It was bound to happen. We were foolish to think it wouldn't. In fact, the only surprise is that it took this long. Yep, the marketing men have finally taken over gaming.
Maybe we should have seen it coming. After all, for years now gamers have been insulted by the release of titles that attempt to 'tap' into our likes and dislikes. Even the old strip poker games on the PC were nothing but gimmicky money-spinners. Not that I ever played them or anything.
But Def Jam Vendetta is a real slap in the face. If one actual game designer had a hand in the devising of this product, I'd be very surprised indeed. And the result? Well, it doesn't make for pleasant reading...
This Smacks of something else...
EA's BIG label has been treading on thin ice from the word go. Its use of over-the-top stereotypes is forgivable, but by blatantly pitching its games at the 'freestyle' generation they have always been on the verge of a critical mauling. Yet, to their credit, that mauling has been averted by a steady stream of decent titles. In fact, SSX and NBA Street even brought them unexpected acclaim.
Not this time though.
If Hulk Hogan and Eminem were forced into an unholy union, Def Jam Vendetta would be the horrible result. The theory: take two hugely popular American fads - wrestling and gangsta' rap - and blend them into a great game. The reality: a pitiful sellout.
To put it simply, Def Jam is Smackdown with rappers for wrestlers. Once in the ring, the Vendetta characters fight so like their WWE counterparts that they almost seem like castaways from the federation. Press Square a few times and they enter into a punch/kick combo. Tap X and a grapple is initiated; once in a grapple, Square and X (combined with different directional movements) lead to various moves. Press Circle and opponents are thrown off the ropes. The L1 and R1 buttons are used to block and counter. If this were simply a basis for something more, then perhaps Def Jam wouldn't reek of plagiarism, but it isn't. It might as well be a WWE spinoff. They could call it Shut Your Mouth, Please God Shut Your Mouth.
Of course, it wouldn't be an EA BIG game without a point and trick system, but even this is almost a carbon copy of Smackdown's special moves. Basically, the wrestlers have two important bars to watch. The first is the health bar, which dictates, well, health. Once it's depleted you can be pinned or knocked out. The second is the 'momentum' meter - think of the boost bar in SSX. By performing moves and dishing out damage, points are added to this meter and when it's full your fighter can perform one of two signature Blazin' moves. As you'd expect, these do more damage than usual, plus they can knock out opponents when their health bar is empty.
Along with knockouts, bouts can also be won by submission and, of course, pinning. But submissions can be so time-consuming to perform - you have to repeatedly put a wrestler into locks and holds until a special 'limb' meter is depleted - that there's almost no point attempting them, which leaves pinning as the main route to victory.
To explain why achieving this victory can be so frustrating, a quick rundown of the modes Def Jam offers is necessary. And no, there's nothing new going on. Single Fight is, unsurprisingly, a one-on-one match. Battle Mode meanwhile allows up to four players to fight at once, and Tag Team is two-on-two. It's that simple. In Survival Mode you get to fight continuously against all the bosses you've unlocked in Story Mode.
This Story Mode is the real meat of the game - Def Jam's answer to the Tiger Challenge. After you pick one of four wrestlers, each of whom have varying stats, you are forced to fight a match in order to save your friend Manny (another wrestler) from an Underground kingpin, D-Mobb. From there, you work your way through bout after bout, unlocking new fighters as you defeat them and earning money to top up your stats. Boss fights generally occur every few rounds and usually feature one of the famous names attached to the game, like DMX, N.O.R.E and Scarface. In between victories, story events (if you can call them that) occur in a pitiful attempt to keep the player interested. A pole-dancing sumo champion would've stood a better chance of holding my attention.
On the ropes
The problem with this mode, and the game in general, is that fights can become extremely annoying. Sometimes it seems that no matter how hard you batter the opposing wrestler, they always seem to avoid being pinned until you batter them some more. This is especially true in the boss matches. For instance, within 3 or 4 minutes of a fight I could have an opponent's health down to zero, having performed a special move and floored them. However, despite this, the wrestler is never pinned on the first attempt. Why not? All the requirements have been met, haven't they?
Even more frustrating is that once you attempt a pin and fail in a three-count, the opponent receives a boost to their momentum meter, which means you can attempt a bunch of seemingly valid pins and fail, yet the AI can often proceed to knock you out on the first attempt.
Even when you do have a wrestler in a pinnable state, if they've fallen anywhere near the ropes (and each has a pretty impressive reach) they automatically avoid being counted out by touching them. But, get this - there's no way to drag them away from there. So you have to pick the fighter up and hope that you can throw him into the middle without retaliation. In a tag team match, when the camera zooms out to a truly uncomfortable distance, this gets even more ridiculous. Like I said, it's frustrating.
Not quite as frustrating are the visuals. Sure, the textures seem somewhat grainy, the animation is repetitive and the backgrounds range from poor to pointless, but... wait a second, they are as frustrating.
Wrestling is a genre that relies utterly on visual atmosphere and image to spice up proceedings, yet Def Jam fails miserably on this count. It's not that the characters themselves are so bad - in fairness, very few of the 44 fighters feel like afterthoughts - but the general presentation is certainly below average. Aside from throwing a few remarks at each other before bouts ("I'll break your bones" / "No, I'll break your bones," etc) wrestlers are given no real match buildup. The crowd never sound like they're watching the same fight as you (wouldn't blame them if they weren't), and in the end the whole idea of rappers street-fighting each other is never justified. If you're going to bend reality that far why not add in a 60,000-seater arena with snazzy pyrotechnics and a ring announcer? Strangely enough, a junkyard just doesn't seem as exciting.
On the plus side, any fans of the rappers involved will no doubt enjoy the EA Trax selection, with songs from all the respective artists. However, the disadvantage is a total lack of variety. If you don't like hip-hop, then you have to switch the music off.
Falling on Def ears
So are there any upsides to Def Jam Vendetta? Well, while the game is a complete rip-off of Shut Your Mouth, it does play as well, if not slightly better than the WWE title. Yet despite this, and even though I'm not a WWE fan, I'd still play SYM before Def Jam. Why? For the same reason I'd prefer to watch WWE over real wrestling - because it's got character.
Still, the bottom line is this: if you love hip-hop and the Smackdown series, you are undeniably sorted with Def Jam, so feel free to double the score below.
If you like good games, however, you are not sorted at all.
This is the first time EA BIG have gotten the mix between style and substance truly wrong. But that's what you get for listening to the marketing department - and not the gamers.