Fight Night Champion
Fight Night Champion is the most polished and playable boxing simulation ever released,
- Excellent feel and flow to the combat, visual tweaks make this the best-looking entry by a wide margin, Champion mode is a solid new twist on the formula
- Legacy mode needs a serious facelift, online modes lack the wow factor of EA's other fighter, final boss fight in Champion mode is terribly frustrating
Fight Night Champion lives up to its boastful billing, and is easily the best installment in EA Sports' celebrated boxing sim series.
Drama is an indelible aspect of popular sports, and boxing is no exception. Whether a fight serves a metaphor for our times and the world around us -- such as when Joe Louis toppled Max Schmeling amidst the chaotic lead-up to World War II -- or the confident boasts of legends like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson grab our hearts and minds, what happens outside the ring can often seem as important as a knockout punch.
Powerful fiction has spawned from boxing's potent concoction of physicality and emotion, and Fight Night Champion represents the first time gaming's entered that particular ring without compromising the tale to accommodate created fighters. Granted, the Champion narrative mode is just a small part of the total fighting experience, but it's clearly a turning point for a series that continually comes ever closer to mastering the art of the sweet science. It's also the first thing you'll experience when you load up the disc, as the game immediately throws you into the corner of Andre Bishop, a prison boxer looking to survive a grimy battle against a tatted-up goon drawn up as a faux Neo-Nazi.
When your grizzled trainer commands you to "Knock the f**ker on his ass," it's clear that Champion isn't courting the fresh-faced kids of the world. No, Fight Night Champion takes advantage of its newfound "Mature" rating with extensive cursing, more realistic injuries, and dripping wounds that stain shorts and ring floors. Bishop's savage beating in the showers following the bout only confirms this darker direction for the series, but you'll quickly find out that he was a good kid -- a promising pro near the top of his game who pissed off the wrong shady promoter and wound up framed for a felony.
You'll relive his initial glory days through a series of flashback fights, and once you're in the familiar gyms and venues, it becomes quite evident that Fight Night's in-ring action has seen some serious tweaks since we last traded blows in 2009's Round 4. Enhanced animations and a helpful dose of motion blur help the game pop like never before -- even the flowing shorts might capture your gaze -- and the dynamic camera brings a new level of speed and momentum to the proceedings. Plus, the series finally adds a referee into the mix for an appreciated bit of authenticity.
But Champion more notably tinkers with the way you experience the combat, thanks to the newly branded Full Spectrum Punch Control analog scheme. Rather than cranking out elaborate stick motions for uppercuts and the like, you can simply flick the right stick in one of 12 directions to trigger six punches from either arm. It's simplified, no doubt, and may result in tossing unintended punches, but at least you'll always be throwing something; and you can swap to the buttons in a heartbeat as needed. But it's the other notable tweaks that really improve the feel and flow of the game. Exaggerated haymakers are out, replaced by a heavy punch modifier button, plus one-punch knockouts and varied stun states bring a bit more unpredictability to the action. And being able to finally punch out of the block without delay is an absolute godsend. All of these enhancements on top of Fight Night's already rock-solid fighting engine makes it far and away the best simulation of the sport I've ever experienced, and an absolute joy to play in the ring.
Andre Bishop's initial rise and fall expectedly gives way to a pulsing tale of redemption and second chances -- with the CG cut-scenes augmented by live-action clips featuring ESPN's Brian Kenny -- and while the beats are familiar throughout, the storytelling is surprisingly sound, despite a lack of significant character development. Beyond the sharp production values, what keeps the Champion mode running strong throughout the five-hour tale are entertaining gameplay twists, such as needing to win by knockout to overcome bribed judges, or favoring your left hand when you bust the right. But it nearly unravels at the end with a boss fight that's heavily structured to a fault, not to mention egregiously difficult. The 30+ minute showdown inundates you with round-specific challenges, such as simply surviving, attacking the body, or protecting a cut, but the inability to directly impact the course of the fight until the game throws the thumbs-up is incredibly frustrating. Should EA attempt another Champion mode in the next Fight Night or MMA entry, I implore them to consider that user choice and interaction need to hold greater weight than scripted shenanigans, especially in a fighting game.
Standard exhibition and online matches starring aforementioned all-time legends like Ali and Tyson -- plus recent favorites, including Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton -- are still thoroughly entertaining, especially with the numerous new gameplay tweaks. But compared to the pomp of Champion mode, the Legacy career option is starting to show its age, as the menu-heavy progression seems largely unchanged from Round 4. New training options and an XP-based system give you more control over your fighter, but other additions (like sponsorships and alternate training gyms) lack significant purpose. Creating a fighter and building him into a beast of a champ is still a worthwhile pursuit, but the mode feels heavily antiquated at this point.
Champion's online options are thankfully improved for the better here, though, with the ability to win varying belts and awards, as well as join online gyms with pals and take part in seasons and tournaments, along with rival gym challenges. However, it's hard to ignore what's not here, and that is a feature to rival EA Sports MMA's brilliant Live Broadcast mode, which spotlighted the best fighters in weekly bouts with real-life commentators calling the action. A Fight Night version would have been a perfect fit for boxing's brand of boastful machismo, so I'm puzzled by its exclusion; but Champion is still the absolute best way to experience pretend pugilism, online or not.
And that's what it boils down to: Minor niggles aside, Champion stands alone as the most polished and playable boxing simulation ever released, with the new adjustments and additions easily prolonging Fight Night's relatively uncontested reign over the genre.
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