Rocky, published by Ubi Soft, is based on the popular films Rocky I-V, the first of which is already a quarter-century old if you can believe it. Since the developers were not limited to focusing on a single film when developing Rocky, fans of the movies can expect to see material spanning the entire series. And as would be expected, the game plays out in chronological order, though most of the bigger aspects of the films are only briefly touched on (like the illness of Rocky’s original coach, for example), so it’s not like a full recreation of the narrative or anything. Instead, it is equal parts Rocky and boxing sim. So while fans of the movies will certainly find a lot to like about it, thanks in part to the franchise to which it is attached, those who aren’t down with the Italian Stallion but do enjoy a good boxing game will still get a kick out of it thanks to the fine job Rage did in recreating the visceral sport of pugilism. Besides, fans of Rocky III’s Clubber Lang will be glad to know that Mr. T is finally getting some work, even if it is only additional royalty checks.
The main mode of the game is movie mode. This mode is split up into five parts to distinguish each movie. These segments consist of four bouts and each bout is with a completely different fighter. The fourth bout in each area of the game is with the main event contender from the films: Apollo Creed (Rocky I & II), Clubber Lang (Rocky III), Ivan Drago (Rocky IV), and finally, perhaps the most cheesily-named of them all, Tommy Gunn from Rocky V. As you defeat these boss-character-type opponents, they will be unlocked in the game’s other modes of play. In total, Rocky will fight over 30 different boxers from the five films, all of them with their own unique theme songs, skill set, and appearance. Not too shabby when you consider the most contenders ever in a Rocky game has been limited to four (the old-school Master System version of Rocky was the one to win that title). But, you say, five movie segments, each with four fighters, is only about two-thirds of the aforementioned 30 boxers you claim the game has. Well, aside from those 20 boxers, you’ll also be able to unlock the various evolutions of Rocky himself over the span of the movies.
The game feels pretty tight in terms of the boxing events and how each fighter controls; kind of like a Knockout Kings-lite. The developers obviously paid a large amount of attention to the particulars of pugilism, and for the most part, their efforts didn’t go to waste. Expect a large assortment of straights, jabs, uppercuts, hooks, and more. The way the developers integrated the ability to dance around the ring and work different angles is great, separating Rocky from the crowd of boxing games with nearly-immobile fighters. To further establish the promotion of diversified strategies when duking it out, you’ll need to take the stamina meter into consideration. Once the stamina meter depletes, you’ll be unable to continuously execute punches, so it’s a good idea to mix up your style a bit, especially towards the latter half of the game. While the game’s cohesive boxing dynamics are pulled off quite well, there are a few potholes in the road to success. Specifically, the ability to time your attacks so that the opponent is vulnerable for the next hit right as he is recovering from the previous punch is what keeps Rocky from being a true contender when compared to other higher-profile boxing games. This cheese-tactic doesn’t always work, but it works often enough that you’ll almost definitely become reliant on it.
Between bouts you are given a chance to hone your skills in five different workouts. These sequences vary widely in terms of control style and are actually quite challenging and fun. Basically they are push-the-correct-button-at-the-correct-time mini-games that come in the form of jump roping, sit-ups, pounding the punching bag, working the angles with a large slab of hanging cow, and performing different types of punches as your coach calls them out. If you find that any particular workout is too difficult for you and that you are not retaining too many stat points for your efforts, you can always opt to “auto-train”, which will give you five of the ten possible stat points. Every category is important, and improving your stats actually makes a noticeable difference in the ring, though speed and power take top rank in terms of overall usefulness.
Other modes of play include exhibition, which lets you duke it out with the computer or a human-controlled opponent in an off-the-record fight. Sparring mode is all about practicing different punches and combos with a computer-controlled sparring partner. The last mode of play is knockout tournament wherein up to 16 players that you’ve unlocked in the main mode can fight for ring supremacy. None of the additional modes of play offer much entertainment over what can be found in the movie mode though, except of course for the two-player exhibition bouts. In fact, playing against another person is the best way to play Rocky simply because a human will learn and adapt to cheesy techniques much faster than the lame-brain computer-controlled fighters in the game.
The visuals in Rocky are decidedly lackluster. The character models are adequately rendered but the textures and pre-scripted crowds that every fight is laden with are totally dull and seem only slightly optimized over the technologically-impaired PS2 version. But the developers did do a great job in terms of character design: every single personality in the game has all the trademark aesthetic qualities of their big screen counterparts. The animation borders on mediocrity with contact-detection that greatly reduces the believability of the action, but no 3D boxing game has successfully nailed this aspect of boxing, so I suppose it’s forgivable. The fighter’s faces will slowly accumulate scrapes and bruises as they are pummeled. The facial damage system that is employed in Rocky is actually quite impressive with many levels of visible deterioration. There is occasional slowdown, but it runs at a steady clip for the most part and is barely noticeable.
The audio presentation is much better, with dialogue excerpts taken directly from the films and used in the occasional cut-scene, realistic in-the-ring sound effects, and of course the Rocky theme song is also included. The fact that certain portions of dialogue were taken from the film is appreciated but in a couple instances it sounds completely out of place. Musically, there is quite a bit of diversity thanks to the fact that every fighter, even the dozen plus no-name boxers, come stock with their own introduction songs.
For the most part, Rocky manages to capture the spirit of the films it portrays while keeping the actual boxing mechanics cohesive and enjoyable. Unfortunately, the main mode of the game that allows you to relive the past five Rocky films is disappointingly short, especially when you factor in the cheap-shot facet of the gameplay mechanics. Nevertheless, fans of the franchise will almost certainly be willing to overlook the game’s pitfalls thanks to the basically good boxing experience it purports.