Joystiq impressions: Def Jam Icon

I recently sampled Def Jam Icon in its close-to-finished state; the game will ship for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in March. The title takes a genre in which I have little personal interest -- hip-hop stars like Ludacris, Big Boi, and The Game fighting -- and focuses on the best part of that premise, the music. Each player begins a match after choosing a song for their character. As the fight progresses, the music becomes an integral part of the game, with the leading character's anthem blaring and the background objects bumping with the rhythm. With the right timing to the music, the background objects even cause extra injury.

I saw a lot of potential to this approach, but Def Jam Icon is high on my skeptic sense of hit-or-miss; if the game behaves the way EA describes, it should be a fun fighter. But in my short time seeing the game, I wasn't convinced that the downbeats would match the beat-downs as EA touts, especially with user-imported music. I'll have to wait until I'm able to scrutinize the game on my own to make a fair assessment.

Def Jam Icon's look matches its over-the-top -- dare I say, campy -- premise of hip-hop stars fighting. EA demoed a run-down street with a vibe somewhere between urban and suburban. But instead of pushing complete graphic realism, the Xbox 360 churned out a stylized world around the detailed fighters; fast-moving clouds looked like a time-lapse weather pattern, and destructible background objects fragmented like glass.

The world animations matched the lead player's song fairly well. For example, at the end of every few measures, a car skidded by and a fire hydrant sprayed water; the clouds even moved with the music. The fighters hurt each other most by timing attacks to these background events that were tied to the music; one fighter threw an opponent onto the hydrant, and its spray caused extra damage. The right analog stick was even scripted to control the song -- and background objects -- as if scratching a record; flicking it could rewind the beat so players didn't have to wait around for the next hydrant cycle.

While the game will ship with a selection of music for each fighter, the title seems most interesting when it uses imported music. Songs that play on an Xbox 360 -- like MP3s from an iPod -- will automatically work in the game. (EA promised a comparable method with the PS3 but hadn't yet figured out how it would be implemented.) We began a new fight with When Doves Cry, a song with a lot of beats onto which the game could latch, and a song I wouldn't expect to play in this sort of game.

But the Prince classic didn't feel quite right, and I'm not sure why. I expect that I needed a lot more time with the game -- maybe an hour or two -- to get used to the way the backgrounds followed the beats of the song, assuming the imported track worked as advertised. So it feels way too early for me to make a final judgement about the song import system.

Def Jam Icon's mashup of music and fighting could make it appeal to a wide audience. I look forward importing many different music genres into the final version -- like jazz standards, shoegazer, or goofy power ballads -- and seeing how it fares with each style.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.