EA's Def Jam series has continued to mature since its debut in 2003. Although the notion of a fighting game starring hip-hop musicians seemed like a recipe for a disaster of Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style proportions, the Def Jam games have managed to be solid fighters that have improved with every iteration. However, though the last two entries have seen incremental improvements to the presentation and gameplay, the latest entry in the series, Def Jam Icon, seems poised to offer the most significant tweak to the formula since the series first appeared. Though the game is on display for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the CES show floor, we recently had the chance to get a closer look at the promising fighter to see more than just the gas station level.
Def Jam Icon takes the series another step farther away from simple categorization. Though the series started as a fighter, it has transitioned to a more stylized wrestling feel, with a flexible fighting system. Icon goes one step farther, with EA labeling it a "hip-hop lifestyle" game that integrates the solid fighting elements the previous games are known for with the hip music and musicians that the Def Jam license brings to the table. Credit for the change goes to EA Chicago, who, after busting out the most excellent Fight Night Round 3, is taking the reins on the series from original developer Aki. The result is a fresh take on the series, and it's looking very sharp. Def Jam Icon will revolve around your character's rise to mogul-dom as you build a record label. But despite the fact that the boys at EA Chicago are a talented bunch, the action is light on boardroom dealings, power lunches, and contract writing. Instead, you'll find yourself building your recording empire by knocking fools around in a stylish and unique fashion.
The combat system in Def Jam has undergone a radical overhaul that retains the elements you'd want in a fighter and tosses some truly funky business into the mix. You'll have four basic attack types--these being low and high attacks that can be delivered strong and slow or light and fast--that you can chain together for different combos and special attacks. But that's just the start of Def Jam's combat. Thanks to EA Chicago's extensive experience with dual-analog-stick systems courtesy of the Fight Night games, Def Jam Icon relies heavily on a similar system that lets you not only smoothly perform offensive and defensive moves, but also use the game's slick new music system.
Music system? Unlike previous entries in the series, Icon's music is an integral component of combat. The songs and their beats trigger hazards in the environment that you'll use to your advantage and factor into combos. In addition, fighters will be more effective when fighting to their own music. As a result, both you and your opponents can "mix" your signature tunes into combat. Best of all, if rap isn't your thing, you'll be able to import tunes into the game that will be synched up as you fight. It's all extremely cool and surprisingly easy to do during combat, which ensures it's a feature that you'll use often in battle.
Despite the fact that the Icon is still a work in progress, the graphics are one of the game's most pleasant surprises. The PS3 and Xbox 360 are more than capable of turning out realistic visuals, and EAC has thrown in a mix of detailed character models that are very close to their real-life counterparts. These are dropped into funky locales that feature the expected amount of next-gen detail with a really appealing sense of style. The three environments we saw--the gas station, club, and rooftop--featured a good amount of eye candy and variety in general. The gas station should be familiar to those who've seen the game in motion. The club is a crazy new fighting arena that has you facing off against enemies in a bumping atmosphere, complete with crazy lights and a video wall that comes in handy when using the environment against your opponent. The rooftop is just that, a fight on the roof of a building, with plenty of objects to interact with and use during battle. The game is looking sharp across both platforms, with some slight variances on each and the expected rough performance spots given its early state.
The audio in the game, always one of the bright spots of the Def Jam series, will once again draw on the Def Jam catalog and serve up a nice spread of tunes and voice. The ability to import your own tunes adds a whole new dimension to the action, which is very cool. As far as voice acting goes, what we've heard so far is sounding pitch perfect thanks to the involvement of the artists. As with the previous versions of the games, the sound effects for beating on people are crunching and rewarding. For those wondering which artists will be lending their voices and likenesses to the action, we've seen T.I., Big Boi, Ludacris, The Game, and Paul Wall mixing it up.
Based on what we've seen, Def Jam Icon is shaping up to be a slick fighter for the PS3 and Xbox 360. The timing is good due to the simple fact that both systems are sadly light on fighters. The unique mechanics have the potential to appeal to both fighting fans and players who don't normally dig the genre. If you're hungry for a fighter or open to a funky new experience, you'll want to keep an eye out for Def Jam Icon when it ships later this year. Look for more on the game soon.