Def Jam Icon
There are so many different way of looking at this new Def Jam game. For some the very fact that it's a franchise singularly absorbed with a musical genre that leaves a lot of people cold will be enough to put them off right away, for others that very same sense of identity will be what draws them to it in the first place. Some may come to the table brining fond memories of previous games in the series, most recently the impressive Fight For New York, only to be disappointed that the over the top, almost cartoon like, sense of fun has largely disappeared, where as others may find the move to a more realistic fighting mechanic just what the doctor ordered. All of which means that it's a game very likely to split opinion depending on your personal tastes as much as the game's quality because, lets get one thing straight, if Ludacris and Sean Paul are your idea of musical heaven and you like your fighting games more Fight Night than Street Fighter then the chances are you'll love this game regardless of its flaws, the rest of the world however may be considerably less charmed.
The meaty chunk of the single player experience in Def Jam Icon is the Build-A-Label mode, this sees you creating a character using the amazingly detailed generator and attempting to take him through the ranks of the music business on the way to becoming a record mogul. The story does nothing to dispel the idea that all rappers double as gangsters in their spare time as it cheerfully takes in rival gangs, crooked police and turf war shootings along with every other melodramatic stereotype you can imagine. Plot aside the actual idea of the game is to create and manage a record label, this involves signing artists, encouraging them to record tracks for you and then promoting those tracks all the way to becoming hits. On top of keeping your artists happy and successful you'll also have to deal with the attentions of rival record labels and, far more pleasantly, a galaxy of beautiful women who need pampering. Of course at this point you'd be forgiven for checking the title of the review and questioning where all the fighting had gone, and this is where things get a little messy. You see, for all the faux realism and gritty urban vibe on show the fundamental flaw with the very idea behind the Build-A-Label mode is that as a hotshot label boss it feels a little daft to be trudging out yourself to engage in all the fisticuffs needed to keep your operation ticking over. Surely someone in your position would employ a selection of suitably house-sized gentlemen in black suits and shades who would go about doing these kinds of thing for you? I'm all for plot based fighting games, and I'm not adverse to the idea of a management game based around running a record label but to mix the two like this feels more than a little forced.
Of course you can always leave the story and focus on the fighting in a more traditional single player mode or take the battle online via the wonders of Xbox Live, but however you get there, once a bout starts you'll immediately notice a few things about Icon. They say that good looks will get you places in the entertainment biz and in that regard Icon impresses, it looks stunning. I know such superlatives are overused and in an age where in game graphics are virtually indistinguishable from the CGI of a few years ago it's to be expected, but the whole visual experience in Icon is a serious treat. From the backdrops that pulse hypnotically in time with the music to the impressively accurate character models and animation it all looks suitably polished. Less pleasing is the frustrating lack of onscreen damage meters no doubt in an attempt to make the battle more realistic by forcing you to rely on visual indications of the fighter's status. In practice it just means that fights lack any real sense of drama, you never know when you're one kick or punch away from victory or defeat meaning you lose the important ability to gloatingly finish someone with a spectacular move or end up getting unexpectedly defeated as you risked a move you'd never have done if you'd known you were so low on health.
One of the biggest additions to Icon over previous games in the series is the use of the music itself as a weapon. There are two kinds of musical attack, in the first each fighter has their own signature song that can be activated during a bout for a slight burst of power, it's as simple as it sounds and does what it says on the tin coming in handy when you're taking a beating. More interestingly, the second kind of musical attack involves a bout of virtual 'scratching' using the right analogue stick to trigger various environmental events such as explosions. Combine this with the grapple and throw moves and you have a nice little combo once you get the hang of it. In fact such is the power of utilising the environment like this that it is not long before the limitations in the more traditional fighting controls become a little too apparent. For all the apparently different fighting styles on offer there is a seriously narrow set of moves for each character, often hardly differing regardless of their area of expertise. Such a limited set of basic moves and the fairly sluggish pace of bouts means battles all too often degenerate into repetitive rounds of who can throw who into things that go bang quicker simply because it's so much easier to finish someone off like that than by using any combination of kicks and punches.
For a game with music so central to its very existence its hardly surprising that the game sounds great, even those with only a passing interest in the world of rap and hip-hop will soon find themselves humming their own fighter's particular tune and for the genre's fans the game's fully licensed sound track will be a treat. It's to Icon's credit that it realises the limitations of appealing solely to such a specific group of music fans and the Xbox 360 (sorry PS3 owners) has the ability for players to include their own songs into the game. All you need to do is state roughly what tempo style the song is from a list of presets, giving the game a hand at sorting out how to interpret it, and then it can be used in the bouts as normal, triggering explosions and the like at key times the same as any of the regular in game songs. Of course it's not perfect and doesn't always pick up the bits of a song you may have expect to trigger something, but then considering the fact you could throw anything from Slayer to Enya at it it's commendable that it tries to do the job at all.
That such an interesting idea feels a little disappointing and underdeveloped is pretty much in keeping with the rest of the game. The whole thing feels like something of a work in progress, full of interesting and potentially brilliant ideas that somehow just fail to live up to their billing. If EA can come up with a better way of hanging the story mode onto the fighting, increase the selection of moves and balance the game out a lot better then the impressive ideas behind the musical attack portions of the game will stand a chance of becoming the hit single on an award winning album rather than the one catchy chorus on an album of filler.