Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA SPORTS
Much in the same way that THQ have managed to monopolise the wrestling genre since No Mercy, so too has EA SPORTS' Fight Night series been the only one you can really turn to for satifying boxing action. Sure, we've seen more jokey, cartoonish incarnations of the sport with Punch-Out and Facebreaker, but Fight Night has pretty much ruled the roost when it comes to the serious business of trading punches.
And so it is with Fight Night Champion, arriving as arguably the best game in what has always been a very solid, well polished series. This time around, though, as the name suggests, there's a new game mode in town. Champion mode sees you stepping into the shoes of one Andre Bishop, an amateur butterfly who stings like a bee, as he breaks through into the professional ranks and becomes embroiled in a narrative so clichéd it makes Rocky look like Shakespeare.
But in this instance it's no bad thing really. Although it's shameless plot-by-numbers button pushing, it results in a narrative pantomime in its purest form. Bishop is a tower of nobility, humility and quiet, intense commitment and determination. Rival Isaac Frost is an arrogant animal of a man with no respect for those who come to challenge him. The side characters all fit the boxing movie stock bill as well: the father who couldn't quite cut it, the younger brother who yearns to step out of Andre's shadow and prove himself, the loyal old-timer who's helped train the Bishops for years and, naturally, the expensively attired, ruthless villain of a boxing promoter who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Just as Stallone had us cheering at the screens decades earlier, I found myself rooting utterly for Mr. Bishop. Simple stuff perhaps, but brilliantly executed nonetheless.
What Champion Mode means in gameplay terms is that as the story twists and turns, you find yourself fighting under a myriad of different conditions. In one instance, for example, you'll only really be able to use one hand. In another, you'll have to go for power shots to the body to get anywhere, and with specific fighters might come specific challenges - a deadly right hook or nasty left jab - to look out for. It's a nice mechanic that never really feels too forced until the final battle, where everything goes a bit wrong and you end up spending almost eight rounds trying to completely avoid your opponent. Realistic? Possibly, but that doesn't make it any less anti-climactic. After building up these two characters, and this rivalry, it's a shame that the last battle is something of a damp squib.
That said, Champion Mode is definitely a step in the right direction. The presentation is second to none, with the cutscenes - using the game's massively impressive graphical engine - framed to perfection, aided by some excellent voice acting. That presentation extends to the ring as well. The fighters look fantastic, the crowd responsive. Everything feels the way it should; there's a good weight to the action, that varies perceptibly depending at what weight level your fighting. Blood splatters, phlegm flies, a fighters face will react to the areas you've been hitting. Floor an opponent with a vicious right hook and you might start to see his eye close up.
As with a whole host of other games in the EA SPORTS range, the button vs. sticks debate is another battle to use this game as a staging ground. It would seem that the idea with Fight Night Champion has been to try and offer something for everyone. The face buttons will allow for basic jabs, hooks and uppercuts to be made, but stick fans - and those looking for a wider range and variety to their shots - will be glad to know that directional flicks of the right stick give you access to the boxer's full repertoire. It should be noted that the Full Spectrum Punch Control system has been dumbed down a little bit from Round 4, but it does make for swifter execution with no real sacrifice in terms of punches on offer. Some might find it a little less intuitive, but I'd argue that it certainly makes a little more sense for the newcomer.
Legacy Mode returns - creating a boxer from scratch, or modifying an existing legend - and once again sees you going from zero to hero by smashing your way through a whole bunch of fight unti lyou earn the title Greatest Of All Time. There's some statistical micromanagement to be done - taking a care to not tire yourself out too much with training and promotional events before a big fight - but also some neat RPG-lite elements that sees you earning XP from fights and sparring sessions, picking which shots to rank up, and how to mould your fighter to suit your playing style.
Take the fight online and there are a whole host of things to do. You can link up with friends and their created boxers to form an Online Gym, slugging it out and earning XP as you do so. There are leaderboards to scale and titles to be won and lost and, best of all, Rivalry Matches to be made with other gyms so you can see exactly who the best is and swipe a massive bundle of delicious XP swag in the process. The online battles, more or often than not, I found to be far more satisfying in terms of tactical fighting than the AI fights, which too often developed into moderate happy-slapping as a result of the new slicker control system.
This brings me on to a few criticisms of the game. First of all, there's just no excuse for the amount of input lag at times. Although the footwork feels right most of the time, weaving is an utter arse to pull off and you need to be very precise, which doesn't sit so well with the new punching system. Flashing jabs feels incredibly natural, but the speed with which you can now execute uppercuts and hooks - punches that take longer to start and finish in terms of animation - makes for a fair bit of input lag and often you'll find your opponent stepping back as you flail at thin air for a few seconds. It's clear that there's been something of an emphasis on aggressive play, but too often that simply equates to something of a slugging match. If anything you could almost say that the discrepancy in sensitivity between your fighter's hands and their feet - the former now overly sensitive, the latter actually pretty sluggish - compounds the problem.
There's also just not enough on offer here to fully recommend. Champion Mode is a great addition, but I'm the slowest gamer in the world and I still managed to rattle through it in under 3 hours. Legacy is still entertaining, but shines far less brightly by comparison and, although there are plenty of community options when you leap online, solo players might feel a little hard done by. It's here that I feel THQ and EA could learn from one another. The former has really mastered the art of supreme content delivery, narrative-driven gameplay (however barmy) and user customisation, but is really starting to look fairly shabby. The latter has certainly made steps towards delivering a more interesting, fuller package, but whilst it looks absolutely fantastic (although I did find the odd occasion when the screen would momentarily freeze), there's not a great deal to actually see.
Ultimately, it's a game that's certainly worth a look if you're a fan, although Round 4 stalwarts might find themselves yearning for their old control system, if only for Champion Mode, which surely points a way forward for the series. I actually quite like the new control system. Sure, sometimes it results in me throwing a few too many punches, but it makes combination work a lot of fun, and you still have to look for your opening on the higher difficulty levels. It's a strong contender, to be sure, and the lack of competition helps. But it's not quite the finished article just yet.
- Stunning presentation
- Tweaks to Legacy Mode are welcome
- Champion Mode is a big winner...
- ...but really very short.
- Control system might not be to everyone's taste
- Punching now a bit too responsive, footwork seems really sluggish at times
The Short Version: I like Fight Night Champion, I really do. It's gorgeous to behold, the animations are smooth and Champion Mode is a glorious marriage between story and gameplay. But a divisive control system, inconsistent input sensitivity and a slight lack of content mar the experience. It's probably the best boxing game out there, but it's not quite champion material just yet.