It's a crutch, when reviewing videogames that belong to a series, to simply compare one game to the next. Reviews of that type are often extremely formulaic—the graphics have improved, and the controls are tighter, but the story isn't as good, and without the novelty factor players are left with something more technically adept, but colder and less interesting than the first title. It's a boring review to read, kind of a dull one to write. The problem, though, is that sometimes the best way to explain how a game went catastrophically wrong is to look at how the previous title did that same thing right. That's the case with Def Jam Icon, a game that sets out to bring an new style and concept to the world of fighting, but buries everything it does right under a few coats of awkward, repetitive gameplay.
Set in the world of Hip-Hop record promotions, Def Jam Icon presents a world where artist management and record promotion consist of five percent wise investment, 95 percent fistfighting. The game casts the player as a would-be record producer who impresses rappers into joining his label by viciously beating people who look at them funny. The main character finds himself embroiled in a world of betrayal and murder, where double-crosses lie in wait around every turn, and there never seems to be enough money to buy all the diamond necklaces a man needs to look his best. Despite the overall snarkiness of my tone, this game actually features the best story of the series, in that it's actually set within the music industry. Oddly all the previous games, despite going to the trouble of licensing the likenesses of real rappers, were set in a bizarre alternate universe where all of them had, instead of following their muse, became embroiled in the underground world of bare knuckle boxing.
The story isn't the only thing that's been improved; the graphics are everything one would expect from a current generation fighting game. Of course, crisp detail and smooth animation have become the norm, so they aren't what makes the game really stand out. The game's confident, inspired art design is what separates it from the crowd. The colour choices are the best example of this innovation—rather than attempting realism, each level is tinted with deep blues and oranges, and in one case everything is actually black and white. The elaborate colouring scheme isn't just an impressive visual, though, it plays an active role in the gameplay.
During each fight, the song playing in the background represents one of the two fighters. Whoever's song is playing is given an advantage, and as the song switches, so does the level's colour scheme, instantly switching from hot to cold, or monochrome to vibrant Technicolor. Even better, when one of the fighters gets extremely low on health, it's as if the contrast on the graphics is instantly turned way down—everything goes soft focus and colours bleed out in every direction, an instant visual cue that the fight is almost over. Coupled with the way damage is visually indicated by the bloodying of faces and ruining of clothes, the end result is a fighting game that can be, and was obviously intended to be, played with the health bars turned off.
Almost as impressive as the graphics is the way music has been actively worked into the gameplay, rather than just setting a tone. As I mentioned above, during the fights each character has a theme song playing, and whenever it's on the soundtrack, they're a little stronger and tougher than their opponent. To counter this advantage, each player can switch songs whenever they want to by pulling the left trigger and spinning the thumbsticks, approximating the action of a DJ switching turntables. In addition to the overall strength bonuses they provide, the songs also serve to activate environmental hazards—whenever each song hits a certain beat, the level will shake and pulse, and suddenly the entire level becomes one big weapon. Gas pumps explode, pools of water electrify, and strippers swing around poles, legs viciously kicking. I was familiar enough with the songs that maneuvering an opponent next to a hazard just as a particular beat approaches became second nature, adding a satisfying amount of skill and timing to the use of level hazards.
From an concept and presentation standpoint, this is the the absolute pinnacle of the Def Jam series. So why on earth did they have to screw up the fighting so badly? As lush and beautiful as the animation is, too often the attacks seem to be moving in slow motion, and when they connect, there doesn't seem to be a convincing link between the attack and way that the opponent recoils. It's almost as if they spent so much time working out the details of how the individual characters looked and moved that they neglected to consider how they were going to work with each other. It looks far too stiff and awkward to be satisfying.
If the fighting just looked awkward it may have been passable, but it plays even worse than it looks. It's not the engine that's at fault here, but an incomprehensibly bad control scheme. Perhaps in an attempt to make their brawling street-fighting game more like their marquee boxing title Fight Night, the developers over at EA elected to use the right thumbstick to perform attacks. This would be a totally valid choice, except there were too many attacks to map, so the controller's face buttons are used as well. Face buttons are used for light and medium attacks, while moving quarter-circles and half circles on the thumbstick perform different 'power strikes', slow, heavy moves that break the enemy's guard and send them reeling.
This is perhaps the most unnatural control scheme I've ever come across. Shifting from buttons to a thumbstick on the fly is needlessly awkward, and totally unnecessary. For more than a decade now wrestling games (including the two previous Def Jam titles) have been using this same general control scheme with no complaints and limitations on the types of moves available. How did they do it? By mapping two different attacks to each button. Want a light attack? Tap a button. Want a heavy attack? Hold a button. Want to grab someone? Hold the block button and tap or press X—the longer the button is held, the stronger the resulting hold is. It's a simple, elegant, and totally intuitive system, and by discarding it, EA has essentially messed with perfection. I only wish that someone had bothered to tell the developers that despite the fact that there are two thumbsticks on the controller there's no law forcing them both to be used in every game.
I would have liked to judge Def Jam Icon solely on its own merits, but I found it impossible to do so. For years I've held up the series as an example of how good 3D fighting/wrestling hybrids could be. How interacting with environments can be handled well, how four-person brawls can work without becoming confusing, and, most importantly, how cameoing celebrities can make a game more entertaining without becoming distracting. After all, how could I hate a game that allowed me to, while playing as Omar Epps, throw Danny Trejo under the wheels of an oncoming train? Even if I couldn't set my love for the series aside for this review, I'm sure that Def Jam Icon's problems are so clear and inarguable that even if I'd never played any of the previous titles I would have rated it exactly the same.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.