Boxing game aficionados, stop reading now and don't look back.
Are they gone? Ok. FaceBreaker is an attempt by EA and their Canada studio which apparently makes "fresh" and "in your face" sports games - no, I have no idea what happened to the EA BIG label - and this is their first title. It's a cartoon-style "boxing" game where there is a ring, and three minute rounds, and boxing gloves on every character. And if that's about as much as you know about boxing, then this game will almost pull you in with its charm, but after about ten minutes you'll be just as disgusted as the rest of us.
FaceBreaker is a badly-made fighting game that happens to take place inside a boxing ring. It's got all of two regular punches for you to throw, as well as the ability to block, dodge, or parry incoming attacks (the difference between these defensive moves is hardly even worth mentioning), "throw" moves to gain some distance on your opponent, and a small array of power punches that give the game what EA must have thought would be some kind of undeniable charm. This game is what happens when a developer looks at the Nintendo SNES classic Super Punch-Out! with its kung fu masters, hair-swinging kabuki, and Canadian moose-wrestlers, and somehow decide it's not arcadey and goofy enough. Hell, this game makes Ready to Rumble look like a number-crunching stat game. Let me be clear: FaceBreaker is less realistic than the boxing game that made you fight a clown.
It's not that we didn't know what we were in for - EA's marketing of FaceBreaker, from trailers to screenshots to press releases, didn't try to hide its inherent shallowness or its obvious dependence on the unique looks of each of its fighters almost solely as their one big draw. The trailers we got managed to trot out some fairly original-looking caricatures as fighters and then showed ridiculously fast combos and an obvious button-mashing fighting style. When the demo was released, I marveled at just how little there was to this game's offense and defense, and at just how unbalanced it could get with each character basically having one really unique attribute each. What really surprised me about this is the characters that look and act so different on screen, but they all fight pretty much the same - except for that one exploitable thing each one does. The fat guy punches as fast as the skinny girl, and she punches as hard as he does. Every character plays almost identically even though they look wildly different, and winning matches is pretty much just figuring out how to best use your one little edge that is given to your character and pummeling your opponent with it.
Each match consists of some number of timed "rounds", but the whole system is set up mostly like a fighting game where the best 3 out of 5 rounds wins. Every time someone is knocked down, they get back up - there is no referee, no count - and both fighters' health fill back up. The person to get knocked down three times first loses. Sure, the round ends do reset the health of both fighters, but that's about it. The rest is just mashing punches and defenses and hoping your randomness works. The punches come out so fast - and never slow down, as there is no kind of endurance or stamina bar of any kind - that you basically can't see a punch coming. You have to telepathically predict whether it's coming in high or low and defend there. This leads to a kind of depressing gameplay where everything is simplified to the point of bashing the controller, and the worst part is that the game doesn't necessarily get more fun when you're drunk (yes, I tried). Alcohol or not, FaceBreaker is only mildly amusing when you win, and maddeningly frustrating when you lose, especially against the more difficult AI that beats you with super-human reflexes and defends itself masterfully at lightning speed, then unleashes hell upon you.
At the very least, EA has made an attempt to fill up the game with a few fun and unique features to extend its length, like a tournament mode where you and your buddies can round-robin versus matches to crown a winner, or the ability to recall highlight reels from the last match you did (the game makes a damn good set of highlight reels for you) and save them as replays and even upload them as web-playable videos to the EA site, much like last year's skate. Of course, skate videos were popular because it seemed everyone had something unique, funny, or new going on. Here, you just see a whole lot of punches flurry out, usually with some kind of knockdown or power punch at the end. Other than the characters involved, the clips all pretty much look the same.
Yeah, there's online play, but if you thought you needed the Psychic Friends Network just to deal with the game's randomness enough to get through the extremely boring solo tournaments, you'll need even more of it to play online. The only way to defend yourself is to basically eat about four punches to the head or body and then defend that section, hoping your opponent hasn't switched in the lag time between your control inputs and his. The interface is slick and getting into games is easy, but it falls apart once you actually get into the ring. The whole punching system almost seems to have been designed to work as badly online as possible.
Oh, sure, you can create your own boxers that mimic one of the characters' body types and punch animations, but that feature doesn't exactly last long. The notion of pitting Barack Obama against George W Bush in a boxing game was appealing until about the time that the third punch landed, and the feature to capture your own face and slap it onto one of the existing boxer's pre-fab bodies is hardly even worth mentioning since that's as far as the customization goes. But of all the game's added features, what frustrated me the most is that a solid online mode and the game's admittedly slick replay and video uploading system would have been so much better used in other fighting and boxing games (recent and future ones) that often lack a decent online mode or replay videos. Here, they're mostly wasted because the underlying game is just about as banal and frustrating as it seems the developers were able to make it.
It's not just that I'm a snob for real boxing games that causes me to dislike FaceBreaker so much; I've enjoyed my fair share of sub-par boxing and fighting games in the past. No, it's more than that: EA has made one of the worst boxing games I have ever played, and even when FaceBreaker is judged as a fighting game, it actually fares worse. Don't let the goofy characters and otherwise sharp-looking visuals fool you; this game is all flash and no substance. EA, you need to do better. Please do better. I know that Fight Night Round 4 is in the works; please make it the exact opposite of this in just about every imaginable way.