March 22, 2007

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Def Jam Icon (PS3/360)
EA Chicago, 2007
By Glenn Given production@hippopress.com

Def Jam Iconís rappers beat each other up in suprisingly realistic clothing while doing ďair-turntablesĒ and generally acting sillier than an R. Kelly... well, anything by R. Kelly, frankly. (Seriously, I think in his last video he was wearing a Robin-style domino mask, WTF?!?)

Iíll hand it to EA ó a rap-themed fighting game wasnít a bad idea. It is unfortunate, though, that this concept reached its zenith with Wu Tang: Shaolin Style. Icon is a mixed bag. As a brawler/wrestling title, it doesnít have the depth or responsive controls that aficionados of WWE expect from their grappling systems. And it certainly doesnít deliver the lightning-fast action of your traditional martial arts fighters as a large portion of your limited arsenal of moves is confined to the rather unresponsive analog controls. But rap has taken a drubbing in the cultural zeitgeist lately (what with a nearly 40 percent decline in record sales over the past few years) so letís focus on the best bits.

As is quickly becoming the norm in fighting titles, the Barbie-dress-up aspect shines. You can custom-craft your fighter or choose from more than two dozen rappers or producers and deck them out in astonishingly fresh wardrobes. The raw power of the 360 and PS3 shine in the clothing physics and in the numerous explosive hot spots that you trip as you fight.

But thatís just bling. The real innovation here is synching the combat to music. The extensive soundtrack (including your own uploaded songs on the 360 version) plays a crucial role in every fight. Rappers fighting to their own songs receive boosts and using your air-turntabling to alter the music (by spinning your analog controlers) to one of your characterís songs can swing the tide at crucial moments. Environmental effects are also tied in to the rhythm of the music as the settings deform in time to the beat. Your remixing can speed up or slow down these effects as well. This innovation is squandered, though, as the generally lackluster combat and pace of the fight donít really synch well enough to enable anything but the most rudimentary combo system.

And the story? Groan yo, groan fo reals. Something or other about fighting your way up the ranks of the rap industry, beating up MCs so that you can sign them to your label and thumping rappers for cash. Itís stupid, more so even than your average rap video opus what with all its chest-pounding, pimp-walking braggadacio. And yet, if it had been MORE over the top, as it was in Def Jam: Fight For New York, it would work. Sadly, itís grounded in the ďrealĒ world of rap and suffers accordingly ícause the real world of rap is a lot like the real world of wrestling: fake, that being the opposite of real. Icon isnít bad but itís mostly a wasted effort. EA, next time around, crib the fighting system from Virtual Fighter 5, keep the in-fight remixing and the pretty-pretty-princess makeup party and youíll have an A+ as opposed to Iconís B-

ó Glenn Given