Fight Night Round 2 Review
EA did a great job with last year's Fight Night 2004. It was the first step towards a revival of the boxing genre, with plenty of licensed fighters and great action. It hinted at bringing boxing games back to a state where the player must use tactics, controlled combinations, and defense as well as offense. It was a breath of fresh air compared to the many button-masher boxing titles over the last years (some of were made by EA themselves).
You'd think that Fight Night Round Two, they'd continue moving in that direction. But sadly, they haven't, as this feels more like an EA Sports BIG title. That is, it's gone way over the top and is all about huge power punches and way too much of an in-your-face style. Sure, EA has fixed many of the issues and drawbacks in the first Fight Night, and this year's game is a hell of a lot of fun, but it's simply not a boxing sim.
The visuals this time around have been improved subtly, but these changes wind up having a great effect. The arenas and other venues you'll fight in cover a wider range of environments, and the crowd - while still blocky and choppy - is far better than what we've seen in just about every sports game out there. Slow motion effects during the game's "knockdown moments" look nearly perfect, and the ragdoll physics for those who are about to meet the mat look much better this year. The boxers' limbs will still flop around unnaturally, and many real boxing knockdowns (where boxers only go to one knee, or simply fall against the ropes and get a standing eight-count) are still not shown here. The visceral thrill of continuing to punch your opponent after his legs have turned to Jello is still here, and this is one place where a lack of realism really is fun.
There's no doubting that EA's made a sincere effort to add new features and fix old problems. The career mode will let you pick the training you want to adjust your stats, and will also allow you to buy gear that can increase your stats. The problem is that the three types of training you can do are pretty unbalanced; the very easy heavy bag event increases seven of your eight stats by a decent amount, while the other two are more difficult to complete and give you fewer stats when all are totalled up. The gear you can buy, like trunks, shoes, gloves, mouthguard, all add to your stats, but there are few real choices you can make here. Obviously, you'd want the mouthguard that gives you +5 to your chin stat over the one that's +3 - there are no disadvantages to take into account, and before long, you'll have far more than enough money to easily buy any equipment that you've unlocked.
What's a bit better is the temporary stuff you can purchase before a fight. You can hire different girls to be part of your entourage, which will allow you to get up more easily from knockdowns and the like. You can pick up different trainers that give you different bonuses in the fight, as well as better cutmen that make the between-rounds fixing up of your boxer's face more effective. You won't be able to afford all of this stuff before every fight, so you'll need to learn to do without the expensive power-based trainer or the cutman that focuses on cuts more than swelling. Of course, once you get into the top twenty on the rankings, the prize money for each fight easily covers whatever you want to buy. Sadly, the rest of the money you make just sits there doing nothing.
The cutman is a rather unique new feature where you'll get the chance to play what is basically a mini-game to bring down the swelling and clear up any cuts on your fighter's face, and you'll need to do this between every round in all professional fights. This system also shows off FNR2's brilliant facial modelling that really brings the game to life from a visual perspective (the slow-motion replays of knockdown punches highlight the facial deformation from the impact of a huge punch as well). Sadly, the cutman mini-game isn't anything particularly engaging - you just pick cuts or swelling, then choose between one of four quadrants of the face to "heal" and swing the right analog stick around to match a litle timed prompter. As with training, you can have the game do it for you automatically, but the game does a crappy job (much like what we saw in training). Frankly, these minigames get incredibly dull quickly, so it's disappointing to know that having the game do these things for you will wind up with a sub-par result.
I'm a little miffed at how your boxer will stand directly over your opponent after a knockdown and taunt him for a while before making an effort to go to a neutral corner. But it's the fact that there are only a few of these animations - including a really goofy "I'm digging your grave, you lose" kind of thing - in total that really make them tiresome. It's a crass display and would probably result in point deductions if this were real boxing (much like the punching when someone's on the way to the canvas, but at least that part looks unique every time). It seems to be part of the developers' attempt show how abrasive boxers should be, how many rules they should break, or "hard-hitting" or whatever they think boxing should be. It doesn't belong, and I think the game loses something by the presence of elements like this.
That leads me to another issue some had with the first game, where once you got knocked down, you'd have to use the analog sticks to align the images of the referee. It was really goofy, and now they've added some visual indicators that you'll be lining up instead. It works much better, but I still feel like I shouldn't lose a fight because I suck at some mini-game that has nothing to do with boxing. Again, you can turn off this thing altogether and let the game decide for itself whether you get up or not, but it also seems to do a terrible job just like the automatic cutmen and training features.
Middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins is the guy on the cover this time around, and while that means little for the actual game, as a boxer he's displayed a tough yet likable personality. Roy Jones Jr., who was on last year's cover, fell to the dreaded EA Sports cover curse last year in a knockout by Antonio Tarver - I truly hope that Hopkins can avoid that. Either way, it's interesting that they went ahead with a middleweight champ rather than a heavyweight or a light heavyweight, and I think this is evidence that the lighter weight classes are finally being recognized by the world as being just as exciting as the heavyweights. Ok, on to the game again.
FNR2's enhanced career mode will allow you to do quite a few more things with your boxer this time around. You'll start off as an amateur, with their own rules: headgear is used (although this is merely for show, as it has no effect on gameplay that I could see), there are no cutmen, and rounds are two minutes long. You can go professional whenever you want, or you can stay for up to ten fights in the amateur ranks and try to win an amateur title. Once you go pro, things open up a bit. Not only will you get to start choosing between the game's three training options, you will also be able to pick your fights based on the preparation time. This is important when planning your boxer's career out, as you might want to do more fights per year to train more and maybe spend longer as the champ. The problem is that unlike the real boxing world, there doesn't seem to be any disadvantage to doing a fight every four weeks or so, although as you get closer to the top spot, the time between fights does spread out no matter what. At least the game doesn't automatically retire your boxer at a certain age; it'll just become increasingly harder to maintain your stats as you age.
EA included some new special fights you can participate in. These are called "hard hits" fights which are modelled after the very old days of boxing - a round isn't over until one fighter is knocked down, and you'll go for fifteen grueling rounds if no one is knocked out by then (and from my experience, very few of these fights go the distance). There are no points to be decided at the end of these fights; the boxer that scored the most knockdowns wins. These fights are a lot of fun, as no one can be saved from a knockdown just because the round's over. Win these fights, and the game will open up new areas of the store to buy better stuff from. The best part is that these unlocked items stay available even if you start a new career.
Once you win a championship belt, you can start fighting for other belts as well. You can go up or down one weight class in order to do this, and while you can switch weight classes before you win a belt, it seems to be better off to wait until you get to the top. You can wind up winning so many belts that you're stuck in an endless cycle of defending them, with no opportunities to do any "fun" fights. Your AI opponents at that level, even on medium difficulty, will do massive combinations and defend themselves extremely well; you'll really need to be good at the game to win decisively to hold onto five championship belts at once.
EA also threw in clinching, which is a huge part of boxing. EA's implementation is so simplistic and heavy-handed, though, that I think the game would be better without it. Essentially, you can press a button and your boxer will lunge forward clumsily and hug his opponent, getting back a bit of his health. Then the opponent will literally push your boxer away. No referee, no "BREAK!", nothing remotely realistic. Of course, if you clinch enough times, the referee will stop the fight and disqualify you.
Does any of this sound like something that happens in real boxing yet? No? Ok, here's the best part. Once a boxer runs out of health, the camera will zoom in on both fighters - this is called a "knockout moment" (whether a knockout is actually imminent or not) and a few more good punches will put the fighter that's in danger onto the mat. The boxer that's in trouble needs to defend himself long enough, or go for a clinch which will instantly restore a portion of both boxers' health. It's not the KO moments that I'm complaining about, as I think they actually look great and work really well. My problem is with the rules that control how clinching works. Clinching is one of those features that EA's plastered all over their advertisements and press materials for the game, and in my opinion the way they made ti work is neither realistic nor fun. I'll point out more evidence later, but most of the "realistic" features EA has added to Fight Night Round 2 are actually sad mockeries of the real thing.
The biggest feature EA pushed with last year's title was Total Punch Control, which put six different punches on the analog stick. But since there was no way to vary speed or power with your punches, fumbling with the analog stick had no advantages over just pressing the buttons for the punches you wanted. EA has tried to address that this time, but in my opinion they've gone about it the wrong way. They've given analog stick users a unique style of punch called the EA Haymaker - when you start a hook or uppercut, you can pull back on the stick to wind up extra power. The idea is that using a haymaker will give your punch more power, but the extra time it takes to prepare it will make it more likely your punch will be avoided, blocked, or parried. Due to how the game's defensive system works, though, haymakers can and should be used very often if you want to win fights - and this changes the game into something that is admittedly very fun, but it's nothing like actual boxing.
The original press materials for FNR2 said that a haymaker punch could be used by a boxer who's losing a fight on points as a desparate bid to get a quick, massive, lucky knockout. And that's pretty close what the boxing world's definition of this kind of punch is. But that's not what wound up happening at all in Fight Night Round 2, because haymakers are used constantly to beef up the game's power punches. Why throw a hook or uppercut when you can wind up a bit more and do just about double the damage? The worst part of these is that it only takes a couple of hours of play to be able to wind up a haymaker to full power almost instantly, so there's little difference in the time it takes to deliver a power punch versus a normal one. If EA had put some arbitrary limits on the numbers of haymakers you can throw, or reduced their massive power with the more you throw, then they'd be balanced a little better. But they didn't, and so these punches dominate the game.
Other aspects of Fight Night Round 2 only make this problem worse, too. The game includes a "parry" system where you can block on one of your four corners - left or right, head or body - at a time. If a punch comes in the corner you're blocking at, you will literally throw your opponent's glove aside, completely opening him up to any punch you want. It's not universal, though; if you parry a jab, you won't have enough time for a big power punch, but if he threw anything bigger, you most certainly will. Once you get a bit of practice, you'll have enough time for a haymker after almost every parry. And since you'll get almost two seconds of free punching, you can even land a pair of these massive punches after some parries. This alone puts haymaker punches at probably a half of all damage done during a boxing match against the AI, and other issues make them an even larger proportion. I still doubt the wisdom of even having any sort of parry system in a boxing game at all, because FNR2's implementation of parrying makes it feel like a reversal-oriented fighting game like Dead or Alive 3 or even maybe Street Fighter III. But wait, there's more!
The few true boxing sims that have been released over the years will try and show how using your jab is great not only for scoring points with the judges, but also for totally disrupting your opponent's offense. And while the jab in this game is overall more effective than last year's offering and can throw off a few of your opponent's punches here and there, most of a boxer's haymakers will continue at full power even if he takes a one-two combo while throwing it. Complete enough of these jab-for-haymaker trades, and someone will hit the canvas pretty quickly.
And it's not like these massively over-powered haymakers were some sort of accident on the part of the developers, as they've programmed the AI to use these punches extensively as well. Most of my fights against the AI had me using a stick-and-move strategy, waiting for the AI to miss with a wild haymaker while I move in and unleash my own massive, bone-smashing punch. Over and over, rinse and repeat. And while the game is actually very fun doing this, it's not boxing. It's a fighting game, or at the very least the arcade-oriented boxer that EA was trying to move away from. So while I'll be giving this half-boxing, half-fighting game a decent score because of how fun it winds up being, sim fans should be aware that EA's not taking this series in the direction that boxing enthusiasts may be hoping for. It's still light years ahead of EA's hideous Knockout Kings games from a few years back or the scores of other button mashing titles out there, but despite the cutmen, enhanced career mode, and other additions, the haymaker problem makes the boxing itself even more action-oriented than Fight Night 2004.
The commentating in this year's effort is decidedly better than what we saw last year, but it still leaves much to be desired. ESPN commentator Joe Tessitore is doing the talking this time, and while he knows plenty about boxing, in the normal course of a fight he doesn't get the chance to share that information. I say this because the game makes him constantly talk about that last "parry" or "devastating haymaker" - and I don't mean once or twice a round. These things are pretty much all he gets a chance to talk about in most of my fights, both online and in single player mode. He did put in plenty of voice work to accurately commentate on a fight, but the gameplay mechanic ensures that he's just going to yell about haymakers and parries constantly.
It's a shame, too, because the few times I let up and just played like a real boxer - throwing the jab, ducking and weaving, setting up combinations with the odd power punch - Tessitore sounded great. Of course, I couldn't actually beat any high-ranked fighters boxing that way, so the point is moot. In the end, I turned all of the game's speech off, because my trainer's tips didn't even remotely resemble how the shipping version of FNR2 works (if they wanted to help me, the only thing he should be telling me is to avoid haymakers and throw a bunch of my own!), I turned off all speech completely.
The sound effects are very impressive this time around, with great punch effects, beautiful crowd ambience, and even a bit of sound coming from the various venues you'll fight in (especially the ring that's in the middle of a county fairgrounds). The actual punch effects are perfect, with the exception of the haymakers. The overall effect of these haymakers seems to be in line with what was originally intended for them, but since they're so frequent, you'll constantly hear these bone-cracking effects, and it sounds a bit too much like the later Rocky movies. The camera even shakes when one of these punches lands, so you'll get that happening every few seconds too. Still, there's little to fault in the way of sound design here - it's the basic gameplay that's flawed.
The music that's included in Fight Night Round 2 is in the same vein that we saw last year - hard-hitting rap music. This time, one track is a Latino rap song, and that's as far as EA's willing to go for a more multicultural soundtrack. In my opinion, it's not far enough. While these are decent "fight songs", there are so many others (and in other genres) that I can think of that'd be nice to have. The lack of any custom soundtrack support on the Xbox version shows that EA doesn't care to take full advantage of the Xbox console's strengths. Another amusing aspect of this is that EA still tried to be this family-oriented publisher, so they wanted to make a Teen-rated game with FNR2. This means that all the rap here has been censored heavily, showcasing EA's own internal conflict between mass-market gaming and their own need to be hip and edgy. As an aside, the game also sprays out enough sweat and blood with most punches to make this game look like a strange mix of the censored- and non-censored-versions of Mortal Kombat back in the SNES days. It doesn't slop on the ground or anything, and the cuts and other stuff on boxers' faces is realistic, but the actual spray of liquids during a fight looks plain silly.
I hate to say it, because this game is actually very fun, but Fight Night Round 2 is less of a boxing game than last year's attempt. The imbalanced haymaker punches combined with the overdone parry system put the game's realism into the toilet, and these problems affect almost every aspect of the game. And while I played and enjoyed this game until my right thumb was swollen and bruised, I came away disappointed that after all of EA's efforts, we still don't have a true boxing sim. It feels like EA Sports Big (or the Midway team that did NFL Blitz) got a hold of the license to make this game, because it's totally over-the-top.