IGN Review of Def Jam Icon
The Def Jam franchise has always been rooted in surreal situations: brawlers in underground arenas, rappers assuming bruising alter egos and physics defying "blazing" moves that incapacitated their opponents. Supporting these battles on the streets of New York was a deep fighting and weapon system thanks to the wrestling masterminds at Aki. While it was unbelievable, the over the top nature of the game worked well. The latest installment in the series, Def Jam: Icon, takes a departure from this formula, so instead of taking over New York with your fists, you're capturing the airwaves with your personal record label. Unfortunately, this introduction of real world elements breaks down aspects of the gameplay, making it a shadow of the previous titles.
Unlike the previous title, where you were a faceless fighter trying to establish yourself in Fight Club-like surroundings, the primary thrust of the game is the Build-A-Label mode, where you create a character and attempt to climb the ranks of the music business to become a record mogul. Thanks to the included F.A.C.E. character builder, you select everything from a character's physical stats to their initial fighting style and personal theme song. From there, you're taken onto a whirlwind plot spanning 8 hours that involves betrayal, inter-label fighting, crooked cops and an alluded-to government conspiracy that easily sets up the framework for a sequel. It's an interesting concept, but the plot does tend to suffer from a lot of predictable melodramatic devices. You'll find yourself constantly going up against a rival producer who sends his artists and thugs against your rappers to intimidate and harass you. You'll beat up rappers to settle beefs and chase away emissaries of other studios. Plus, like other Def Jam titles, you'll attract the eye of various ladies, and have to balance their affection while still holding court over your burgeoning musical empire, while dealing with the loss of your mentor, who's gunned down in front of you on the street.
To expand your domination of the charts, you'll need to sign various artists to your personal label over the course of the game. Successfully doing so allows you to manage two aspects of their career: their personal demands as well as the songs that they go into the studio and record for you, with your character taking his cut from the royalty rate you establish. Depending on that percentage (and even the specific rapper you choose), your label will receive various requests from your artist, such as a new car, investment in a business venture, or help out of a legal jam. Agreeing to pay these fees keeps the artists happy, which in turn provides you with more money, while denying them can frustrate their creative processes, hampering their chances of fulfilling their contract on time. There are four separate aspects to promoting a song, including managing the merchandise, PR appearances, marketing and airplay for a particular track. Depending on how much money you pump into a song, its sales will take off and provide you with different milestones, such as going gold, platinum or multi-platinum. Unlike the other Def Jam titles, you'll need to acquire these milestones if you're going to unlock new musical tracks or strengthen your fighting skills. Poor management will definitely make your progress through the game harder, as you'll face off against stronger opponents as the title continues. What's more, unless you wind up managing your artists well and becoming a mogul, you won't unlock some of the other fighting styles, which keeps your character's development extremely hampered.
Unfortunately, there are a number of issues with the label management system. For one thing, players are limited over the lifetime of a track with only spending up to three million dollars on that particular song. I'm pretty sure that most record labels will spend that much on a song in its first seven days in a major city, only increasing that as the track takes off in popularity. Since you can't add additional funds, you're pretty much stuck with a narrow economic system that can sometimes work the way you want it to, and sometimes fail you completely. Unlike the initial game, it doesn't appear that the various clothes that you can purchase, bling you buy from a jeweler, or tattoos that you get affect the earning potential that a song can generate. This makes its inclusion feel like a placeholder from the previous titles and superfluous to the game's action. What's more, there's something extremely unrealistic about the fight development as a record producer. You're not sending bodyguards or thugs to handle your business for you; instead, you go out and personally beat down cops, paparazzi and other rappers. Unless you're Suge Knight, this would never happen at all, especially since your character stresses how he wants to sit down and talk to someone during the fight load screen. Next thing you know, you're pummeling someone and throwing them through couches or into gasoline pumps.
Forget blazing moves, weapons or customizing your fighting style in this game, which were features of the previous Def Jam titles. In Def Jam Icon, music is the weapon that you'll take advantage of in the game. In fact, it's the primary weapon since many of the other fighting mechanics are relatively limited and the environmental hazards are incredibly powerful. You've got a number of quick and strong attacks, which you'll often use to string together quick combos that will set you up for either a grapple which you'll use to throw enemies across the stage, or for fast takedowns. The takedowns are relatively bland and not particularly effective, so you'll come to rely on throws and directional attacks to knock opponents into the various environmental hazards scattered around a level. Since these are triggered on the various break beats of a song, you can either time your attacks to its rhythm, or use the DJ controls to manipulate the song and trigger the hazard whenever an enemy is nearby. The DJ controls are pretty unique, and add a new level of strategy. Do you change songs in the midst of a battle, do you scratch and trigger hazards as a defense mechanism, or do you simply wait to pummel an opponent until the beat is right and gain the maximum damage with the rhythm?
Now, apart from the personal beatdowns, you'll sometimes need to take on the role of a rapper settling a beef with another rapper in some location. That makes sense, since the rap world is rife with East Coast Vs. West Coast or Cam'Ron Vs. 50 Cent (hell, practically 50 versus any rapper, come to think of it). While each artist has their own personal taunts, there's definitely something wrong with the fact that once you've defeated your opponent, the beef is immediately settled. Could be just me, but if E-40 pounds the hell out of Sean Paul (which isn't that much of a stretch), he's calling that out on a radio station, releasing bootlegs and mix tapes, and possibly an entire album about how bad he punked the man from Jamaica. For some reason in Icon, they just fade away, which doesn't add to any particular tension within the Build a Label mode.
Once you've made your way through the Build a Label mode, you'll also notice that there's not a lot as far as unlocking new features or extras. You'll unlock some of the characters that you'll interact with over the course of the Label story mode, like Anthony Anderson as Troy Dollar, but you won't be able to take the battle as Kevin Liles or one of the potential girlfriends in the game. These can be taken into the Solo or Versus mode of Throw Down, which lets take on opponents in a solo stage battle, or the practice modes, which gives you a chance to warm up your skills. For players that aren't familiar with certain songs, players have the option to enter the Beatings with Bass level, which lets them pound on enemies with DJ controls disabled so they have a sense of where the major beats on a track would lie.
Now, while the gameplay might be somewhat sub-par to the previous games in the series, the visuals of Def Jam: Icon are eye-catching. Every artist is rendered exactly like their real life counterparts, down to the various chains, grills and other accessories that you'd find your favorite rapper rocking (pimp cups obviously removed for unfair advantages in the case of Lil' Jon). Most of the environments sport destructible objects, and it's possible during a hard fought battle to splinter just about every background object and have it bouncing around in time with the beat. On the other hand, there are some visual hiccups that will crop up that don't look so hot. For example, chains have a way of floating and vibrating in mid-air whenever a player falls down on the ground. Also, the saturated visual treatment of the title, which often changes depending on the song that's being played at the time, can be either so distracting that you can't clearly see what's going on or so bland that it detracts from the sharp visuals.
The sound quality, on the other hand, is hands down one of the best features of Def Jam: Icon. Sound effects can sometimes be subdued: in fact, the explosions of gas pumps, power transformers and light walls dominate the other effects, but they still sound great. Voiceover work from the artists are, for the most part, surprisingly good, with a number of them deviating from the script to deliver their own personal attachment to voice mails. This isn't a bad thing, though; it adds to their in-game personalities. Musically, Def Jam: Icon is exactly what fans of the series have been looking for: raw, unapologetic and in your face. Plenty of curse words and N-bombs populate the uncensored songs and taunts from rappers, but it feels right at home in the various brawls that break out between artists. In fact, the 25+ soundtrack that features everyone from Redman and Mike Jones to T.I. and Young Jeezy is pretty good.
Xbox 360 owners have two slight advantages: for one, the fights are a half step faster on the 360 than on the PS3. It's not significant enough to make the play feel radically different, but it feels a touch quicker. The other plus is that they can augment the soundtrack of the game with the My Soundtrack feature, which lets players choose any song that can be played via iPod or loaded onto the system during game modes. Unlike the tracks within the game, which have been perfectly equalized to match up with the DJ controls and the beat, players have to select a general tempo category that the song would belong to, such as classical, rock or hip hop, to gauge the individual beats of the track. Now, while the game will still wind up using the break beats to trigger certain hazards, it's not perfect in catching every single rhythmic measure during a game. Nor will players have control over rewinding these tracks without going to the Xbox Dashboard for a single song or switching tracks on a playlist. As a result, the feature feels like a good idea, but one that wasn't fully implemented for the game. It is still fun to beat and embarrass a friend to something like Megadeth, Wagner or whatever you personally like to listen to, though.
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