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Def Jam: Icon

(Electronic Arts; US: 6 Mar 2007)

Nice Grills, But They Could Use Some Teeth

It wasn’t until I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City that I think that I truly began to appreciate how music and soundtracks could really be used to profoundly affect how immersed a player can feel in a virtual world.  With that game, the effect was profound.  That each car Tommy Vercetti drove came equipped with the familiar sounds of the ‘80s resulted in a very authentic experience of Vice City.  As a result, the world clearly represented a recognizable time period and produced a profound nostalgia for this child of the ‘80s.  In a nutshell, the world felt right because it sounded right.


In part this is why I have been so looking forward to the release of Def Jam: Icon.  Though I have some favorite rap artists, rap has never really been my genre of choice, and, thus, I had not played the earlier games in the series, whose characters and music was not necessarily going to be familiar or appealing to me.  However, the premise of this new iteration of the Def Jam series had been advertised with what I thought was an ambitious and fascinating gameplay premise that the music and soundtrack would not only complement the game, but affect the gameplay itself.


Previews of the game that I had read suggested that the game’s environments would in part be shaped and dismantled by the beats of the music.  This notion seemed promising, given that the game’s themes and characters were driven by rap music’s culture and imagery, and I wanted to see if Electronic Arts could pull off an aesthetic that could wed form and content in this way that the previews were suggesting.


When I actually loaded the game up on my 360, I found myself a bit torn on how well this idea had actually been put into practice. 


Def Jam: Icon is without a doubt a beautiful game both graphically and conceptually.  The character models and environments are stunning looking with a mix of photorealism meshed with some cartoonish 3D modeling that makes environments at once realistic and stylish.  Additionally, the overall concept of the game seems to nicely wed the fundamentals of mainstream rap culture, the quest for bling and booty through the fame and fortune provided by the recording industry.


The game’s story-driven mode follows the rise of a player-created music producer in an often (okay, this a fighting game—always) violent music culture as he attempts to ascend to the heights of icon status in the music industry.  In terms of actual gameplay, what this actually boils down to is a series of brawls between yourself and a number of thugs—sometimes of the nameless variety but some of which are real rap rivals—as you attempt to build a label.


Between battles there are tasks that serve the purpose—in terms of plot justification—of satisfying the demands and concerns of the artists that you are trying to and have signed.  You also get the ability to manage your music label on a hub screen that is represented as your character’s apartment.  From that hub, you can manage your finances, answer e-mail from your stable of artists, business associates, and rivals, and check up on the music charts to see how well your artists’ singles are progressing on the charts.


This economic simulation, while simplistic, is largely what compels you to persist in picking fights with various elements that are mucking with your business and your peeps.  Following each battle, you get the opportunity to see how much money you have earned on your most recent music releases.  Additionally, you can go shopping to acquire better clothes, jewelry, and tattoos, all of which increase your style rating, bringing you that much closer to “icon” status.


This element of building reputation based on style and measuring success based on the bling that you acquire and show off is one seen in other recent games (especially GTA: San Andreas’ sex appeal meter)—but seems extremely appropriate for a game based on hip hop culture where exactly those sorts of consumable goods measure status.  More bling also means more lady friends, and, so, the more style points that you accrue, the more likely you are to unlock cut scenes in which women offer to be your girlfriend.  Girlfriends vary in “quality,” beginning with a stripper, progressing to an up-and-coming hip hop artist, and even to real life video regular Melyssa Ford—the top of the food chain, as it were, of rap “babes.”  Again, girlfriends serve as an extension of bling, raising your style level and bringing you closer to the level of a rap icon.


With all of these elements working so well within the game to generate the blending of a sense of hip hop culture with gameplay mechanisms that simulate so many of its familiar elements—the thug lifestyle, the gangstah lifestyle, and the playah lifestyle—it is a pity that the one feature that I was looking forward to most and is most central to the game’s actual genre—a fighting game—is probably the most underwhelmingly executed.


Music does indeed become the central element in the fights that occur in Def Jam: Icon and the environment does react and respond to it.  Conceptually, this seems like a marvelous thematic concept as it revels in the power of the music itself to affect the world you inhabit.  Fundamentally, what this mechanic boils down to, though, is that certain environmental props within a fighting stage will whip outwards or explode on characters when certain beats are sounded in the songs played as your character’s “soundtrack.”  Thus, the key to fighting in Icon is familiarizing yourself with a song or two and timing things well enough in a fight to avoid these props but to also make sure that your opponent does not—say, by throwing him in front of a set of amplifiers or a stripper’s stiletto heels or a fire hydrant right before it explodes or she swings around her pole or it bursts.  This probably sounds better in print than it actually works out in practice.  Such timing isn’t exactly conducive to free form fighting mechanics.


However, timing is not everything in these battles as, in addition to punching, kicking, and throwing your opponents, you can control the music that is being played at any given time, and also through a special move both called and representing record scratching, you can force these explosive beats to be triggered when you want them to.  Battles then frequently come down to throwing opponents into obstacles and then blasting them with your beats.  It’s a clever idea that unfortunately becomes a singular strategy no matter what fighting style you or your opponent chooses to use during the match.


Charmingly, and also appropriately enough, each opponent has their own soundtrack and you as a character get to choose your own theme to battle with (I am a sucker for the southern drawl rap of Mike Jones, but there are ultimately a host of songs and artists to choose from).  This seems thematically sound as you can generate an anthem for your own thug’s fighting style by selecting from several initial songs and later songs that belong to the artists that you have signed to your label. 


Battles then become a kind of advertisement for your own music as you attempt to wrest control of the soundtrack in each battle from your opponent: firstly, because you have probably become intimately familiar with a song’s beats after playing with one over a series of battles and, thus, are more aware of when the most appropriate places are to be when the environment “explodes”, and secondly, because apparently—though I have been unable to qualitatively confirm this in my own gameplay sessions—you seem to do more damage to opponents when your own song is playing and vice versa.


Again, all of this probably sounds better in print than it works in practice.  It did to me when I read the previews for the game, and it still, fundamentally, sounds like a more than interesting means of wedding gameplay to the thematic qualities of a music driven fighting game.  The problem with the gameplay, though, is that, while the concept is complex, it leads to very simple fighting tactics and a resulting series of repetitive and redundant skirmishes.  Throw, scratch, throw, scratch ad infinitum.


It is a pity because the concept of the game holds so much promise.  Also, the story telling, the cut scenes, and the voice acting is tremendously strong and sophisticated.  The plot has a really excellent twist in the middle, in which the player’s character is thought to have been killed.  His “resurrection” comes in a really neat moment where you have to redesign your appearance at a plastic surgeon with the same tools that you used to design your character at the beginning of the game.  Here again, another tremendous idea for combining gameplay elements with thematic ones as “resurrection” is represented through literal character “redesign.”


Such innovations in storytelling through an interactive medium and the fundamental aesthetic challenges that EA attempted in the game make me long for the game to play as well as it sounds.  However, one hopes that a more thoughtful sequel might achieve the form-meets-content aesthetic while still fulfilling the most pressing need for any game—fun.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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