Fight Night: Round 3 made most people believe in the next generation of gaming consoles. Although the series had a solid boxing foundation with the previous entries on the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era, the visuals in Fight Night: Round 3 stunned people, especially the slow-motion knockdown punch. The ripples of the skin as the gloved fist made contact was — and still is — impressive. Breaking from the established tradition at EA Sports, it took close to two years before there was a sequel, and while it brought some improvement to the mechanics, it was overshadowed by the return of Mike Tyson to the roster. Another two years have passed, and we now have Fight Night Champion, the first professional boxing title with an ESRB rating of "M." Fans just want to know whether it lives up to the example set by its predecessors.
Rather than start off with a menu of gameplay modes, Fight Night Champion takes a cue from NBA 2K11 and immediately throws you into the Story mode. You play Andre Bishop, a fighter in a prison bare-knuckle brawl. Despite receiving a headbutt from your opponent, you recover and win the fight. The celebration doesn't last long, though, as you are beaten within an inch of your life by your opponent and his crew. As you recover, the clock rewinds to four years earlier, when you won your gold medal in boxing. The story then chronicles your path from boxing champ to convicted chump.
Having a story in sports games isn't a new thing, especially since 2K Games had done it in a boxing game with Don King presents Prizefighter. The presentation of the story, however, is more in line with movies like "Rocky" and "The Fighter" than the competition's documentary style. The cast of characters is similar to those in Hollywood boxing tales. There's an up-and-coming fighter who happens to be the son of a deceased boxer, and his obnoxious brother is trying to follow in those same footsteps. Your trainer happens to be the guardian who stepped in and raised you when your parents passed away. There's a rival boxer, a promoter who will do anything to drag you down, and the promoter's sympathetic daughter. The archetypal characters and plot points are all here, so there aren't any real surprises.
The characters are portrayed rather well, and the story pacing never feels too rushed or too slow. The dialogue and story events take advantage of the "M" rating, but the lines and situations don't feel forced. The story feels fresh although you've no doubt seen its set pieces before. From beginning to end, the story is engaging and will compel you to reach the end to see how it all plays out. It also makes you hope that EA Sports does something similar with the inevitable next iteration of Fight Night.
From a gameplay perspective, Fight Night Champion provides a variety of goals that you must accomplish throughout the eight-hour story. Most of the fights require you to do more than just beat your opponent. In some cases, you'll have to achieve a knockout or knock down your opponent a certain number of times before being declared a winner. Other times, you'll have the deck stacked against you as you fight southpaw or fight with a lower stamina level. These situations not only give the story some interesting turns, but they also make the gameplay experience more challenging than expected, even for veteran Fight Night players who sped through the campaign modes in the older games.
The online mode also saw some big changes and is more in line with the offerings in EA Sports MMA and UFC 2010 Unleashed. You still have standard one-on-one bouts between boxers that only count for leaderboard placement; the online performance for these bouts is quite smooth, so mistakes can rarely be blamed on lag.
Like Fight Night Round 4, Online Championship mode lets you pit your created fighter against others and, ultimately, against the champion of that weight class. As long as you're online, you'll see who holds the championship in every weight class; it gives you a constant goal to shoot for and lets you know how well the champion is doing. There's also the ability to post and download created boxers, so players can share their original creations and fill in missing boxers from the 60+ fighter lineup.
The online gyms are certainly going to be the big draw for the online community. Players can either join other gyms or create their own to hold tournaments that are restricted to gym members. As a gym owner, you also have the ability to hold tournaments against rival gyms and have those stats displayed for all to see. It's a basic start to a clan system for the genre, but it'll be exciting to see what the community does with it and how it will morph in future iterations.
Character customization has also seen some change that might seem trivial to some but essential to others. Game Face is back but has only improved slightly. In the case of the 360, it still utilizes pictures submitted to the EA site or pictures taken from the Xbox Live Vision Camera, so those who have a Kinect as their camera will have to wait for a patch or a new version before it can be used for facial scanning. The tools and options for building your character are quite robust and are inching closer to the levels of customization in recent Tiger Woods PGA Tour games. Everything from cheekbone structure to height and tattoo placement can be tweaked to create the perfect custom boxer or a near-perfect clone of an existing pro. New to this year's version on both consoles is the use of custom music for your boxer. The audio editing tools are basic but do the job well enough since you'll only use a snippet of the song for the ring intros.
Of all of the modes, Legacy mode has seen the least amount of change in Fight Night Champion. The objective is still the same as before: Create a custom boxer and take him from the amateur level to the pros all the way to retirement, hopefully gaining a championship or two along the way. You'll still have to manage your fighter around a rigorous schedule, taking fights and conditioning him to be at his peak before each bout. You'll also have to manage his finances and PR so he can get a bigger take from each fight. For all intents and purposes, it's the same mode from the previous game, so you'll either love the extensive single-player campaign or hate its micromanagement enough to just play through the Story mode and save the game for multiplayer bouts. The training games feel much harder to do properly when compared to the minigames in the older titles. The training is optional, but the difficulty level only further cements one's opinion about whether or not the mode is necessary.
Fight Night Round 4 met some backlash when it was revealed that the analog stick was the only available control scheme. The face button method was patched in later, but by that time, the damage to initial sales had already been done. This time around, the face button controls have been included from day one, but veterans will find other big changes to the controls. The haymaker, a move that was used and abused in online competition, has been replaced with a power punch modifier. When used in conjunction with a punch, it adds more impact to the blow but not as much as the haymaker did.
The effect of losing large chunks of stamina with a missed punch is still intact, though. While swaying out of a punch's way still requires some analog stick movement to go along with holding the left trigger, blocking is much easier because all you have to do is pull the right trigger to initiate the block. Interestingly, the game allows you to keep the trigger held down while inflicting punches; that may be frowned upon by some because it decreases the fast reflexes that were required to survive matches in earlier games.
The biggest change for this year's controls come with the right analog stick. Gone are the sweeping motions to deliver hooks and uppercuts. Instead, flicks of the analog stick dictate the type of punch, including ones that merge two basic punches together, like the hookercut. The result is the ability to deliver more punches in fights and execute some quick combinations in fewer moves. It isn't blazing fast like the Victorious Boxers games, so the series won't become more arcade-like with the increased punch speed. It opens up the possibility of converting more players toward analog stick use, but it becomes problematic for series veterans who have learned all the nuances of analog stick movement. With no option to use the traditional analog controls, veterans will use the old techniques and throw more unnecessary punches until they re-learn the controls for this title.
The Fight Night series has been used as a benchmark for eye-popping graphics, and while this year's version still impresses, it also sports a few flaws. The character models still look impressive both before and after fights, skin textures are sharp, sweat is prominent, and the tattoos are clean. The damage modeling has also been improved. Hair never stays in place, and swelling and bruising seem more detailed this time around. The "M" rating gives the game more freedom to display cuts and other damage types, but don't expect something like Mortal Kombat. Blood flows from cuts and appears on trunks and the canvas, but expect more sweat than blood to fly from hard shots. The animation is much smoother when it comes to the little things like block transitions and punch transitions. Sways don't appear so abruptly, and while things can still be tightened up, the animations are the best the series has seen yet. The same can be said of the infamous body jiggle during knockout blows. It isn't exaggerated but more toned down to fall in line with realistic impacts, and it still impresses anytime you see it.
The arenas also get upgrades, with much better lighting in every venue and better crowd reactions. You'll see more of the crowd stand up when someone is close to getting knocked down. The differences feel more like tweaks than sweeping changes to an already impressive graphical package, but if there is one big flaw, it would be with the addition of the referee. The ref has always been in the series — mostly as the guy who does the knockdown count. In Fight Night Champion, you'll see the ref all of the time but not always in the best light. He'll move around the ring, but he sometimes looks like he's sliding around instead of pacing. He'll also get in the way of the camera, obstructing your view of both boxers for a second. While that may not seem like much, every second counts in boxing, so it's frustrating that you're being hindered by something other than your opponent or your own abilities. Finally, despite the physical presence of the ref in the ring, he only seems to act during knockdowns. Get in a clinch with your opponent, and you'll have to break it up yourself instead of the ref stepping in. It feels like the referee's inclusion in the game isn't as complete as one had hoped.
Many games nowadays come with standard Dolby Digital 5.1 encoding, but this is one of the few sports games that really stresses the importance of surround sound on a game experience. The effects have always had a strong impact in the series. Every punch gives off some deep bass, with accurate punches being the deepest to hit the speakers. The crowd reacts appropriately to the fight, whether they're roaring in excitement as someone gets close to being knocked down or booing when illegal hits are made or hushed when the action in the ring hits a lull. While this is obviously amplified when played in surround sound, it's the cornermen who really push the importance of the experience. Throughout the fight, you can hear them constantly bark out orders to their respective fighters, and while it sounds good in stereo, surround sound really boosts that particular effect.
Speaking of voices, both Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore return for announcing duties, and they sound just as good as ever. Their commentary is more dynamic, with references to fights you've done earlier, and there's a more fluid feel to the dialogue when compared to other boxing titles. There are still some spots where the transition from line to name announcement is staggered, but for the most part, this is the best the sport has at the moment.
Fight Night Champion isn't a perfect boxing game. The addition of the referee is distracting at times, especially since it feels like he wasn't implemented well. Veteran players will lament the fact that their old practices make for a twitchier boxer until they learn the proper control scheme, and the training games aren't exactly exciting. Despite this, there's still plenty to love about the game. The Story mode is engaging, if familiar, and the Legacy mode gives the solo player something to work toward. The online mode performs well, the game still impresses graphically, and the fighting engine feels like a better tweak of what was offered in Fight Night Round 4. Boxing fans, both die-hard and casual, will find plenty to enjoy in this game.
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