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Review: Hip-hop adds beat to 'Def Jam: Icon'

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service
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You won't find fancy weapons, magical attacks, fantasy environments or any other standard fighting game fare in EA's "Def Jam: Icon."

Instead, you'll find hip-hop stars, designer clothing and interactive turntables as you work your way up to becoming the ultimate urban icon.

This fresh take on the struggling fighting video game genre works -- but its appeal may only be limited to hip-hop music fans and its "blinged"-out superstars.

Developed by EA Chicago, the team behind the popular "Fight Night" boxing series, and in collaboration with Def Jam Interactive, "Def Jam: Icon" is the latest in this hip-hop fighting game series -- following 2003's "Def Jam Vendetta" and 2004's "Def Jam: Fight for NY."

However, "Icon" offers greater interaction with music, more characters, online play for long-distance brawls and outstanding graphics.

You can play as or against some of the biggest names in hip-hop, including Ludacris, Big Boi, The Game, Method Man, Sean Paul, Paul Wall and T.I.

Thanks to the power of the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360, each character closely resembles his real-life counterpart -- right down to skin tone, facial blemishes and tattoos. Some fighters, such as Fat Joe, need to be unlocked by playing through the fun and deep "Build a Label" story mode.

You also can build your own fighter from scratch by selecting body type, facial features, hair color and style, head-to-toe apparel and accessories.

Fighting styles include the "Ghetto Blaster," a well-balanced method but with some difficulty in getting up from big attacks, and "Street Kwon Do," with impressive kicks and grabs, but not as good in counterattack moves.

As with most fighting games, you must discover and exploit the weaknesses of your computer-controlled or human opponents. But this is no "button masher" -- gamers who don't take the time to learn how to punch, kick, grab, throw and block won't get far in this brawler.

Hip-hop music doesn't just play when you're engaged in a brawl. You can press the L2 button on the PS3 controller and also play as DJ by using the analog sticks like turntables to add beats, scratch and switch songs.

Music can be used as a weapon by timing your attacks to trigger environmental hazards in time with the music -- from exploding gas pumps to an electrifying lighting rig at a TV studio. This adds a fresh new element to the game play.

Visually, "Def Jam: Icon" delivers an interesting blend of photorealistic characters with a surreal effect of buildings and cars that pulsate and crumble to the beat.

By the time the round is over, fighters will be battered and bruised, and the world around them -- be it a rooftop view of a metropolis or the inside of a dance club -- will be nearly flattened with over-the-top damage.

Unless you choose to see it, "Icon" has no on-screen information, such as health or score, so the only way you'll know you're near defeat is how the lighting changes.

But the game isn't perfect. For one, as good as the graphics are, it takes three or four seconds to see the hip-hop artist you'll want to play as because there's a major delay between when the name appears and when the likeness pops up. This wouldn't be that bad if you didn't need to wait for the picture to load before selecting the character.

A second issue was spending 20 minutes to build a unique character in the F.A.C.E. mode, only to find you can't import him into the story mode -- this custom character can only be used in the online head-to-head mode. No documentation in the game warns of this. Instead, you must create a character all over again after launching the story mode.

These small details aside, "Def Jam: Icon" is a fun and unique take on the fighting game genre, where music isn't just used in the background but plays a key part in the game play. Hip-hop fans who love fighting games will find "Icon" a perfect blend between the two.


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You can play as or against some of the biggest names in hip-hop in "Def Jam: Icon."

CNET.com
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