Def Jam: Icon Review (PS3)

Reinventing a franchise for new hardware is no easy feat, but itís always good when a company (in this case especially since itís EA) attempts to freshen up a series and deliver new content. Def Jam Icon marks a jarring departure from the series anarchic wrestling-based roots into an entirely different beast altogether. With a design methodology thatís all style and no substance, Icon unfortunately takes a few too many risks with the basic formula for fighting game success, and ends up in a rather confused state as a result.

The story mode is suitably wacky
Character models are generally excellent, if completely lethargic

The single-player experience revolves around a particularly insane rags-to-riches tale, which lets face it, as the theme for a rap game is about as predictable as it gets. Following on from a suitably convenient sequence of events, your created player is furnished with the basics of a record company, run from a shabby downtown flat. Its up to you to win artists onboard, release and promote records, take care of Ďbusinessí, and also date a few of the women that come your way throughout the course of the storyline. Youíll have access to a virtual PC to check your financial status and the record charts (well, the rap charts anyway), and also teleport yourself around a mini-map to take on the various battles that form the brunt of the campaign.

Refreshingly, the story in Icon is actually fairly well delivered, with decent cut-scenes and a genuinely crazy sensibility about the plotline which will leave you wanting to discover the next ludicrous setup for yet another fight at the gas station or the local club. Itís all a bit excessive, and with the level of drama involved the campaign mode comes across like a soap opera at times. Of course itís a soap opera hijacked by 6ft tall bling-merchants, run through a series of neon camera filters and bullet-time effects. Neighbours this certainly isnít, and kudos to the designers for allowing a full repertoire of colourful language to sneak its way onto the disc.

Mission-based frippery aside, the core of any fighting game always boils down to the suitability of its engine, and its here where Icon makes its boldest moves and also unfortunately where it falls prey to over-indulgence and bloated mechanics.

Fights are strictly one-on-one encounters, and comprise of very basic striking attacks mapped to the face buttons, and a series of pathetically weak grapple manoeuvres that are almost pointless to execute. In fact if you played the game in a conventional style youíd probably drop the controller in disgust within a few minutes and never look back. Fortunately youíll soon pick up on a few differentiating features that at least partially resurrect the experience.

The interactive environments are the true star of the show
Visual flair abounds

For a game based entirely on hip-hop artists, it makes sense to have the music as the centrepiece of the action, and Icon delivers this in some style. Each star has their own associated song, and as this plays throughout the fight youíll notice background and environmental elements jumping along with the beat in perfect timing. Itís a unique visual effect, and combined with the over-saturated colour scheme of each level delivers a genuinely interesting and different approach to the aesthetics. Environmental detail is also beautifully rendered, with each stage taking on a different colour tone and some excellent smoke and particle effects thrown into the mix to boot. This is one game thatíll show off the power of your new £400 investment to the maximum, and who knows, maybe thatíll help you sleep a little easier at night.

The musical theme doesnít stop at the level design, but permeates the play mechanics also. The game incorporates a Ďmixingí function that becomes central to the flow of each bout and essential to victory against harder opponents. Holding down the L2 button puts the player into mix mode, with each analogue stick moving a separate hand in order to scratch out different patterns along to the beat. This can have a number of different effects depending on context. Scratching with the right analogue stick triggers environmental damage areas; perfect for piling more pain on a downed opponent, whilst rotating both sticks twice changes the tune thatís currently being played in the background. Changing to your own theme song in this manner gains you a small speed and power boost, but this can be interrupted mid-flow by the opposition. (Particularly annoying if youíre just trying desperately to get rid of that damn Sean Paul tune)

Icon scores points for originality in design then, but the problems unfortunately run too deep to be saved by the decent scripting and rhythm-inspired gameplay segments. Chief amongst the complaints has to be the pacing, which is stupendously slow and lethargic at the best of times. Simply moving your characters around the stage feels like wading through treacle, with most punch and kick animations taking an age to complete. You get the feeling that this was supposed to lend weight and solidity to the bouts, but instead everything just seems to run in slow motion. The gap between normal and upgraded speed when activating your chosen tune is fairly telling, and it would have been suitable to run the entire game at the boosted pace.

Due to the lack of variation in striking animation, unfortunately most fights inevitably turn into grappling matches. Since none of the Ďtakedowní animations are satisfying or even particularly useful, throwing your opponent into one of the environmental hotspots becomes the route to success time and time again. For a fighting game to end up so reliant on one single mechanic tells its own story, and the lack of depth shows in both single and multiplayer matches. Bouts become monotonous block-throw affairs, turning what should have been a particularly bombastic experience into somewhat of a soulless mess. The visual design screams for attention, the gameplay simply wants to lie down and die an easy death.

All the usual play options are present and correct. Campaign, VS, practice, create-a-character all function as expected, and unfortunately they all run at the same slow pace. Loading a character model on the selection screen takes the best part of 10-15 seconds, and changing options in the edit mode produces a noticeable pause whilst new content is loaded in. Some other early PS3 games have gotten around the slow seek times of the Blu-Ray drive by installing gigabytes of content to the hard drive, and Icon is certainly testament to the functionality of that particular route.

Scratch your way to victory
The environment changes colour according to the rapper in the ascendancy

Whilst itís hard to criticise a game that takes a bold stance to strike out on its own path in this age of by-the-numbers sequels and cookie cutter design, unfortunately Def Jam Icon simply doesnít do enough to warrant a recommendation. The visuals are at times spectacular and there is definite potential in the design, matching rhythm-action play to a fluid fighting style is definitely something that I would love to see explored further. For now however, Icon is a curiosity at best, and after an hours worth of play youíll definitely be dropping it like itís hot.

Top Game Moment:
Watching the environment in each of the stages rock to the beat of the music

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