If, like us, you were looking forward to this latest Def Jam title on the strength of its predecessors, you might be a little put out to discover that ICON bears but a passing resemblance to Vendetta and the excellent Fight For New York. Yes, they all feature rappers fighting but that's pretty much where similarities end. With Aki no longer at the reins, the Fight Night crew have been called in to further the franchise with this third title and while that sounds like it should be a workable substitution, something has definitely gone awry here.
For starters, the larger-than-life approach to the series has been laid to rest, and if you're hoping to see high speed grappling, huge Blazin' moves and mass environmental carnage then you've come to the wrong place. ICON cuts the action back to one-on-one bouts and slows it right down to a crawl, meaning that as close as a fight may get, things are never particularly interesting - not that you'll know how close the fight is, with a lack of status bars leaving you to rely on visual indicators like the odd bruise.
It's also jarring to discover the meagre arsenal of striking attacks per characters. A couple more are assigned to the right stick (a la Fight Night), but the real star move is the grab. This can lead to one of several chronically underwhelming grapple attacks you won't have seen since your playground days or, far more usefully, a directional toss that can put your opponent more or less anywhere in the arena. And why exactly is that so handy? Read on, oh impatient one.
ICON's somewhat misguided new feature is the ability to use music as a weapon and while rhythm action fans may like the sound of this, the implementation is pretty sorry. You have two musical attacks at your disposal. The first changes the music to your own choice of tune for a slight power boost, while the other sees you performing virtual scratching to trigger various environmental effects. The latter is by far the easier to abuse once you know what happens in each stage. Simply toss an opponent into the right area and scratch away to trigger an explosion or similar hazard that does silly amounts of damage and sends the recipient flying. This is pretty much all you'll be doing to win fights, throwing out the odd punch or kick until the opponent blocks then grabbing and throwing them into a dangerous area. Interesting it is not, especially when you're on the receiving end of the same technique from some of the game's later fighters.
Just like the premise itself though, these backdrops are, on the whole, pretty impressive - at least from a design standpoint. The way everything moves with the pulse of the music is, on some stages, quite spectacular. And even though the actual crux of the game might be somewhat weak, you have to wonder what a more experienced music game developer could have done with this concept. ICON is very much a could-have-been, having moved too far away from the rest of the series without getting close enough to the experience such a music/fighting hybrid has potential to be.
But of course, it's not all fighting. The story sees a big shot producer spotting some potential in your created character (after he wins a bar fight) and giving you a job on his label looking after the interests of the artists. This generally involves personal errands (all of which involve fighting) or splashing out cash for their lavish lifestyles, and as the game goes on, you're entrusted with budgeting for some of the label's releases. This is the only part of the game that doesn't even put up a bit of a fight - it's a cheap and simple way of making the player feel involved in a deeper side of the game when all you're really doing is spending money to make more money, as always happens here. The more you invest, the more you make which you can then spend on bling, a new get-up or even a suitably expensive haircut.
ICON may look the business, but if falls down in that most crucial of areas - it makes fighting a chore rather than an enjoyable experience. Granted, you still get to set Sean Paul on fire (which is enough reason to at least have a quick play on a demo pod in your local game shop), but the chances are that a five-minute session will be all the Def Jam you need to convince a sizeable bundle of currency to stay in the warmth of your wallet. The 360 may still be without a truly worthwhile beat-'em-up (roll on VF5) but this is a fault that EA's grotty reinvention of the Def Jam franchise can do very little to rectify.