The following is based on a true story...
I was known as "The Warrior" and woe betide anyone stupid enough to step into the ring with me. My record was 7-0, all wins coming via knockout. I'd just been sponsored, money was coming in, and I was moving up the ladder... life was good. Then I ran into Fritz Perkins.
Fritz cleaned my clock, knocked me out cold in the third... and do you know why? Because I foolishly went to a party from my sponsor a week before the fight. Apparently I had such a good time that I couldn't get my stamina back up in time for fight night. My punches had nothing on them and I looked like a zombie as I stumbled about the ring. All Fritzy had to do was wear me down then land that one sweet shot that left me reeling... and I had no one to blame but myself!
Boxing may have fallen off the public radar over the last 20 years but EA Sports endeavors to capture some of its forgotten glory with Fight Night Champion. Not only is it an impressive boxing sim, but the all new 'Champion' mode provides an engaging, dramatic story to accompany the fisticuffs.
Once you step into the ring, veterans of the franchise will immediately notice the change in the 'Total Punch Control' system previously used in the series. 'TPC' offered unprecedented control over your boxer. Basically, you had to move the right analog stick in a close approximation to the movement of your fist were you actually to throw a punch (for a jab you'd press the stick up and slightly to the left, but for a hook you'd move it to the side then roll it around to the top). While I thought this was intuitive enough, it wasn't for everybody.
Fight Night Champion now gives you a choice. Either use the face buttons, which are now mapped to different punches, or use the right analog stick again. But this time around, 'TPC' has been replaced by 'FSPC' or Full Spectrum Punch Control. Instead of trying to mimic the punch, you can simply flick the stick in different directions for different punches. For example, flicking the stick up is still a jab, but now to throw a hook you just flick it to the side. Flicking back makes your fighter throw an uppercut. What's clever about this is depending on the angle you flick the stick, your fighter will throw the punch at a different angle. The practical application of this means that you have more options in attack as you can now throw an overhand right as opposed to a simple right hook.
Regardless of which system you prefer let me be perfectly clear about this... Fight Night Champion takes practice. Be forewarned, the learning curve is pretty steep here. 'FSPC' is good, don't get me wrong, but it took me a while to get used to mostly because I had so much practice with the previous set up. It really comes down to what feels right to you.
In a way this makes the game more accessible for a casual audience. However, I found Fight Night Champion to be more harshly realistic in regards to the actual boxing. This makes for a bit of a weird dichotomy. Sure, you can get by for a while mashing buttons or frantically moving the analog sticks about higgledy-piggledy and flailing around in the ring, but that strategy will only get you so far. Before long you'll reach a level of competition where that just doesn't fly. And trust me, at that point you'll promptly find yourself flat on the canvas.
To reach the upper echelons you need to actually know something about the sweet science. Learning to counter punch successfully is essential. You can put more 'oomph' on your shots by pressing the right bumper, but you've really got to keep a close eye on your stamina. Stamina is a much greater factor this time around. If you get tired in the ring your opponent will take advantage of the fact, especially in the later rounds.
As good as the action is, it's not quite perfect. The hit detection is a bit... well, hit and miss. Sometimes it seems like glancing blows do incredible damage while a flush shot to the jaw would hardly phase my opponent. One instance in particular stood out in my mind. I had been challenged by Jermain Taylor (a real boxer and former title holder). In the first round I caught him with a hard left hook and he was out cold! Then they showed the replay and it was clear my punch went behind his head. In slow motion it looked more like I was gently pulling him in for a one-armed man hug.
You can jump in the ring right from the get go and play an exhibition with a whole slew of famous fighters. Ali and Tyson are the poster boys but plenty of other fighters from different eras have been included. You can even use them in the career mode, now dubbed 'Legacy' mode. Personally, I love being able to create my own character in these sorts of games and play out my sports hero fantasies, so I naturally wanted to play as myself. I created my in-game persona (the player creator isn't terribly impressive, but there is a fair amount of customization available), and fought in a brief amateur tournament to prove I was ready for the big time. Once you start your career proper it's basically all menu-driven as you pick opponents, enter training, and go to events before lacing up your gloves on the big night.
Training consists of "active" training modes that are essentially mini-games where you practice certain skills and earn points that translate to experience points. That XP, which you also earn in fights, is then spent on a basic upgrade system where you improve specific punches (right hook, left uppercut, etc.) or things like your chin and heart (improves your ability to take a punch or get up after being knocked down). The further you upgrade, the greater your stat increase. At certain levels, depending on your chosen style, you are granted bonuses like one punch stuns or even flash knockouts.
Then there is "passive" training, which is really no more than a menu-driven stat boost that gets you ready for your next fight. When you actively train it takes 50% of your stamina, passive training takes between 10% and 30%. Or you can rest and recover 80% of your stamina. Keep an eye on how long you have before you fight, making sure to rest that final week (as I mentioned in the beginning, much to my chagrin). Then you're set to step into the ring and get ready to rumble! And then you do it again... aaaaaaand again.
As much fun as the action in the ring is, I find it perplexing that the so-called "Career mode" doesn't have more personality. Gone is the "In your corner" mini-game where you had to try and heal your fighter between rounds; now it's done automatically. At first I was relieved about this (I was never a fan) but then I realized that those breaks in the action were actually important because of the interaction with your trainer. It somehow made it feel more personal. There is no real rivalry system in place either which is, as far as I'm concerned, a quintessential part of boxing. Those small touches allow for greater immersion in a game, and for me it was noticeably absent in 'Legacy' mode.
Of course, EA made up for this with the all-new 'Champion' mode. In this playable narrative you fight as Andre Bishop, an up and coming young fighter who goes pro after winning the gold medal in the World Championships as an amateur. He's widely regarded as one of the top prospects in his generation. But boxing is as much a business as it is a sport. When Andre crosses the wrong guy, well... things don't work out as well as he would have liked.
I don't want to spoil anything so I'll leave out the details, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. You're cleverly thrown into situations throughout Andre's career that basically teach you as you play. In one instance you might need to knock your opponent out to get the publicity you deserve, or another time you might fracture your fist against your foe's face and be forced to fight one handed for the rest of the bout.
I hope EA considers doing something similar with their other sports franchises simply because it's just something different. As fans of modern sports games often complain, I'm sick of shelling out full price for a new coat of paint and the most recent rosters while the core gameplay doesn't receive any noticeable upgrades, so I'm happy EA went out on a limb here.
Andre's tale is incredibly engaging, but also sadly predictable. Everything is pretty much copied word for word from the boxing movie lexicon. It's all here: the lovable yet tough-as-nails old trainer, the corrupt, insidious promoter, and the unsympathetic cocky champion. But what sold it for me was the level of presentation... the cutscenes look awesome. They even have ESPN's 'Friday Night Fights'! It goes a long way towards selling the experience and makes the cliched familiarity of the story forgivable.
I feel I should mention that Fight Night Champion is also the first serious sports game that is rated 'M' for Mature. The 'Champion' mode is rife with profanity. The boxing is brutally realistic, especially during a couple of "bare-knuckle" fights. Just a warning...
Graphically, Fight Night Champion is really impressive. The characters, especially in the 'Champion' mode, look fantasic. The facial animations are among the best I've seen, and that's saying something considering this is a sports game. Along with some pretty decent voice-work, the animations convey Andre's Bishops emotional journey on a believable level. In the ring, they are just as good. The realistic damage is impressive with bruises swelling as the fight wears on. The slow motion replay, when you really catch one, is definitively brutal. You'll wince as you watch the impact ripple across the poor bastard's face as the sweat explodes into the air. Hell, even the jiggle physics on the chunky fighters (and the ring girls) are amazing... it's almost mesmerizing... like smacking a jello mold.
Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore are back as the commentary team. For the most part their banter flows seamlessly as they call the fights. But ol' Teddy's repertoire of 'home-spun' sayings are... well, a bit peculiar. That's okay though, he's the same when he calls real fights so at least they got that right. The soundtrack is as good as we have come to expect from EA Sports titles.
As a fan of the pugilistic arts, I've played every Fight Night game that has come along. It has been two years since we last stepped into the ring, and a lot has changed. The new 'FSPC' system takes a bit of getting used to, but after some practice you'll be layin' fools out left and right with your left and right. The 'Champion' mode is fantastic, EA is really on to something here. Not only is the classic "hard-luck" boxing cliche still an enjoyable roller-coaster ride, the top notch production values really draw you in making it more credible. Now, if only we could have some sort of hybrid between the 'Champion' and 'Legacy' modes so I could be the one to be in the middle of the drama. As it stands, Fight Night Champion is the best in the series to date for me, making the sweet science all the sweeter.
P.S. Oh yeah, remember Fritzy? I challenged that punk to a rematch straight away. I made sure I trained hard and had a good nights sleep the week before the fight. And I beat... his... ASS! Knockout in the second. Hit im' so hard with a left hook he took five steps back before falling on his butt! Served the bugger right, messing up my undefeated record...