I've never been one to indulge in the rap/hip-hop culture. Being raised on rock and roll, and later delving into the punk rock scene, I've never understood the appeal of listening to what sounds like a police radio recording with some added 'beats', most of which are stolen from true music icons. So maybe rap isn't my forte, but video games certainly are, and the Def Jam series has entertained me twice now, mainly for its solid weapon system, over-the-top street fighting and the ability to smash someone's face into the wall using Henry Rollins. Def Jam: Icon unfortunately takes a step forward into delivering a fighter more grounded in reality, and as a result, is a departure from what made the series an icon in the first place.
Unlike the previous two titles, both of which featured fast-paced Fight Club-like brawls, Icon slows the game down to a screeching halt. Players move sluggishly across the screen and blows take twice as long to connect. On the plus side, you can tap the punch button, head to the kitchen and grab a quick snack with plenty of time to get back to your seat and pick up the controller before the animation runs its course. On the other hand, this kind of pacing doesn't make for a particularly engaging fighter.
Then again, EA Chicago opted to remove the blazing moves, style customization and weapons (all three of which contributed to the game's speed previously) in favour of killer beats - literally. In Icon, your fists aren't your only weapons; instead, players will come to rely on creating beats during play to turn the tides, or rather, tables. The right analogue stick acts as a turntable of sorts, allowing you to change songs and trigger environmental hazards scattered throughout the level. Since the hazards cause massive damage, it's wise to lay down a few hits before triggering the nearest hazard to your opponent in the rhythm of whatever beat you're playing for maximum damage. The dynamic itself breathes some new life into an otherwise cumbersome fighting engine, adding another layer of strategy to the mix, since deciding the best time to scratch your beats can often be the match decider.
Using these environmental attacks almost becomes a necessity since brawling one-on-one with the AI can be an irritating affair. The combat system requires split-second timing in order to successfully block an attack and respond with a counter. Further to that, the AI has the ability to read you like a book, to the point where it'll block all your attacks, punch you as you're about to grab, then grab you as your about to punch, and then the cycle repeats itself. As broken as the system may be, landing a successful counter and unleashing a combo does become a heck of a lot easier if you're willing to fork over the hours of practice, and combining counters, combos, and beats does have a certain charm to it, even if it all happens at the speed of a snail's crawl.
As for the game's story mode, you won't be working your way up the underground fight-scene, but will instead work your way up the music business in the game's Build-A-Label mode. Here, you'll compete against rival producers and beat rappers silly while balancing your love life with your music empire ambitions. But you won't be able to climb the charts without your own entourage of artists. Signing artists to your label and then keeping them happy via new cars or shelling out cash to keep them out of jail, is the only way to keep them from jumping ship.
Once you've signed on a few star rappers, it's time to promote your songs with merchandise, marketing, and air time. Promotions not only boost the cash flow, but help make your tunes go gold, platinum, or multi-platinum, unlocking new musical tracks and fight styles to aid your rapper during some of the tougher battles. While it might be tempting to refuse to buy a new car for a signed artist, poor management decisions will limit your rapper's ability to quickly climb the billboard charts.
Ultimately the main campaign takes around 10 hours to complete, and isn't nearly as robust or engaging as Fight for New York. But regardless of the sub-par single-player campaign and some of the gameplay hic-ups I've mentioned above, Icon is a visual treat no matter how you look at it. The artists themselves are beautifully rendered and look identical to their real-life counter-parts right down to the chains and corn rolls. Animations are equally fluid, and the destructible hazards, of which there are many, flesh out the environments and create some stunning explosions. Sadly, PlayStation 3 owners will have to make due with a choppy frame rate unseen in the 360 version, though both suffer the same online fate - a choppy and uninspiring experience.
Despite being a relatively weak first next-gen effort in the series from EA, Icon isn't worth passing by all together. The DJ system is unique and intuitive, the visuals well polished and, even with my rock/punk roots, the soundtrack is a commendable mix of uncensored beats. Nevertheless, the broken fighting mechanics and sluggish pacing are enough to keep this game from reaching true icon status.