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Def Jam: Icon Review

Developer: EA Chicago Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 6, 2007 Also On: PS3 and Xbox 360

The fighting genre has been one that has luckily survived through video game generations with very little scrutiny for its general lack of fundamental changes. Most fighting games in the past and even in the present have revolved around one character standing on the left fighting the one standing on the right in an otherwise static and unchanging environment. Sure, games like Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter have deepened the genre beyond 47-hit combos and brutal fatalities, but very few games have taken a style and actually made it a very large, outspoken, important part of the game.

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“EA Chicago wanted to make a game that was based around hip-hop,” says Kudo Tsunoda, EA Chicago General Manager. “Thing is, anyone could take a fighting game and put some rappers and songs in and call it ‘hip-hop,’ but we wanted to do more than line the windows of the game with hip-hop stuff. Art, audio, gameplay–we wanted it all fused together, and that’s what we’ve done with Def Jam: Icon.”

Just how does one create a game that “is” hip-hop? How does one take an entire subculture and make it into a playable experience? EA Chicago just might have found the answer with Def Jam: Icon. The third game in the Def Jam franchise and far more than a next-generation rehash of the critically acclaimed series, Def Jam: Icon looks, plays, and most importantly sounds like hip-hop at its purest form.

To start, EA Chicago brought in–literally–some of today’s most popular talents, from Def Jam vets like Ludacris, Method Man and Redman to fresh characters like Young Jeezy, Mike Jones, and Lil’ Jon. They laser-scanned the faces of every rapper and took photographs of them in the clothes you’ll see them wearing in the game. “If people want photo-realism, we’ve got it–literally,” says Tsunoda. “You don’t get more photo-realistic than taking pictures of people and using those pictures to make them in the game.” The Icon team also motion-captured the style of each artist down to the way they walk, talk, and express themselves through not only fighting styles but their taunts as well. The end result is a model for each character that is life-like and animates absolutely perfectly. The look and feel of the characters, though, wasn’t what would make Icon “hip-hop.” Tsunoda and his team went much further than that and created what is possibly the most innovative mechanic in a fighting game in years.

“We wanted to make the environment the third character,” Tsunoda says with excitement, “so what we’ve done is create an environment that interacts directly with the background music.” There is no better way to put it–everything in the environment reacts dynamically to the beats and drops in the music. Environmental hazards in each level will break down and eventually serve as some sort of obstacle. In the three levels offered to play, there were brilliant examples of this, and the environment truly served as a third character and a very important element. In a Southern street corner level, a fire hydrant could be busted open, violently spewing water at the pulse of certain beats. Knock an opponent into that water at just the right time, and he’ll be sent flying skyward with the force of the water. In the rooftop level, a helicopter spins out of control with the beat and the blades can severely damage an opponent. “The more you know the beats, the better you’ll be at the game,” explains Tsunoda. The team compiled a soundtrack of about 30 songs, and the songs even play a role in the fighting mechanics.

“We’ve introduced what I’ll call DJ controls,” says Tsunoda, “and so what the player can do is scratch the music–essentially turning the controller into a turn-table–and speed up or stop the beat, or even change the song.” The interesting thing about this mechanic is that the player has direct control over the environmental effects–for example, one could throw an opponent into the helicopter area and scratch the beat, sending the chopper’s blades swinging towards the victim and causing massive amounts of damage.

The songs chosen before each match also directly affect the players on the screen. Select a Ludacris song, and Ludacris will have an increased amount of power for a short while. This mechanic, combined with the DJ controls, make bouts even more frantic. “I think [the DJ controls] really bring a ‘DJ battle’ sort of thing into the game,” Tsunoda says, “because you can really change the outlook of a fight if you’ve got control of the beats.”

Fortunately, Def Jam: Icon plays like a dream. Really, few fighting or wrestling games have ever managed such an intuitive feel. The controls, which have a slight learning curve, pave way for an experience that is fluid, smooth, and enjoyable. The face buttons allow players to execute some high, low, strong and weak punches but the right analog also serves as an attack button and initiates grapples. Different grapples can be used with the D-Pad or the right analog stick, and with the block button, anything can be reversed or blocked with proper timing. The DJ controls are activated with the press of the Xbox 360’s Left trigger or L2 on the PS3, and the analog sticks do all the scratching and song-switching.

One might debate whether or not the music-affected environments really make the game “hip-hop,” but in play, it becomes clear just how important it is to know the beats, know the environments, and have the upper hand. Fortunately, even fans of other types of music will be able to enjoy Def Jam: Icon’s new features.

“With the features of the Xbox 360, gamers can upload their own .mp3 files and have those files interact with the environment just like our soundtrack does,” says Tsunoda. To demonstrate, he activates the Xbox 360 menu and plays “Kung-Fu Fighting,” and the beat of the song is shown dynamically in the level. “We’ve created a technology that attributes different parts of music to different environmental pieces, so any type of music works.” Fans of electronica, rock–even country–will notice that their favorite songs directly affect the playing field.

Def Jam: Icon is almost finished and ready for its March 6th, 2007 release date. Unfortunately for current-gen players, Def Jam: Icon is exclusive to two of the three next-generation systems, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Still, EA Chicago has really put together a product that has hip-hop pulsing in its veins, and fans of the music as well as the rappers and the franchise itself will want to step up and take notice of the game. It’s clear that Def Jam: Icon is “hip-hop,” and it definitely is “next-gen.” It’s shaping up to be one of EA’s hottest 2007 releases and possibly one of the better fighting games set for release this year.

Written by Cliff