Def Jam: Icon Review

Josh Wirfs

If you've watched MTV in the past decade, you're probably aware that Hip Hop has taken America by storm. Therefore, you've undoubtedly had dreams of beating the life out of Mike Jones. Or perhaps setting Ludacris on fire. Maybe even throwing Fat Joe's lardy mass into a helicopter's blades. With the latest entry in the Def Jam fighting series, all these dreams can become reality...relatively speaking. After much success with the prior entries in the series, Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam Fight for NY, it was only a matter of time before a next-gen sequel would be released. Returning from a two and a half year hiatus and a change of developers, Def Jam: Icon has arrived. And for the most part, it doesn't disappoint.

Fat Joe doesn't like it when you poke his belly

One thing fans of the series will notice is that the entire flow of the gameplay has changed from a game largely focused on grappling and wrestling, to a game focused more around boxing and striking. This can be attributed largely to the switch of developers from Aki Corp. to EA Chicago, the team that brought you Fight Night Round 3. The engine is actually a modified version of the engine used in that game, which is certainly not a bad thing. The combat is mostly driven by counters and using the aforementioned environmental hazards to inflict massive damage on your opponent. Each arena has several different environmental hazards you can throw your opponent into to really lay down the hurt. While this system is fun at first, especially in the single player fights, it becomes a bit unbalanced in multiplayer matches. The combat devolves into a matter of who can counter the best, and being able to sneak a throwing move in on your opponent.

The fighting would've been more polished if the countering system was a bit more difficult to use, but unfortunately that's not the case. All it takes to counter an opponent is a well timed block, which will immediately allow you to put your opponent in a grapple. The fighting styles are also unbalanced, with some that are slow and awkward without any real benefits, and others that are fast and strong with few weaknesses. This leads to most fights online playing out in the exact same way, since anyone who's familiar with the game will pick one of two styles.

One aspect of the game that's been greatly improved upon from its predecessors is the storyline. Unlike the somewhat bizarre and corny stories in the first two games, Def Jam: Icon tells a story that could easily have been made into a movie. The story kicks off with a scene showing your mentor being shot in a drive-by, and from there it takes off, showing your rise from a common street thug, to a record mogul, to a fugitive on the run for murder. The voice acting and cut scenes are top notch, with all the rap artists and several movie stars lending their voices to the project. Anthony Anderson does a particularly good job playing one of the villains in the game, Troy Dollar, a rival record company executive who impedes your progress throughout the story. It's rare to see a fighting game with a storyline this in-depth, it's just a shame it's so short. You'll likely finish the storyline in less than 8 hours.

Every character looks like the artist they're modeled after

But the the real fun in this game comes from the multiplayer portion over Xbox Live. The personalization options you're given for your online persona are amazing. On top of being able to import your created fighter from your single player game, you can create your own tags that'll pop up on your opponent's screen under certain circumstances. For example, you can set a tag to say "Pansy." if you're opponent leaves a match before it's over, and it'll display on their screen until they enter a new match. This is great stuff, and it's a feature I'd love to see implemented in more Xbox Live titles. Oddly though, there's a profanity filter when you're creating your tags, which seems a bit out of whack given the fact that every one of the numerous rap songs in the game are completely uncensored.

The key feature of Def Jam: Icon is the music playing in the background. Before each fight, you'll choose a song from the robust catalogue provided by the game, which will be your fighter's theme song throughout the fight. While your song is playing, your fighter will be significantly stronger and faster, giving you a clear advantage over your opponent. By holding in the left or right trigger, you can take control of the song by doing a little bit of "air DJ-ing". You use these imaginary turntables to switch between the two fighter's chosen songs, or fast forward to a section of the song where the bass kicks in, causing the environment to come alive. Every arena in the game has a life of its own. For example, the Gas Station level has a spinning car wash, gas tanks that can be broken open causing an explosion, and a store manager who will spray anyone unfortunate enough to bump into his store with a fire extinguisher. And of course, the obligatory Escalade riding on chrome spinners. Every time the bass kicks in during a song, these environmental hazards will activate, dealing massive damage to any fighter within their range.

Speaking of the music, Def Jam: Icon has unquestionably the best licensed soundtrack ever found in a videogame. With a solid mix of old school and new rap tracks, there's something here for every kind of rap fan. From old school classics such as Method Man and Redman's "Da Rockwilder" and Nas's "Hate Me Now", to current hits like T.I.'s "What You Know" and Jim Jones's "We Fly High", the soundtrack is filled with gems. There's really no song in the game that I just couldn't stand listening to, and some of my own favorite tracks were included. With a musical lineup including Young Jeezy, T.I., Big Boi, Method Man and Redman, Ghostface Killah, Mike Jones, Sean Paul, E-40, Ludacris, Fat Joe, The Game, Lil John, and Paul Wall, you just can't go wrong. Oh, and did I mention they're all playable fighters in the game? If none of the provided tracks suit your tastes, you can also import your own songs from your Xbox to fight with. While the beat is off at times, it's still functional and it's a nice addition to the game, although you can't use your own tracks online.

On top of the hearty roster of famous rappers you can use to stomp your opponent, Def Jam: Icon also provides an in-depth create-a-fighter mode. Your created fighter will be the one you use throughout the story mode, so the plentiful customization options are a definite plus. After altering your character's face and body type through a variety of different sliders that will change each individual part of your character, from the width of your nose to the height of your brow and length of your ears, you're given a wide variety of different clothing and accessory options from the in-game store. Most of the major urban clothing lines are available, including Ecko, South Pole, Phat Farm, and a number of other popular brands. Once you've finalized your wardrobe, you can purchase a wide variety of different "bling", from million dollar diamond necklaces and watches, to do-rags and stunner shades. There's also a number of different unlockable chains you can purchase after accomplishing certain feats in the game, like defeating 100 opponents online or getting a winning streak.

The environment play a large role in every fight

Graphically, Def Jam: Icon doesn't fail to impress. All of the fighters look almost identical to their real life counterparts, with exceptional attention to detail. The various tattoos and chains each rapper wears are spot on, right down to the LA symbol tattooed on The Game's face and T.I.'s Pimp Squad Clique chain. The animations are fluid and lifelike, making the fights believable and gritty. Fighters take damage realistically, with cuts, bruises, burns, and dirt showing the damage you've taken. There's no HUD by default to show how much health you have left during a fight, although you can turn it on if you'd like, but you really don't need it. The environments are incredibly detailed, and infused with an urban artistic art style that gives them a life of their own. Each environment pulses and moves along with the music, giving each stage its own personality. The only gripe I have with the visuals is how the screen change colors when the musical tracks are switched. The screen becomes filtered out with a different color, making everything turn purple, green, red, white, or blue. I can see how this may appeal to some people, but I personally found it distracting and unnecessary.

The achievements are well done, and while they're not particularly easy, it's certainly possible to attain the full 1000 points. Most of the achievements revolve around using the various environmental hazards in each stage to defeat your opponent. Those in particular are pretty easy to get, and are doable in a day or two. There's also a few achievements related to the story mode, for example having four satisfied girlfriends simultaneously will net you an achievement. The multiplayer portion has a few as well, ranging from the standard defeat X amount of opponents online, to some more original ones like having your custom tag appear on an opponent's screen after totally dominating them. Some of the achievements are pretty difficult, though not so hard you'll be pulling your hair out. One in particular that comes to mind is for defeating an opponent on the hardest difficulty using only reversals. Altogether, it shouldn't take more than 50 hours or so to unlock them all if you're any good.

Overall, Def Jam: Icon is a solid fighting game with a great deal of personality and flavor. With a huge roster of popular rap artists and a massive variety of character customization options, it's hard to get tired of fighting with the same characters over and over like in some other games in the genre. The soundtrack is phenomenal as well, with a huge sampling of some of the best records out there, from a few old school classics to some of the best current hits. The multiplayer portion is outstanding as well, and very rarely do games suffer from latency or frame rate issues. This is certainly a solid game, and worth checking out whether you're a fan of the hip hop culture or not.

With an unprecedented number of licensed musical tracks, realistic sound effects, and a full cast of famous characters voiced by their actual real life counterparts, it doesn't get much better than this in terms of audio. There's a wide selection of music available, from old school classics to current chart topping hits. Whatever particular niche of rap you're interested in, there's something here for you. If none of the tracks the game provides appeal to your tastes, you can even import your own music to play with during exhibition fights.

While the characters are all incredibly well done and look almost exactly like the rappers they're modeled after, the rest of the game doesn't quite match that quality. The environments look great, and the urban art style they're infused with is excellent, they're still not quite up to the standards of most fighting games. The color filters that fill the screen when you switch the musical tracks seem a bit out of place as well, and can distract you from the fighting. Going from blue, to green, to purple in the matter of seconds can be a bit jarring, and I found it unnecessary as the game looks best without the filters.

The fighting system is solid, albeit flawed and unbalanced at times. Overall, the fighting may be just a little too accessible, and it's not hard to win by button mashing in many cases against an opponent who doesn't know how to effectively block and counter. The reliance on environmental hazards is a little too extreme, and the counters are just too easy to pull off. I loved how the music is tied directly into the gameplay though, and it is certainly a nice touch and an original concept. The story mode is definitely worth mentioning as well, as the story itself is superb for a fighting game.

Everything here is quality. From the top notch voice acting, to the excellent customization options for your created characters. There's a certain style that's present in every aspect of the game that gives it a genuine flavor. Also worth mentioning is the addition of the various tags you can customize over Xbox Live. This feature is ingenious, and I'd love to see it present in more games. Nothing's more embarrassing for your opponent than to get totally dominated and having a tag reading "You suck, just go home" appear on their screen afterwards.

The achievements are well done, with a solid mix of online and offline offerings. While most of them are pretty easy to unlock, there's a few that will take some effort and make you earn that full 1000. A few are pretty intense, and will take some time to unlock, like beating an opponent on the hardest difficulty using only reversals. Overall, it shouldn't take more than 40-50 hours to unlock every achievement.

If you consider yourself a fan of rap music, you're almost guaranteed to have a good time using your favorite artists to beat the snot out of your least favorites. Even if you're not a fan of the music, there's still a lot of fun to be had here due to a solid, albeit somewhat flawed fighting system. The story is excellent for a fighting game, and the voice acting performances are among the best I've seen, with every major character voiced by their real life counterpart. The graphics are great for the most part, although the color filters that flood the screen after the musical track is switched can be a bit jarring. The audio is outstanding, with the most impressive licensed track library I've ever seen and some phenomenal voice acting jobs done by the rap artists in the game. While there's a few issues that hinder the game, it's still a perfect addition to any fighting fan's library.

Game navigation