While the UFC and mixed martial arts in general has superseded the sport of boxing in terms of overall popularity, the sweet science continues to mesmerize the controller-laden noids, with Electronic Arts' Fight Night series leading the charge. The best-selling boxing game is answering the bell yet again, this time bringing along a fairly heavy story for its new Champion Mode single-player campaign, as well as upping the ante on the multiplayer side. But, does all of that make Fight Night Champion the G.O.A.T, or simply a goat?
By Troy Mounis
We've seen a concerted effort by sports game developers to combine narrative immersion with annual gameplay-based updates of their franchises, with varying degrees of success. For example, Sony's NBA series had "The Life," which put you in the shoes of a baller, caring about your player on and off the court. The Blitz: The League series had you avoiding the shady dealings of Quentin Sands as an up-and-coming rookie. Heck, even Don King Prizefighter, fronted by the eponymous bozing promoter, had a sweeping story of achievement through adversity, laughably cheesy as it was. The problem with these previous attempts is that those stories didn't have balls. They were cowards. Or, as Charlie Sheen would put it, they weren't winning. They were merely Disney caricatures of the kind of grit and determination one needs to make it to the top, to become the greatest of all time.
Not so here: Fight Night Champion is the first sports game that gets it, constructing a dramatic storyline through its Champion Mode that entertains and pulls at your heartstrings...while, of course, tasking you to bash your opponents into a bloody pulp. Framed for a crime he didn't commit, welterweight Andre Bishop finds himself fighting his way out of prison, hoping to reclaim some of the glory he previously had on the way to a title shot. Of course, that's easier said than done, as each fight has its own unique restrictions: some disallow body blows, others require counter-punching only, et cetera. In short, it's the best five hours of drama-infused pugilism you'll ever experience.
Those who somehow missed out on the utterly fantastic Fight Night Round 4 remember that the series before then was known for its slow, plodding pace. It was meant for boxing junkies, strategists of the sweet science to employ their in-ring nerdiness on the virtual world. But this ain't your daddy's fake boxing. Fight Night Champion continues the more frenetic pace of its direct predecessor, turning the dial a bit to make split-second button presses mandatory. It replicates the instinctual nature of fighting, of being able to read an opponent's moves and strategy and capitalizing on them through well-placed barrages of your own. It's boxing at its core, and Champion does it well.
In terms of what's changed since we last saw the series, EA decided to compromise a bit with their control scheme—which they've gussied up and now call "Full Spectrum Punch Control." (EA, you fancy, huh?) Remember that Round 4 shipped with an analog-stick-only option, which meant that those used to pressing buttons to execute jabs and hooks were left out in the cold. Subsequent updates reinstated that option. This time around, it's a little bit of both: The analog stick controls the angles of punches, while each of the face buttons dictates the nature of the punch, whether it's a jab, a hook, or an uppercut. Frankly, it doesn't matter either way for us, but the way it's set up now works just fine, especially after taking a few rounds to iron out all of the kinks.
There's also, finally, flash knockouts. As in Smokey from Friday, "you just got knocked the FUCK out!" kind of knockouts. The last thing you want is to be thoroughly winning a fight, only to let your guard down and getting whacked with a well-timed uppercut that knocks you into next Tuesday. Defense and protecting your stamina (essentially your power bar in the game) is even more important in Champion and adds more urgency than the previous game. Protect ya neck!
We've already talked about the new Champion Mode, so let's talk multiplayer since many of you will probably be taking to the world circuit. Multiplayer doesn't exactly reach the breadth and depth of, say, the Madden NFL series' amazing online offering, but packs in just enough to create a crazy addictive experience. It all centers around user-created gyms, which each have their own local champion crowned through tournaments. Win or lose, you'll gain experience points that add to your online boxer's progression and allow you to unlock specific perks skills with which to destroy future opponents. Sounds good, right? Even better, you can set up gym-vs.-gym battles to create a boxing version of West Side Story. (OK, maybe that's just us.)
Of course, no simulated game experience isn complete without realistic graphics, and Fight Night Champion is a knockout. The animations are silky smooth, the character renderings are accurate for the more than 50 licensed boxers and legends in the game, and the environments, ranging from prisons to the Atlantic City Boardwalk, pop like you're witnessing a nice Friday night out at the fights.
If there were any chinks in FNC's armor, it's Legacy Mode, which comes off as a rehash of some of the other career modes out on the market, especially what you can find in UFC Undisputed 2010. You start off with a horribly rated fighter you create, then train him at various gyms around the country, build up his stats while winning fights, and eventually land a title shot. It's essentially World of Warcraft for the jock set, forcing you to grind your way to the top. It's effective as a time suck, but in terms of making us want to revisit over and over, not so much.
If Round 4 didn't do it for you or if you didn't get a chance to experience it, by all means do yourself a favor and go get Fight Night Champion. The series has come a long way in the past few years to cater to a younger crowd that is in constant need of instant gratification—while also continuing to not only make the game a fun experience, but keep the simulation of the sport faithful.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.