Knockout Kings 2001 Review
Knockout Kings is a fine looking game, there's no question about that. EA used a 3D face/body mapping technology unique to the PS2 version to ensure that each boxer looks just like their real-life counterpart. Unlike what you'll find in Live 2001, each boxer is instantly identifiable when they walk into the arena. From a specific hairstyle, copious amounts of body hair, and even a day old shave look, the featured boxers establish a new level of realism for videogame pugilists. One aspect of making realistic looking athletes that EA seems to have a difficult time grasping, is making their eyes look normal. They've all got the creepy blank stare that the players had in Madden 2001. I'm not asking for them to hire an optometrist to come in and map individual eyeballs into the game, but I never notice this problem in other games, so they need to at least get to that level. Another problem with the in-game characters is that their mouths don't move. We're not talking about being out of sync with what is being said; they just don't move at all. This sticks out like a sore thumb when there's a close-up of Mills Lane instructing the boxers, and his lips don't move a muscle. They say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile, but it doesn't look as if that applies to these guys.
While "Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee," the camera never fails to keep up with the action in the ring. Outside of some awkward angles while starting a round, the camera stays in tight on the action, and it never seems to have a problem when the fighters are in the corner or are up against the ropes. It simply swings around to give you a clearer view of the action, while keeping your orientation the same, so you don't start throwing punches the wrong way. After particularly eventful rounds, a brief replay of the highlights of the round will play. This is perhaps where the game looks its best, as you can see one fighter's muscles tense as he throws a punch, and then watch his opponent's body crumple to the mat. You're fighters will even spit blood when they are cut, thus giving you the green light to go in for the kill.
In keeping with the "EA makes pretty games" theme, the arenas look excellent. For the most part they are based on real locations, and they are very well detailed. Madison Square Garden, Caesar's Palace, Wembley Stadium, the vaunted set of Thunderbox, and many other locations are all accurately replicated to help recreate the atmosphere of a big-time prizefight. Of course fighting for the Heavyweight Championship is nothing unless you are doing it before thousands of screaming fans, so EA has packed the arenas with some of the best looking crowds I've ever seen. I don't know exactly why these spectators look so much better than usual, but here's the theory. They are all animated, and they've avoided making it obvious that the same person is in every row. I'm sure that they are, but each person looks just generic enough not to stand out. This is in stark contrast to the "Put the ugly girl in a neon yellow shirt in every row, and they won't notice" technique practiced by some developers.
Like fighting games, much of the sound effects in boxing games are grunts, growls and the sound of someone's face getting pounded in. While I'm not really an expert on exactly what it sounds like to get pummeled by Lennox Lewis, it seems as if the sounds are accurate. The crowd will roar to life when they sense a knockdown coming, or they'll boo their disapproval at two fighters that seem to be settling for a decision. The boxers themselves are silent, they've got nothing to say it appears. After hearing nonstop chatter from the athletes in EA's other releases it's a bit baffling to hear nothing from the great trash talking mouth of Muhammad Ali.
The announcing is handled by ESPN boxing expert Al Bernstein, along with the help of Max Kellerman and Teddy Atlas. Their commentary is varied, and it follows the action very well. Throw a few ill-advised haymakers, and they'll comment on what little chance those punches had of connecting. String together a couple of nice bodyshots however, and they'll applaud your amazing skills. Richard Steel and the well-known Mills Lane handle the refereeing of the bouts. From Lane's "Let's get it on!" intro, to him reminding you about keeping your punches up, the officials are portrayed nicely. In between rounds your cornermen will holler advice to you in hopes of keeping your butt off the canvas.
Where boxing titles have had difficulty as of late is in the category that counts the most, gameplay. Sure it may look nice, and it sounds dandy, but if it plays like garbage, that's where it's going to end up. EA has made some progress in making a boxing sim more fun, but they've yet to achieve the mastery of their other sports titles. A host of gameplay options are present, so nearly any fight you can imagine, you can have. A play now mode lets you dive right into the action with a quick bout without the hassle of setting up any options. Unfortunately the play now mode defaults to two women fighters, who are frankly just miserable to use, so it's unlikely you'll play this mode more than once. Other gameplay options include a robust career mode, slugfest, and a fantasy fights feature. The fantasy fights feature pits some of the all time greats against each other, to see who is truly the better man. Recreating actual fights would have been a better choice, but this option is interesting for the person that wants to pit Ali against Marciano. A slugfest is simply an all out brawl between two fighters, no rules, just an all out war. This mode is probably best suited to those that aren't interested in, or don't have the time to learn the combos required to be successful in career mode. There are a large number of fighters present in this year's version. Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Leonard, Smokin' Joe Frazier, Marvin Hagler, and as previously mentioned, a few women fighters. There are several notable fighters missing, but this is due to the wacky world of licensing, and not any oversight by the staff over at EA, so it's hard to fault them for not having the salesman of the "Lean, mean, fat-grilling machine" present.
The only thing that will keep you occupied for more than twenty minutes in Knockout Kings is career mode. You start by creating a boxer from the feet up, literally. His nickname, what tattoos he has, his trunk's color, and his attributes are all up to you. My boxer's nickname was "Old-School", he had some black trunks with flames on them, some awful looking shoes, and some blue gloves. After making a fighter, it's your duty to move him up the ranks until he is the champ. This is similar to RockyV, except it doesn't suck. The first few opponents that you'll face are little more than a collection of stiffs. It may be difficult to knock them out at first, but that's mostly due to your fighter's lack of power, not his opponent's overwhelming skill. After winning a fight, you can either fight the next person in line, or head to the training room.
In the training room, you'll learn how to perform combos, block attacks, counter-punch, and many other useful things. You're trainer will go through a set of moves, and you just hit what buttons appear on screen. If you complete your training, you are awarded points that will go towards raising your skill level. This is essential because after the first few fighters you face, the road to the gold isn't going to be an easy one. Even though a wide variety of moves are taught in the training room, only a precious few are ever really needed in the ring. A winning strategy in the ring basically involves learning to dodge attacks, and then following up with a few good combos. Once you've mastered two or three good combinations, it's not too difficult to ride these to the top. Yes you can spend the time and learn proper defense and counter-attacks, but it's not necessary. Why hit left L2+R1+X, L2+X, and then X, when you can just hit R1, and then X four times? As long as you take care not to waste too much stamina, you'll have a good rate of success. If that strategy doesn't work, there is a new "haymaker" punch available. This is basically the equivalent to pushing the start button to use a star in Mike Tyson's Punchout It'll unleash a huge punch that will do a large amount of damage to your foe. It'll even put him right back down on the mat if you connect right after he gets up.
This is where the game fails to be fun or challenging. Too many times challenging is confused with time consuming, and that applies to this title. It may take a long time to create a fighter, and climb the rankings towards Lennox Lewis, but is it really that difficult? No. There's no question that you'll lose fights, but that is often due to your fighter's lack of skill or stamina, not any real fault of your own. After you lose a fight you must go back and train, and then beat a few fighters that you've already defeated before getting another chance at the man who beat you. This is where the game becomes cumbersome instead of fun. As you progress the fights grow longer, but not really any more challenging. The game moves faster than previous incarnations of the series, but a twelve round fight is still too long and repetitive to enjoy.
How much replay value you get from this title is equal to the effort you put into it. If you take the time to learn all of the moves that are available, and you earn championships in all of the different weight classes, this game will last a very long time. For the average person though, there's simply not enough variety in the fighters, or their fighting to hold your interest for too long. The long and frequent load times just add to the frustration of an already time consuming game. Yes I know that "real" fights last 12-15 rounds, but that's too long to fight the same guy in a videogame. I don't have any real productive solutions on how to make that problem any better, and from the lack of good boxing sims available, nobody else does either. If you enjoyed previous incarnations of the series on either the Playstation or the Nintendo64, you'll likely enjoy this game. Be warned that outside of some shiny graphics, a few new moves, and some token female fighters, there's not much new.
7/24/2004 Aaron Thomas