Hip-hop has always been a competitive form of music. Going back to the '70s and '80s, with such crews as Cold Crush or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a big part of rapping has always been about telling the world how great you are, especially if it comes at the expense of a rival emcee. EA and hip-hop record label Def Jam teamed up a few years back to make hip-hop-themed fighting games, which made sense at the time. But the first two games took the nuts and bolts of a wrestling game, put it on the street instead of in the ring, and threw in a whole bunch of rappers. Unless you count Macho Man Randy Savage's 2003 rap album as a success, rap and wrestling just don't mix, even though the previous Def Jam games somehow managed to be pretty cool in spite of that. But EA also seems to have come to this conclusion because as the third game in the Def Jam series, Def Jam: Icon, trades in the wrestling for a unique fighting style, coming up with an even more ridiculous and fun story mode. All around, it's a good, if somewhat simple, time.
The roster is mostly focused on rappers who are making an impact today, though a few older guys might have been interesting.
The game's roster of licensed rappers is deep and varied, representing the coasts and everywhere in between. The game includes Big Boi, Bun B, E-40, The Game, Ghostface Killah, Jim Jones, Lil Jon, Ludacris, Method Man, Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Redman, Sean Paul, Sticky Fingaz, T.I., and Young Jeezy, among others. A few nonrappers make appearances as characters in the story mode, including actor Anthony Anderson, who's great as the seemingly evil record exec, Troy Dollar. Def Jam/Warner Music Group exec Kevin Liles also plays a character in the story, and there's a pretty good cameo from another hip-hop mogul as well. While there's plenty of people in the game, you'll probably come up with more than a few omissions if you think about it for very long. For example, such acts as LL Cool J and Run-DMC are still synonymous with the label's origins, but you won't find them here. These days, the label is better known for its president and CEO, Jay-Z, who's also missing in action. On top of that, there have been plenty of often-controversial wars in hip-hop over the years, and it's unfortunate that you can't re-create some of those rivalries here. Seeing Jay-Z and Nas, The Game and 50 Cent, or even Dr. Dre and Dee Barnes beat the heck out of each other at a gas station would have been worth the price of admission on its own. The game has a passable create-a-character mode that works just like every other EA game these days, which includes all the weird sliders you can use to make your characters have awful-looking foreheads and jaw shapes.
The atmosphere and over-the-top story mode is the best part about Def Jam: Icon. Called "build a label," this mode opens with your created character as a nobody. You defend Carver, a hotshot record exec and are quickly welcomed into the fold for, you know, keeping it real. From there, you rise up to become an A&R man, which in game terms means that you beat people up so that other people will sign to your label. You interact with characters via e-mail, which is often read aloud by the involved characters. As you sign artists, you'll use your income to set release budgets for their songs, which is an investment that can earn you even more money. Along the way, you'll get stuck with plenty of bills, including Mike Jones' phone bill, The Game's paternity tests, and Ghostface Killah dropping off of his tour so that he can go make "a video game with gorillas and ninjas and s***." You can opt out of making these payments, but that's no way to keep your artists happy.
As you rake in more money and purchase fly-looking clothes, you'll start to attract women, who also suck money out of you to stay happy. There are also plenty of twists and turns. For example, as the money coming in increases, things get very serious, very quickly; complete with dirty cops who love to plant evidence, rival record execs who want to steal your artists, and scandalous women. Things escalate so much that it becomes completely comical, almost like a so-bad-it's-good hood movie. All that's missing is Master P and a truckload of stolen cell phones. But even though it's all sort of silly, it still manages to feel authentic. If anything, the "white cop keeping you down" tale wraps up a little too abruptly.
Each level has spots that you don't want to be standing in for too long.
It's got a rock-solid premise and a surprisingly compelling story. Unfortunately, the part where you have to actually fight is where Def Jam: Icon kind of breaks down. Overall, the switch from wrestling to fighting is an improvement, and Def Jam: Icon is unlike any traditional fighting game. The game was developed by the same team that handled Fight Night Round 3, and it shows. The fighting is methodical, to the point of feeling sluggish in spots. It's very focused on fooling your opponent by mixing up your high and low attacks, which can be stopped by blocks or counters, which can be stopped by grabs and throws, which can be stopped by those same high and low attacks. So there's balance to the basics of the fighting system, which are roughly the same regardless of which character you choose, even though differences in fighting styles mean that some characters are somewhat better at one aspect of combat than others. There's a second layer to the game that's a bit more stylish. The right analog stick is used for grabs and for your strongest strikes. As in Fight Night, making circular or tapping motions on the stick will unleash harder attacks, and you can go high or low with these too. What's more, if you taunt before unleashing those attacks, your attack will land even harder, often knocking down your opponent in the process.
Keeping your opponent down is key because you want to make sure your song is playing. Yes, the music in Def Jam: Icon also plays a role in the fighting. Before each fight, you select which song you want to have as "your" song. At any point during the fight, you can hold down L2, then rotate the two analog sticks to switch songs. Your character reacts to this motion by making turntable motions in thin air. If you're fighting while your song is playing, you'll get a damage bonus, so it's handy. You can counter song-switch attempts by hitting L2 while the other player is spinning, which makes you stomp the ground, knocking your foe down. The other turntable move rewinds the current song back to the beginning and causes the entire background to explode. OK, perhaps that requires a bit more explanation.