In comparison to other mainstream sports, boxing is perhaps underrepresented in video games. It seems that the sport can’t support an annual franchise even though yearly iterations are the norm for FIFA, NFL, NHL, NBA (until recently, at least), MLB and now even mixed martial arts games. It’s been almost two years since Fight Night Round 4, and Round 3 was over three years before that, so Fight Night Champion arrives with a weight of expectation from boxing fans who are rightly hopeful that their sport can now find a regular schedule in the video game calendar.
The game is funnelled towards the new titular Champion mode. When you put the disc in for the first time it will automatically push you into that game mode: you are placed, as a young middleweight called Andre Bishop, into the middle of an amateur tournament where you will be given the briefest of tutorials by way of an introduction.
This new mode is the logical place to begin the review too, then. Amid the new control mechanism and the grittier look of the game, there is a story mode. This is an odd decision for most sports games and it is perhaps only possible due to the already fragmented world of professional boxing (licences are acquired individually via the boxers, rather than via any professional body). Can you imagine a story mode in FIFA which features a corrupt sports agent and a Chairman offering bungs?[drop]The story plots the rise of Andre as he embarks on his professional career, only to become unwittingly embroiled with a corrupt promoter and find himself in prison. You must fight your way back to the top, dealing with family issues and more corruption along the way. It’s not a particularly lengthy mode (around 5 hours for just over twenty fights) but it is engaging and it gives you a sense of purpose behind your fights. You have a hero to fight for in the genuinely likeable Andre Bishop and that’s something that no other sports game can boast.
Champion mode also uses situational challenges to further spice things up. For example, one fight sees the corrupt promoter bribe the referees to call low blows for almost any body punches meaning you have to keep your punches above the neck. Another sees you break your right hand and have to knock out your opponent using only your left. It’s a very clever way to add extra interest to the somewhat cliched but entirely compelling mode.
Legacy mode, the beefed up career mode that was introduced in Round 4, still exists and this is where you will create your own boxer (or choose from the game’s extensive roster) and take him through the process of fighting and training his way up the ladder. Creation elements are as comprehensive as you would expect from an EA title, with the photo import function present and doing a reasonably good job of getting your face in the game, albeit a little alien in appearance.
We found that the difficulty levels were much greater in Legacy mode than in any other. It is possible that the low starting attributes and misallocation of experience points contributed to this feeling but it seemed like a constant struggle with our created boxer whereas Champion mode and the simple exhibition fights were almost too easy. Even the training exercises in Legacy mode weren’t particularly well explained and we found ourselves failing them a number of times due to unclear on-screen prompts and hints (there is no manual in the retail box either).
Of course, starting from the bottom is supposed to be tricky and, once you find your rhythm and know what kind of fighter you play best with, you will be able to assign the earned (via training and fighting) experience points to the relevant areas of your man’s attributes.
Along with this levelling system is a system of gyms around the world that train you harder and more effectively in certain areas of your conditioning. Pay for a training camp in Philadelphia and you will get a little bit tougher. Go to Big Bear and your stamina-related attributes will improve more. This adds an extra layer of management but in all honesty, it didn’t make a huge difference during the early stages and by later stages of your career you will be able to afford whatever camp you want to attend so the decision of quality of training versus cost becomes moot.
The new Full Spectrum Punch Control system is likely to split opinion too. On one hand, it feels more fluid and precise than previous systems but on the other, it is more inviting to error and some might complain that it allows for continual blocking.
Punches are thrown using the right analogue stick, with jabs and straights being up on the stick, hooks and crosses to the horizontal extremes and hookercuts and uppercuts thrown with a downward motion. The left side of the range of motion controls your fighter’s left hand while the right obviously controls his right hand. There are shoulder buttons to hold for modifying body punches and applying a little extra power to all of your punches (including, for the first time, jabs). You can still opt to use the face buttons to throw punches but it doesn’t feel quite as intuitive this way.
Throw too many wild punches and your stamina meter will rapidly deplete. Failure to make clean contact results in less of a recovery (stamina and damage meters both recharge) between rounds and as your maximum stamina depletes over time you will naturally become less effective. Stamina has an effect on how quickly you can raise your block too so not only will you become less effective at dealing damage, you’ll become more prone to taking it.
This new simplified control scheme paves the way for the shoulder button blocking system. If timed right it can be used to parry your opponents blow and leave him open for a few counter punches. If it’s not quite timed correctly it’s almost useless and if the button is held you end up with a kind of always-on block that is effective maybe a third of the time, depending on your positioning with the left stick.[drop2]Weaving is performed by holding the low punch modifier (L1 or LB, depending on your console) and moving the left stick. This can be immensely useful for avoiding punches and tiring your opponent, as can the technique of flicking the left stick (with no button held) to dodge and lunge. If you get stunned a quick pull on both triggers clinches or the left trigger will push your opponent away.
Rounding out your controls are the head butt, low blow, taunt and switch stance commands mapped to the d-pad. Taunting leaves you wide open for a touch too long, in our experience, but it does often rile your opponent into flying towards you with a little too much on show. The head butt and low blow are there for authenticity and you will authentically get disqualified if you use them too much. Switching stance proved to be a very effective way to confuse most opponent’s defences, just as it would in real life.[buy]Pros:
- Looks and sounds fantastic.
- Champion mode is engaging and compelling.
- Legacy mode should keep you playing for months.
- Difficulty seems imbalanced across game modes.
- No physical manual and in-game guidance isn’t particularly clear.