Summer 2006. We're at Electronic Arts' headquarters in San Francisco for their annual Gamer's Day. Sat in a room the size of a cinema, Kudo Tsunoda - the top man at EA Chicago - leaps on stage to announce that "the sequel to Def Jam: Fight For New York will be on PS3" and that "it will re-define the beat-em-up genre". As mad as it sounds, given the OTT, comic-book-style, visceral thrills of Def Jam: Fight For New York on PS2 (which scored 86% in PSM54), we were inclined to believe him. All they needed to do was add next-gen gloss, a tighter Story mode and a fresh crop of hip-hop stars to make Def Jam on PS3 one of the greatest beat-em-ups in history. Fast forward to 2007 - and neither Kudo, or us, have ever been so completely, utterly, wrong.
Right load of rap
Def Jam Icon - as it's now known - is a mess that sullies all the good work of EA's first two scrappers. Seriously, it's like having Vanilla Ice headlining above Dr Dre and Jay-Z. For some reason EA Chicago have ripped the best bits from the series and replaced them with the 'genre-defining' guff that Kudo exclusively told us about in PSM79. Just to recap, the 'guff' we're referring to is the environment acting as a 'third character' in a fight, and the tacked-on hip-hop mogul 'career' plot - more later. To reach this next generation plateau, EA have ditched all the big name rap stars like Snoop and Ice T, the stylish cartoon visuals and the super-solid fighting mechanics. What we're left with is a shoddy attempt at fusing a lifestyle simulator with a fighter. That's played almost entirely in about three colours thanks to a mental stylistic decision.
So what's happened? Well, the fighting mechanics have been needlessly overhauled, meaning that not only is it worse than Fight For New York, it also feels sludgy and broken. There's little or no difference between say, Lil' Jon or Sean Paul, when it comes to fighting styles. They both have the same move set (save for some subtle animations), so there's no other reason than personal preference to choose one fighter from another.
It barely matters anyway, because all bets are off as soon as you step into the fight zone. All that stuff about the environment becoming a third character is true, in the sense that the arenas attack you via hazards littered about the place.
As the background bass line drops in, lighting frames swing from the ceilings, petrol pumps explode and giant speaker stacks burst in time with the music - and if you're in the way, you're stuffed. You can control these objects by holding w and spinning the right stick. This sounds - and looks - like your fella is scratching the backing track. He mimics hand movements and, at the climax, the bass bursts and activates the environmental hazards, so - in theory - you can cause serious damage to your foe with a well-timed effort.
Sadly, the fighting system destroys any chance of this working. It feels really woolly. Trying to pick off your opponent with strikes and grappling - performed by flicking the right stick up - is frustrating, as your opponent is nearly always just out of range to get a grip.
Still, eventually you will get hold of someone and then your options are limitless. If, by limitless, you mean 'three'. You can a) trip them over, b) slap them with all the force of a damp sock or c) chuck them into a hotspot and pray it'll explode in time. The latter is favoured by AI characters, who do it over and over again. Fights are spent simply bouncing between these hotspots rather than doling out savage beatings. You can't even grapple people when they're on the floor. Argh.