If you have zero interest in the world of hip-hop, then there is no reason whatsoever to lay down $60 for Electronic Art's new "Def Jam Icon." The game, starring the biggest names from the real world label like Lil Jon, Big Boi, and E-40, celebrates every last polarizing facet of the hip-hop industry (and it is an industry) from violence, hard language, the pursuit of ridiculous displays of material wealth and misogyny.
However, if you are down with the theatrics that fill hip-hop outlets like BET and The Source, then EA's over-the-top brawler may just spin in your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 for a good long while.
Although "Icon" is a fighting game, it works to offer something decidedly different than the finesse puppetry of such esteemed fighting franchises like "Virtua Fighter" or "Tekken." Icon's slower pace and street moves — there are very few graceful kicks or punches here — are in tune with the thug lifestyle exalted in the game's soundtrack. Scores are settled with bone-crushing smacks to the jaw and full-body slams to the curb.
Unlike the first two "Def Jam" fighting entries that strung fight scenes together with a loose story, Icon casts you as an up-and-coming mogul in the recording business. Spotted by a manager as raw talent after a club fight, you work dual careers as a paid bruiser and a budding executive.
When you're not smashing faces into speakers and rolling legs under ghost-ridden whips, you must sign artists to your nascent label and plan promotions to guarantee air play and huge financial returns. It's an interesting dichotomy and a sly jab at how the boardrooms in the music business can be more brutal than any street fight.
The fighting is actually pretty solid. The move set isn't huge, allowing players to wade into the fray and pull out a few victories without needing near-religious practice of the controls. By manipulating the right control stick in a manner similar to EA's superb "Fight Night Round 3" — making broad circles or quick-cutting jerks — players can initiate grapples, produce spinning kicks, or unleash a backhand that hurts just to watch.
But EA adds some much-needed depth through the use of destructible environments and DJ scratching. Every set piece is full of objects that can cause great harm when a player is thrown into them. Gas pumps explode. Camera cranes smash skulls. Furniture collapses.
After throwing an opponent close to these hazards, you than then scratch to the beat of the soundtrack with the left stick. Hit the rhythm just right and the results are explosive. Using these together can be immensely satisfying, especially in an online match against a friend over either Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network.
The music portion of the game, however, is pretty weak. You are given small budgets to promote songs from rappers that join your label. It's increasingly strange that a record mogul like the one you portray in-game would directly fight other rappers.
Your character's completely customizable appearance does not seem to factor into your success as a record executive either, even though the game encourages you to visit shops and buy new threads or a variety of bling, such as diamond and platinum grills for your teeth. (Speaking of which, wouldn't a chop to the mouth of a character with grills turn the inside of his lips to hamburger?)
"Icon" benefits from being developed specifically for new-gen systems. On both the Xbox 360 and PS3, "Icon" features incredibly lifelike models of the rappers. But even better are the backgrounds, which rumble and pop along with the music. Roofs are literally raised as the fight — and the soundtrack — intensifies. As the fights drag on, filters wash out colors or apply grit over the camera lens. This is indeed a very stylish game.
Games don't get much more M-rated than "Icon." The soundtrack is all hip-hop hits, almost entirely unedited. That means copious use of the n-word. The rappers let fly with a torrent of obscenities, taunting each other often with an unflattering use of "bitch" over and over. Women in the game are mere objects, just like they are portrayed in many hip-hop anthems, such as Lil Jon's "Get Low." Depending on how you feel about hip-hop, this is a likely deal-breaker for some gamers, no matter how entertaining it may be to throw a rapper's head through a speaker.