, even to stuff that doesn't have the most obvious beat. Someone put a great deal of work into making this gimmick into something that consistantly impresses the player. I finished the test off with several classical tracks, where the pomp and circumstance are brilliantly brought to life in the game. Roll over Beethoven, indeed.

Best result? Believe it or not, a live recording of Gary Moore's "Parisienne Walkways". It finishes and fades out after about ten seconds of applause. Icon loves live recordings. In that moment, in that destroyed nightclub, something very special happened to me. I think I'll call it gaming Nirvana.

So that's the lyrics, what about the score?

Not everyone will appreciate the more idiosyncratic features Def Jam brings to the table. It's not a fast paced brawler a la DOA or Tekken. It's more tactical, more like Fight Night than either of those games. That's fine, I get it now (although I didn't with the demo). I'm at the point now that I'm looking for new takes on old experiences. DOA 4, Tekken 5, Virtua Fighter 5. Same old, same old. We're seeing updates on franchises that offer nothing new in gameplay terms year on year. I still like those experiences, but there's certainly room for something like Def Jam: Icon too. That said, the game is far from perfect. There's polish in the main game that isn't apparent in the clumsy front end. It lacks options that you take for granted in other fighting games, the story is as stereotypical as it gets, the scratching mechanic isn't the easiest thing to get along with. There's things that should have been picked up on, there's things that could be sorted with a patch. But... when's the last time you actually smiled fondly at the memory of one round in a beat 'em up game? Exactly.
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