Review: Fight Night Champion

The build up to Fight Night Champion has been very enticing indeed. For some time now trailers and screenshots have shown impressive looking animation and character modelling, but with such a niche sport being aimed at a much wider audience we were keen to find out how EA Canada have managed to bring the gaming masses together, and in the process ended up enjoying a surprisingly tactical punch-out.

Much has been made of Fight Night Champion’s story mode, and that’s precisely where you find yourself when you load up for the first time. Dazed, flat on your back and semi-conscious, you find yourself in a brutal bare handed prison match with nothing but a bit of intuition to guide you. The initial cut-scene blends seamlessly into the action, and so begins a couple of minutes of frantic button mashing as those of you new to the series try to work out just what’s going on. Luckily it’s not a difficult fight, not in the slightest, and as the story moves onto the next fight the introductory rounds turn into a slick tutorial of sorts showing you the ropes (pardon the pun). The story itself grows as you press on through the campaign, twisting and turning with the fairly stereotypical (but well considered) corrupt promoter, greedy brother and cute love interest all getting a hefty airing. Mix in the old “living the dead father’s dream” idea and you get a story which on the surface sounds as cheesy as an Edam convention, but in reality gives you a genuine connection with the characters and makes you all the more determined to fight as hard as you can. This level of story telling is not something we’re accustomed to in sports titles, but it works so well it’s definitely something we’d like to see a lot more of.

Away from the story mode is a comprehensive set of alternative ways to play, of which the legacy mode will take up most of your time. Creating your boxer from scratch you start at the bottom with a relatively weak fighter and through a series of training sessions and fights earn XP to spend on enhancing a wide range of elements such as speed, strengthening your left hook, right jab, whatever. If you’re someone who prefers to dodge and get the occasional quick thump into your opponent then you can customise your boxer to suit your style, equally if you prefer a brutal brawler who just piles in and relies on a strong chin to stay upright then the option is there. No two fighters will ever turn out quite the same.

While you’re creating fighters, it’s worth taking a look at the online championships, where you can take a boxer of your creation online and fight against others to work your way up to be the regional or world champion. The challenge required to be the best is immense, but rewarded suitably with a brilliant alert system which pops up on the screen and tells everyone currently playing the game whenever that region’s champion is playing Fight Night. If you want to be an anonymous hero, you’re in the wrong place.

Also present and correct is the simple Fight Now option, letting you select two fighters from a fantastic selection of the greatest boxers in recent history. Want to see how David Haye would cope against Mike Tyson in his prime? You can do that. You can even give Butterbean an outing to see how he stands up against the Klitschko brothers. This option also extends online giving you a quick and easy online match-up against friends or random gamers, something which is highly satisfying if you’ve got a few minutes spare and don’t want to get too deep in the story or legacy modes.

This is all very well and good, but there’s no point in having some great game modes if the fighting itself feels like a couple of schoolgirls pulling each other’s hair. Fortunately EA Canada have honed the system to near-perfection. The mechanics of the fighting can work in one of two ways. Those who are willing to put the time into learning the finer skills will enjoy the all new Spectrum Control system, giving the right stick a full range of thumps and punches depending on just what motions you pass through your right thumb. Jabs, uppercuts and hooks are all within easy reach with a few smaller varieties in between, and although it takes a little getting used to it won’t be too long before you’re rattling combos together and giving your opponent a fair bit to think about. If on the other hand you fancy an easier way to throw your fists the face buttons are simultaneously mapped to the various punching styles, so if you’re struggling with the stick you can easily switch straight back to the buttons without having to mess with the settings. You’ll also soon find that piling in with nothing but punches lands you in a lot of trouble, and intelligently blocking and dodging will soon reap its rewards if done effectively.

Moves that you input into the fight form a short queue of sorts, giving you the chance to link punches together into devastating combos which, if they connect, can cause substantial amounts of damage. It works pretty well, although there were odd occasions where I accidentally made my combo too long and left myself wide open for a counter-punch. It’s all too easily done and a little annoying at times, but if the combo system wasn’t there it would make the fighting lose its flow so you happily cope with the occasional slip-up. Another slight annoyance which can at times become a major distraction is the referee’s positioning. Seemingly concerned about not getting enough of the limelight, the ref likes to stand between the camera and the fighters blocking your view of the action. For me this happened at least once in pretty much every fight I had and forces you into blocking for a couple of seconds until you can see what’s happening again, and in the harder fights when blocking might not be enough to stop you getting knocked down it can be a crucial problem.

But gripes like this, unfortunate as they are, are just a small blip on an overall brilliantly presented package. The fighters look amazing with muscle and fat rippling with each punch landed, and as the fighters start taking on damage you can see every last bruise, lump or cut in perfect detail. You’ll even see blood staining the bodies and shorts of both boxers as the fight wears on, which is surprisingly satisfying if it’s come from your opponent. The music is your typical Rocky-esque motivational effort but works extremely well in the context of the rest of the action, and there is a satisfying array of thumps, smacks and grunts as the fighting unfolds. The commentary is slick and smooth, much as you’d expect from an EA title, and although there are occasions when the comments don’t totally match what’s happening in the ring, it does a good job at building up the atmosphere.

EA Canada have done a great job with Fight Night Champion. Despite the shortfalls the gameplay is solid and engaging and the story mode is a brilliant addition to the series, even if it is a little short. Combine that with the long-running Legacy mode and all of the extra online gubbins and you’ve got a package which is irresistable for boxing fans and seriously tempting for everyone else. Not quite a knockout, but a convincing win on points.

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