Fight Night Champion Review
I've got a love-hate relationship with boxing games. Over the last twenty-plus years I've gotten my hands on almost every single one of them - from the Atari 2600's Boxing on to Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!, to the often-frustrating efforts in the 16-bit era, and on to EA Sports' flagship series, Fight Night. I've found that the developers have followed a cycle, where they try to fix their game whether the last one was broken or not, and that drastic, pendulum-like shift has, in my opinion, made their even-numbered games the bad ones, while the odd-numbered ones have been the most fun overall.
Being that Fight Night Champion is the fifth game, I dove right in with high hopes. And fortunately, I'm coming away mostly satisfied, despite a few serious issues I had with the game's offense and defense.
Before we talk about Champion mode or other high-level gameplay, let's get into some of the changes made to the basic ways you attack and defend. EA Sports likes to make changes to the fighting system in every Fight Night - whether they're needed or not - and fortunately, this time things have been improved. The biggest change for some gamers will be that button-based punching has been restored and is enabled right alongside the stick-based scheme at all times. Now, you've got a default control scheme that allows you to do jabs, straights, hooks, and uppercuts with the four face buttons (press both the jab and straight buttons for an uppercut, just as before), and the new Total Punch Control on the right stick no longer requires you to "wind up" big punches - you flick any direction, and you get a punch, even if it's a big punch. And both systems work at the same time.
TPC does allow for a wider range of punches than the buttons do, and because the physics of this game make a huge difference, you might find yourself eventually going to TPC permanently this time - even if you've been a button gamer since the first Fight Night. The difference is that some boxers' blocks leave specific parts of their head or body open, and you might need a hybrid punch like a "hookercut" or an overhand right to poke through - and you can only perform those punches with the right stick. You won't feel like you're at a severe disadvantage with the buttons, but I think that EA Sports has finally improved the stick-based control scheme to the point that it's now the undisputed champion of boxing controls.
And on to haymakers. This scourge of the whole Fight Night series of games is finally gone, hopefully forever. Now, holding R1/right bumper and throwing a punch allows you to put a little extra power behind any punch, even jabs and straights. Doing this will slow down the delivery of the punch a bit, cause it to eat much more stamina, and drastically increase its follow-through time if you miss - but it does much more damage if it lands. These are punches you throw when the time's right, and from what I've seen so far, using these punches too much will backfire on you badly. And that's exactly the way it should be.
In Champion, you don't try to only defend one "quadrant" of your boxer, or even the top or bottom half. You simply block with R2 or the right trigger, and your boxer tries to figure out the rest. Bringing up your block right before a punch lands will speed up your block recovery and allow you to toss a counter in for extra damage, but you'll have to be fast. When you just hold the block button, all you're doing is telling your boxer to put his gloves in the way of punches to the best of his ability - it's based on his defensive stats as well as the physics of the incoming punch. Some of these hits will come through, either partially or fully, depending on whether your gloves are actually in the way.
That said, at first you'll block most punches entirely, but if your boxer is tired or you hold the block for too long and combinations are coming in, an invisible defense stat drops and your boxer's gloves will move too slowly to get in the way of the assault. Also, an opponent that's mixing up his attack, left and right, high and low, will also be more likely to get through in this situation. Overall, this rewards the fighter finding holes in his opponent's defense, not the defender who's just waiting to block a punch and throw a counter.
One other thing to mention is that the screen flashes during counterpunches, just like before, but your fighter won't magically go into slow motion when your opponent dodges or actively blocks one of your punches. He's only got a window as big as it takes for your follow-through to finish, so you won't see counter-punching being such a massive part of fights like it was in Round 4.
While Fight Night Champion is not the first sports game to include a story-based mode with cutscenes and a plot - it's not even the first boxing game to do so - it does bring something wholly unique to boxing games: production values. The main character, Andre Bishop, is a likable guy surrounded by a relative few people that love him, and seemingly a whole world that wants to see him fail. There's the stereotypically evil boxing promoter D.L. McQueen, his comic-book-villain heavyweight prodigy David Frost, and at least one serious out-of-the-ring beating Andre has to take. He has his work cut out for him.
We start the single player mode partway through and start flashing back to the beginning, slowly working our way up to the pre-ordained big showdown with David Frost. Unfortunately, the developers made some missteps here in trying to create unique challenges for you throughout Bishop's career. Some are interesting challenges, like one fight where you brea your right hand in the first round, forcing you to only hit with your left. There are others, though, that are just incredibly frustrating and annoying, actually becoming so difficult that the developers set up multiple checkpoint saves inside of one of the fights - and I still found myself yelling at the TV and having to replay some of the same sections a dozen or more times.
On normal difficulty, I waltzed through every conventional challenge in Champion mode by simply punishing my opponent with powerful inside boxing, only backing up when my stamina got low, but some of these fights were on another level of difficulty, and the game offers no training on how to defend yourself and avoid punches. More than once, you'll have to concentrate entirely on defense for full minutes at a time just to survive. The game doesn't specifically try to teach you how to do this effectively, so most players' first infuriating experience in learning this is by losing the same fight over and over. If the developers had put in a better variety of training sequences peppered throughout Champion mode (these exact mini-games are present in Legacy mode, even!) and changed the way the entirely-linear story is structured, maybe players would be ready for these difficulty spikes.
Champion mode has a satisfying conclusion, but it's one that feels hollow after all the retries just to get there, and even if you count those, you're looking at a game that lasts you four or five hours. It turns out there's plenty of depth in the other modes, but gamers that are new to the Fight Night series - and are only looking for the story mode - may not even care to see them.
What used to be Fight Night's main single player mode has been buried - I kid you not - into a submenu off of the Fight Night Champion main menu. Legacy Mode allows you to create a boxer or "start over" as one of the game's 70+ real-world pros - none of whom actually appear in Champion mode, by the way - to create a new career as an amateur and then rise through the professional boxing ranks. It is fun going in as the legends like Pacquiao, Tyson or Ali, and your best bet is to box like they do for the most success. If you really like Andre Bishop, you can play in Legacy mode as him too. There are RPG systems at play here that Champion Mode doesn't have, like choices in your training and new abilities and powerful offensive and defensive abilities you buy with XP.
It's nice to see that the big issue I had with FNR4, where the real-world boxers had stats that were way too high for their rankings in Legacy Mode, has been solved here. You'll also find a pretty solid range of training games to play, and if you want, you can pretty much totally avoid any of the video game-y ones and just stick to the sparring modes so that when you put on the gloves, you're always in the ring with an actual boxer.
Just getting to box in a game with such fantastic visuals and great punching is plenty of fun in its own right, but it's difficult to get an appropriate challenge against the AI in this game - it's either too easy or too hard, with very little middle ground. One of the issues I'm finding is that the developers - no pun intended here - boxed themselves into a corner by still allowing counter punches to be a major part of doing damage. These punches' chance to stun an opponent, often reducing their health to almost nothing, was intended to be a great equalizer or a chance for a losing fighter to pull out a surprise victory, but it doesn't really work that way in practice. Why spend all your stamina whittling a guy down with flurries of punches when one solidly-hitting counter will do the same job? Admittedly, these punches are actually based on physics and only the best punches that are right on the button do this, but with the speed that everything's delivered, it feels a lot more like luck than skill.
What I found is that players can do a bunch of damage to an AI opponent over four or five rounds, having him barely escape a knockdown over and over, and he can finish you off with only a few well-placed punches. This is one of those features that we all agree should be in a boxing game - at least in theory - and it helps if the whole thing is based on actual physics rather than a random chance, like it is here, but it's hard to tell the difference in the heat of the moment. In my many hours playing Fight Night Champion, the only long, close fights I had were in Champion mode, and they were purposely designed and scripted to pretty much always go that route. In Legacy mode, there was little middle ground: I'd either score a knockout in the first two rounds after getting two to four knockdowns, or the opponent's stun punches would set up a couple of quick knockdowns and cause me to lose. At very few points did I feel challenged; either I walked all over my opponents, or I lost to quick and dirty bad luck. You can fiddle with several difficulty sliders that work in every mode other than Champion, but it doesn't ever eliminate the stun punch problem - only reduce it. I think that moving forward, I'd love to see some kind of adaptive AI that gives players a smoother challenge.
EA has again included their fantastic instant replay system, allowing you to snag clips of your exploits and make videos out of them to share on EA's website or just save to your own console. Just like we've seen with the skate games, the control afforded with this video creation tool is top-notch, especially for an in-game video editor, and it's the shining example that I wish would make it into more games - especially on consoles.
Playing Fight Night Champion online was just a little messy from what I saw, with lag causing lots of problems in some fights - and it's not really a surprise, considering how fast the punches come out. This year, boxers you make online gain experience points and grow their skills just like they do in Legacy mode, and you can create "online gyms" where some group of players then fight each other, start tournaments, and crown a gym champion - or even challenge other gyms. I haven't dug very far into these mode, as it's impossible to get a sense of the full scale in a short time frame, but they do look exciting and fun.
The visuals in Champion are hands-down the best you'll get in the boxing genre, and for me, this is one of the best-looking games to make it onto any game console. Admittedly, the developers did drop the frame rate from 60 all the way down to 30 to support the better-looking crowds and the physics deformation on bodies, gloves, and faces, but I think that overall it was worth it. I really do appreciate a 60fps game, but here, it's not so terribly important. Either way, you can expect some very life-like boxing recreations, and while you can't always avoid the odd bit of weirdness with the physics, it's still very entertaining to watch.
The sound is not very far behind, either. The returning commentators, Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas, often talk about Bishop's story - of course, there's still a lot of repeated phrases and annoyances, but it's taken me longer than I have in any previous Fight Night to eventually get sick of the commentating and just disable it. (It was about two fights into Legacy mode, which I started after completing Champion mode.) One of my favorite parts of Champion is that the game is finally M-rated, and while yes, there is blood that gets on bodies and even clothing, that doesn't matter nearly as much as the fact that the music and the voice acting can finally make it through without censorship. I always thought it was silly for the developers to use these serious, fight-inspired rap songs in Fight Night, then be forced to censor every other word to make a Teen rating.
Also, Andre Bishop's entrance music is The Roots' "The Fire", which is not only a fantastic song, but it actually tells Bishop's story pretty well - despite having been written long before Champion started development. The music selection in Champion is the best we've had yet in the history of the franchise, and it's not just because of the lack of censorship, but also because it's just better music that is a little more diverse and entertaining to listen to.
Fight Night Champion didn't quite live up to my expectations of what I thought was going to be the usual pendulum swing in this series towards quality, but I have to admit that in the last couple years, after two UFC games and what I found to be the surprisingly fun EA Sports MMA - or even games like Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - my standards are pretty high. The addition of a story mode should give this game a wider appeal than we've seen in the past, although I still think that Legacy mode could have used a lot more love. Fight Night Champion may be the best boxing game I've played, but with competition from all sides in this rekindled fighting genre, this franchise is starting to look and feel a little like the sport it represents: increasingly outdated and out of style.