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Fight Night 2004 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 4/12/2004

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Boxing games have gone through an actual de-evolution over the years. Many boxing titles from the 80's required quick reflexes, the ability to defend yourself from your opponent, and a little strategy. But there have been a huge glut of boxing titles since around the time Ready 2 Rumble Boxing was released about five years ago that embrace some sort of "arcade-oriented" style. In boxing games, this means you need to basically mash the buttons faster in order to win. So while the button mashers have had their fill of "great" boxing games, those of us who wanted something more technical have been mostly left in the cold for the last few years.

Even EA was guilty of this with their Knockout Kings games, but apparently they've decided to scrap the series in favor of a new one with all-new gameplay. Fight Night 2004 is EA's attempt to revitalize boxing games; it includes gameplay that allows boxers to carefully defend themselves and counter at the right moment. The developers have gone through major efforts to redo almost everything about the game since Knockout Kings 2002, but is it enough to restore our faith in boxing games?

EA is putting a lot of hype into Fight Night's "Total Punch Control", although I find that there are other aspects of the control that are more important. This system allows you to use the right analog stick to throw your punches, be they jabs, hooks, or uppercuts. After playing with the controls, though, I found that switching to a button-using configuration was better anyway. I understand that EA is trying to prove to people that this isn't a button-masher, as they even say it in the actual game during a tutorial. But I can act faster pressing a button than by swinging the right stick around to punch, and doing an uppercut just means pressing the jab and hook buttons at the same time. Overall, Total Punch Control isn't bad, but I suggest you try one of the button setups as well and see.

What's even more important than Total Punch Control is the way the boxer can defend himself from incoming punches. If you hold the left trigger, you can use the left analog stick to lean in any direction - you can duck under many high punches, and you can keep your face out of range of that incoming hook. On top of this, you can hold the right trigger and use the right stick to block either side of your head or body. Use this correctly, and you'll knock away an incoming punch and get some time to launch your own offensive. Still, pick any of the four quadrants, and that's only a 25% chance that you'll successfully knock his hand away. Basically, this is good for dealing with button mashers, but it's tough to shut down anyone who mixes up their offense a bit.

This is without a doubt the best-looking boxing game to date. The fighters themselves look excellent, and their motion-captured animations are impeccable. Each separate animation flows together beautifully, which really helps with the game's immersion.

The venues you'll fight in range from the dirty old gym on the corner all the way to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and they all have their own little details that you just don't expect in a boxing game. You can see out of the windows in the Appolo Gym and see cars driving past in the background, and the old busted neon sign flickers outside.

The boxers show plenty of damage during the fights; a good punch will show blood flying out - maybe a bit too much - and sweat will also show during a good shot. The boxers' faces can show blood running down, and you even get to see swelling and bruising in certain spots on the face. Despite all this, the condition of your boxer's face has zero impact on the actual fight. More on that later.

Much of the crowd is also now made of polygons, which I think is a first for boxing games. I expected to see the really flat, cardboard-looking sprites that usually make up the crowd in a boxing game, but these people are actually in 3D. Granted, they're very low-quality models and only loop through a single animation, but it's a step up from anything else I've seen. In a few venues, you can even see security people, waiters walking around, and bartenders cheering the fighters on. It's a small touch, but I think it was worth it.

The meat of any boxing game comes down to how it actually plays. The Xbox version of the game includes a quick exhibition mode with any of the game's 32 licensed boxers or one you created yourself, and two players are of course supported here. But it's the career mode where you'll find most of the single player action going down, and this mode is pretty robust. You again can create a new boxer or start off any of the licensed ones as a newcomer, and fight your way up the ranks. Between fights you'll participate in one of four training exercises which increase your stats - and you'll have to score higher and higher in these mini-games to keep increasing your stats as you go.

The boxing is still very action-oriented compared to what you'd see in a real fight on TV or pay-per-view; after about thirty hours of gameplay, I've only fought a handful of matches that didn't end in a knockout (feather- and lightweight fights included). Combine this with a lack of clinching, and the boxing can easily degenerate into a complete brawl. This isn't a bad thing as long as the actual boxing feels mostly authentic, and EA does succeed in this respect.

As you go, you can unlock new stuff like different gloves, trunks, shoes, and other accessories like tattoos. You can configure your entrance with confetti, fireworks, and more, although all this stuff is simply cosmetic; the cash you put towards these upgrades doesn't help your boxer win any fights. But since your prize money can't buy you anything else, you might as well spend it on something.

During the fight, your boxer will have two bars that can recharge or deplete. The red one lets you know when you're due for a knockdown, and the blue one shows your fatigue and punching power. It's possible to win the first ten rounds by out-punching your opponent, and then get knocked out at the end of the fight because you tired yourself out and couldn't put him away. Some players argue over whether these bars should even exist in a technical boxing game, as to them it makes it too much like an arcade boxer or a fighting game. While I do prefer to have them, Fight Night 2004 does include the option to turn the display of the health bars off.

The game does include a few cues to let you know when a boxer is in trouble other than the health display. The controller will rumble more and more as you get close to a knockdown, and the announcer will talk all sorts of trash as well. At the last few moments before someone goes down, the sound of the crowd and announcer fade away and all you hear is the heavy breathing and the smashes of the punches that are coming in. It's a pretty cool effect, although again it doesn't affect the actual boxing - but it is immersive.

The many licensed boxers that EA have included are great, and their AI even acts something like the actual boxers do. Even with 32 licensed fighters, though, you'll find yourself mostly fighting randomly generated "filler" boxers through your career. Each one does have slightly different AI, although it seems that they only have two ranges to fall into - they can range from highly evasive to all-out brawler, and they can also range from totally offensive to a very careful counter-puncher. I do find it amusing that a few opponents would try to taunt me at the exact wrong times; it's hilarious to see them stick their chin out for me to smash with a knockout punch.

One aspect of Fight Night that's both good and bad is the game's ragdoll physics for knockdowns. Every animation but the knockdowns are hand-created or motion captured. This means the ragdoll effects look really strange, as the fighters basically turn to jello as soon as the "official" knockdown punch lands. Sometimes the fighter's body will jiggle around and commonly refuses to lay still on the floor, which just looks hugely unnatural. Overall, it's a great idea with a poor execution. The only good side is that you are allowed to continue punching your opponent while he's finding his way to the canvas - it's great to get in a bunch of extra shots as he's flailing against the ropes. Aside from that aspect, though, they really need to work on the ragdoll effects for next year's iteration.

Xbox owners who play EA games are probably aware by now that EA and Microsoft haven't been getting along. The end effect is that no EA games at all work over Xbox Live for online play. That senseless tradition continues with Fight Night 2004, which means that the console world's best online service will miss out on the best boxing game in years. The PS2 version of the game does have some pretty good online play, though, so for that reason I'd have to recommend the PS2 version if you have both consoles. The graphics aren't even much better on the Xbox version (if any better at all) anyway.

As much as I enjoy Fight Night 2004, I still find that there's plenty that's missing. A real calendar that allowed you to fine tune your training would be nice, and even a choice of trainers would be cool. The career mode also forces you to retire at age 40 without any sort of ceremony - if you had managed to become world champion by that time, then that's pretty much the only celebration you're going to get.

Injuries make little impact on the game, and even though the boxers will look plenty beat up by the end of a fight, there are no cut men and the condition of your own face makes no impact on the fight at the moment or on the boxer in the long term. While I'm very impressed with this game, I do hope EA puts considerable effort into making Fight Night 2005 an the most realistic boxing sim we've ever seen. Oh, and I hope MS and EA will iron out their stubbornness regarding Xbox Live by then as well.

The sound effects in Fight Night 2004 are wonderful. The number of variations in the effects, as well as the actual sounds that occur when punches land, are as close to perfect as I've ever heard. Instead, my beef is with both the music and the announcer. Now don't get me wrong; I do understand this is a boxing game, so there's going to be a major hip hop influence. But it's just overboard in this game.

The soundtrack consists entirely of hip hop songs that I got tired of very quickly, seeing as there are only 9 tracks total. On top of this, EA for some reason commissioned BET celebrity Big Tigger to do the announcing for the game, and while his vocabulary is decent, he just seems totally wrong for the job. Most sports commentary comes in the form of two guys going back and forth about the action, but Big Tigger has no one to talk with. The stuff he says can be pretty funny, but he is boisterous enough that I really wanted to get rid of him. Turning off the speech in the game will shut him up, but then you don't hear any voices at all - that's not a great solution to me considering that one of the mini-games uses audio cues that you kind of need in order to score high.

Fight Night 2004 makes huge strides compared to EA's previous Knockout Kings games. While there is plenty of room for improvement, EA has done an excellent job making those who want a sim-style boxing title happy. We still get no internet play, but everything else is solid, and it's overall a big step forward for the genre. If you're interested in a boxing title that requires brains and patience for success rather than fast fingers, then this is your game.

Overall: 88%


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