Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: March 1, 2005
I am not much of a boxing fan. Sure, Muhammad Ali is one of my heroes, but more for his social impact rather than his pugilistic presence. I loved Ken Burns' documentary on Jack Johnson too, but other than that I am rather unschooled when it comes to boxing. That being said, I think I'm going to be paying more attention to this sport after having played Fight Night Round 2 (herein referred to as FNR2).
FNR2 is not your typical fighting game. This game focuses more on the tactical and strategic elements of boxing than the brawling that we all see on HBO. The whole premise of the game is based around a boxer that you build, bring through the amateur ranks and then turn pro to go for a title belt or two, or three and even unify different weight divisions. Along the way, you'll earn money to keep your training staff, enhance your entrances and tack on some eye candy to your entourage. All and all, FNR2 is quite a polished package from front to back.
The first aspect of FNR2 that impacted me was the game's obvious depth. The controls are easy to write off as simplistic, but once you get in the ring you'll quickly find the controls to be comprehensive yet intuitive. You use the left thumb stick to move and the right to control your punches. The left shoulder buttons are used to taunt and weave while the right shoulder buttons allow you to block, parry or use an illegal shot. The Total Control Punch System works very well.
While I am not very fond of the Dual Shock 2's loose analog sticks, the method of tapping and swinging the stick make for an easy method of stringing together dizzying combos or winding up for a knockout blow. Blocking is an issue of anticipating; however, parrying a shot is an art of timing. Leaning in and out to weave your way into your opponent's guard or to dodge and duck shots is a dramatic affair in itself. Be warned: use your blocks, bob and weave but most importantly don't forget to parry. Parrying is perhaps the key to this game because it renders your opponent defenseless. Likewise, throwing the same combos or opening with the same punch leaves you open to being countered by parrying which the AI (even at medium levels) uses to great effect.
The best aspect of FNR2's control scheme is that it allows you to box. You can stand toe-to-toe and slug it out, but what is more satisfying and more likely to result in your victory, is out boxing your opponent and throwing him off his game. Cornering faster opponents and cutting them off from using the ring is crucial as are body-shots for nimble boxers. Likewise, if your going up against a tank who throws hook after hook after upper-cut then you need to keep on your toes and keep moving so that his power punches can't land. FNR2's controls, no matter which way you configure them, allow you to adopt the best strategy for your opponent. That alone is testament to a refined game and the key to FNR2's success in the ring.
In between bouts, you can pick up new trunks, gloves, shoes, mouth-guards and foul-guards. While these accoutrements are nice to look at, the also carry with them bonuses. A good pair of high tops affords you better agility in the ring while a better mouth-guard allows you to absorb headshots. All the while, you can look forward to unlocking new gear with special events such as "For the Kids" charity boxing matches or the Everlast sponsored event.
A nice design decision by EA was to leave unlocked items unlocked even if you begin a new career as spending time unlocking new gear can inadvertently sabotage your career since these special events eat up time and you can find your fighter too old to really compete for the titles you have been working towards. The only bummer is that there isn't much balance between types of items. You can unlock dozens upon dozens of new trunks and shoes, but only about 15 different pairs of gloves are available and only five different mouth-guards can be bought. I'm being picky, but I would've liked to color coordinate my mouth-guard with the rest of my ensemble, but then again, I guess it isn't that big a deal. The only time you'd notice your mouth-guard's color is if it's flying across the ring and if that happens, well, just don't let that happen.
Another great strength for FNR2 is the custom boxer builder. Just about every aspect of your boxer's face and head can be molded into just about any shape or size you can manage. My boxer actually looks kinda like me and it's frightening to see myself get pummeled so brutally sometimes. My mother even cringed when she watched me get knocked out and spit blood as I fell to the mat. You can further change your boxer's appearance based on what kind of training you focus on. Focus on speed and your boxer will be lither and slender whereas weight lifting will make your boxer into a hulking tank.
Speaking of training, there is a great deal of consideration and energy invested into this aspect of the game. Instead of choosing different types of training, you go through one of three mini-games. You can practice on the combo dummy to increase you hand-speed and agility or you can smack a heavy bag to work on your overall physique or you can weight train to increase your strength and stamina. I would've liked to see a little more diversity in the mini-games. Perhaps jump-roping or a speed bag would have been nice. Being that there are only three mini-games, they can get tiresome after a long career.
You can skip the training games by having your boxer do it on his own, but the benefits won't be as great and there is a chance you might get injured and actually lose rating points. Once you boxer turns thirty, training will not have the same benefits as your career begins to wear on your body. This makes training very important as the better you do in these games, the more rating points you get and if you're aging you need these points to keep your boxer in shape or else he'll get slow and fat.
There is another mini-game which occurs during the bout. In between rounds you have the Cutman mini-game which gets to be crucial in later fights when you are going to take damage no matter how good you are. The Cutman game is a rhythm game where you have to reduce swelling or seal up cuts. This can be made easier by hiring a better cutman before the fight and this aspect of the game can prove to be really important as the referee will stop a fight if you or your opponent is bleeding too much. It doesn't happen often but it sucks if it happens to you.
For a PS2 game, FNR2 looks fantastic and sounds great. The soundtrack is limited to an album's worth of music and none of it is too great, but the crowd noise, announcer and the sound effects are as good as I imagine they could be. The announcer occasionally get the call wrong, but the announcer's tenor and line lend the game's feel more to a real boxing match.
Likewise, your corner's advice between rounds feels authentic and is generally on point. Load times are a bit of a drag, but nothing egregious considering the detail that goes into the models and the arena backdrops, all of which are animated and populated well enough with a diverse feeling of atmosphere. Fights range from underground loading docks to Atlantic City to the Congo. I've played the X-Box version of FNR2 and graphically the PS2 version is not so far off. The biggest difference can be detected in the framerates and the backgrounds are not as animated as the Xbox version. While the framerates are slower, the PS2 version is eminently playable and this hardware issue is made up by dropping a few frames of animation to keep the game's timing intact.
FNR2 is one of those games that comes along about once a year and reminds me why I love gaming. I had heard good things about this game but wasn't too keen on its release because of my lack of interest in boxing. Let it be known that I felt the same way about soccer until I played a little game called FIFA '97. Since then I've become a staunch Arsenal supporter. I can easily say the FNR2 has quickly reached the top of my favorite games list for this year and might even reign as my favorite sports game of the year and despite Resident Evil 4 and Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath still being unfinished, FNR2 eats up just about all of my gaming time right now. Pulling away from my TV to write this review was difficult enough.
I'd recommend FNR2 to any PS2 sports fan even if boxing is not your bag, as EA has a game that is fun no matter how you look at it. Even with its strategic elements, you can fire up a two-player bout and beat up a friend or link up with someone with the modem. FNR2 definitely has the goods, however if you own an Xbox as well, then I'd recommend the Xbox because of the visuals and framerates and true Dolby Digital Surround sound. Even so, don't despair if you only have the PS2 version, as FNR2 elevates boxing games from a niche genre to a legit market.
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