Thursday, March 06, 2008

Def Jam: Icon

Def Jam: Icon looks fantastic, sounds fantastic, and is packed with innovation and originality. Unfortunately, it's just not fun to play.

This is the follow-up to Def Jam: Fight for NY, which was excellent and well worth your time if you ever see a copy. Made by EA Games under licence from music label Def Jam Records, the franchise involves taking real life Def Jam artists such as Redman, Sean Paul or Ludacris, and beating the snot out of them with your fists or the nearby environment.

Where Fight for NY was a solid grassroots brawler with some interesting environmental twists, Icon is a more ambitious game and attempts to draw more heavily on the Def Jam name and musical theme. Winning fights is now less about landing solid grapples than it is about controlling the background music; each fighter has a theme song, and when your song is playing you have more momentum and stopping power.

Changing the song involves working the virtual "deck" - making circling motions on both analog sticks causes your fighter to spin his hands in the air as if changing discs on a turntable, and if you're not interrupted the music will change to your theme.

The background of each arena thumps in time to the beats of the current song. First of all, this looks amazing and is the core of the game's visual style. Secondly, on the big beats parts of the environment become interactive: lights arc with electricity, speakers send out waves of pure sound, cars blow up and doors slam open and shut. The key to victory involves forcing your opponent into these hazards at the relevant point in the music. If you're finding the timing difficult, you can always "scratch", which involves circling a single analogue stick to jump the music and make the background pop (your fighter also makes the appropriate DJ hand-gestures).

All of the above is a blast. It's an original and clever attempt to tie the game to a musical theme. Unfortunately, the core fighting mechanics are just dull. The controls feel sluggish, the moves are generic, and the scissor-paper-stone background of the punch-block-grapple system is insultingly shallow. The clever music mechanics just aren't enough to make you keep dunking your head in the turgid gameplay once you've already been down two or three times.

The character roster is a bit weak, too. Whereas Fight for NY featured guest appearances by the likes of Henry Rollins, Carmen Electra, and Stargate SG-1's Christopher Judge, Icon's lineup is much more bland. You'll have to be a solid hip-hop enthusiast to realliy appreciate fighters like Young Jeezy, EB-40 or Big Boi.

The single-player career mode sees you building your own record label. The fighting is generally in the context of impressing or representing artists so they'll sign to your label, and in between matches you'll have to buy your create-a-fighter clothes and bling, as well as budgeting and managing your artists' music releases. The window dressing is even more dreary than the fighting, and if you're playing the game you'll probably want to skip the nonsense to get right to the battling.

There are multiplayer options for 2-player local versus matches, or online head-to-head. Playing against a real person is better than the predictable computer, but it still gets old after about an hour of play. The XBox 360 version also allows you to import your own music to fight to, which can be very awesome, but the implementation is a little awkward and is only available outside the main career mode.

Fight for NY remains an unsung classic, but ultimately Icon doesn't live up to its pedigree. The people involved in making it are to be commended on trying something different, and on making a game that looks and sounds great, but as gamers we'll probably to better off waiting to see what they do next than signing up for the disappointment of Icon.

1 comment:

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