Replay Value: 8.5
EA Sports has quite a few successful franchises under its belt and each year, they can typically be counted upon to deliver another fantastic title to followers of various sports. And when it comes to the Fight Night series, EA Canada has really tried to push the envelope by continually updating both graphical presentations and gameplay mechanics. Although I am not a boxing fan, it’s easy to appreciate a technically proficient production that gives the player a lot of options, a mostly realistic atmosphere, and a control scheme that is both accessible and challenging to master. To be honest, I’ve thought past entries were a tad overrated simply because I never bought into the necessary right analog movement. But with a new control style and the addition of a cool Story (Champion) Mode, I found myself playing FNC for quite a long time.
The graphics are a big highlight because the intricate detail of each fighter is spectacular. In fact, I dare say this is the only sports franchise that boasts relatively accurate depictions of the athletes in question. Despite a slightly over-exaggerated sheen of sweat that gives a fighter a certain plastic-y look, the meticulously created character designs are excellent. Even the cut-scenes in Champion Mode feature plenty of authentic visuals. The color and shading is just about right, and the smattering of special effects – that usually involve knockout punches – are very well implemented. I kept thinking the arenas were a little too dark, and the very tight and appealing fighters contrasted sharply with the less impressive audience. But other than that, the fluidity of the animations combined with the stellar overall presentation is what sets this game apart. I suppose some can come up with a few trivial complaints, but they’re hardly worth mentioning.
The audio gains the benefit of solid voice acting, a decent soundtrack, and a multitude of ambient effects that enhance the game’s appeal. My only two complaints involve the following: firstly, what I perceive to be a lack of “punch,” if you will, in regards to heavy strikes. They just don’t seem to be quite jarring enough. Secondly, the background effects and music tend to disappear during certain bouts, although everything does become more dynamic and raucous in later stages. Beyond that, we get to hear crisp, spot-on fighting effects, a surprisingly competent voiceover cast, and those little background pieces of sound that increase the immersion factor. And last but not least, the commentary is borderline amazing, as Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas are smart, accurate, and diverse in their comments. Their positive contribution really can’t be overstated.
And that brings us to the gameplay, which I very much enjoyed. As I said above, the reason I really couldn’t get into past installments is because of the way punches were thrown: we’d have to maneuver the right analog stick in a certain way; doing this would result in an uppercut, doing this would be a simple jab. While others liked it, I just couldn’t wrap my brain around this format. I was always saying, “if you have to use the right analog, why can’t we just flick it across to swing a punch.” Ah, EA heard me. In Fight Night Champion, you don’t spend half the time trying to master complex analog movements; you spend the majority of your time focusing on fight strategy. The right analog controls punches from both the right and left arms (and this works perfectly, believe it or not), and simply by pressing L1, you can lean in and land body shots.
R1 blocks, L2 breaks free of a grab, and holding down R2 to accompany the right analog movement results in power blows. From the start, it feels as if all the required control is happily at your fingertips, just waiting to be mastered. This means you will immediately start to see each encounter as an actual boxing match: you must try to spot openings, remember that your stamina will give out after too many consecutive punches, and try to mix up your attacks. You always have to worry about the possibility of a KO punch sneaking through your defenses, which adds a certain amount of pressure and urgency to every bout. Flash knockdowns are no fun; it means you let up for an instant, your opponent took advantage, and the fight is over. Translation: you can’t let up and you can’t let your attention waver, which is exactly right for a virtual boxing simulator.
More goodness arises from the challenge you face in the ring; namely, the AI. Certain boxers have very distinct styles that you must recognize, and even amateur fighters must be read and understood for you to be successful. If they find themselves behind late in a bout, they’ll come straight ahead and attempt to land a knockout blow. If they’re leading, they’re more likely to play defense. And like I said, if you let your guard down at just the wrong moment, you’ll pay big time. Now, there are times when the AI falters and you sit there going, “what fighter would do that?” For instance, early on during Champion Mode, you fight a guy who just never attacks first. The goal is to try to pin him into a corner and get a few shots in, because he’ll just keep running around. In fact, even if you stand in the middle of the ring and do nothing, he’ll just endlessly circle. I understand the need to teach observational tactics but this was a little extreme, yes?
Plus, while the Champion Mode is a nice addition to the game and gives us an entertaining storyline, the Legacy Mode can feel a little boring. In Champion Mode, you will follow the life of fictional boxer Andre Bishop, who starts off as an Olympic boxer and then – thanks to slimy promoter – ends up in jail, where people beat the sh** out of him after winning a brutal inmate-only bout. Eventually, he gets out and resumes his career. As you progress, you’ll find unique gameplay situations; as an example, there’s one match you must win by TKO. Winning by decision just won’t get it done. It’s not Shakespeare but it isn’t a badly written story, and acts like a “human interest” addition to a fairly straightforward sports game. If you want to embark upon a career with a customized fighter, though, you have to choose the Legacy Mode.
And although it’s deep and engaging (and this time, you can even shell out cash to train at better facilities), they just can’t make this mode feel…well, fun. To me, it’s very slow-paced and awfully unrewarding, especially early on. The problem is that you must muddle through a lot of training, because apparently, you start off as a barely functional human. While it makes perfect sense to build a fighter, to add stamina and power as time goes on, I just refuse to believe that even first-time boxers are that inept. Furthermore, they just don’t make the learning process all that appealing. It all feels exceptionally slow and tedious and I really had to force myself to keep playing. Bettering myself didn’t come with any great feeling of satisfaction and in all honesty, I’d almost prefer going through Champion Mode again. Or, I’d go online, where things can get really fun.
No matter how accomplished the AI can seem, fighting against a human opponent is an entirely different proposition. In fact, I dare say it’d be a better idea to train online first before diving into the nuts and bolts of the game; you’d really have a leg up on the competition. In the end, I must say that in some ways, this title feels a little…backward. I almost wanted to go through a Career type of structure in the Champion Mode. I wouldn’t have minded if I had to start as Bishop instead of a personally created fighter; heck, it’d be like an RPG in that way. Follow a story and build/level up. What’s wrong with that? For the Legacy Mode, they just have to add some “oomph” and spruce up the pacing. If you stick with the online attraction and the Champion Mode, you’ll probably have an endless blast. And it’s not like Legacy can’t be rewarding; you just have to be patient and determined.
Fight Night Champion has most everything it needs to be a top-rate sports game. It has the increased AI (for the most part), the addition of some emotion through a decent storyline, an enhanced technical presentation, and the refinement of control that all fans should appreciate. Having a real-life SportsCenter broadcast during Champion Mode is very slick, and you likely won’t hear better commentary in a sports game this year. You will only succeed with a skillful hand and a trained eye; you will learn in the school of hard knocks and emerge a better fighter; you will feint and block and attempt to read your opponent throughout every bout. The whole production is just exceedingly well done. Between online and Champion Mode, it’s a legitimate Sports Game of the Year contender; it’s just too bad that I couldn’t quite get into the Legacy Mode. Career is essential to any simulator and this one just starts off…haggard.
Still, if you’re a fan of the series or a boxing fan in general, you just have to try it. There’s plenty of good here.
The Good: Top-notch, well-defined graphics. Fantastic commentary. Refined controls puts the emphasis squarely on tactics and strategy. AI is often impressive. Champion Mode adds a great emotional element. Online play is dynamic and challenging.
The Bad: Effects and music could be brought out more. AI is occasionally questionable. Legacy Mode is too slow and tedious.
The Ugly: “…okay, maybe I don’t like flash knockouts.”