Most sports games lack that personal affection you get with single-player campaigns in an action or role playing game. Even individual sports games (as opposed to team sports) rarely capture that character-driven narrative that titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, God of War III, or Uncharted 2 carry. Still, it’s easy to argue against incorporating a narrative in a sports game; after all, we play FIFA for a very different reason than Heavy Rain. So what happens when you throw a story mode into a boxing game? For starters, you get just about every boxing movie cliché ever thrown onto the big screen, but more importantly, you get a game that’s more than just a sequel to Fight Night Round 4.
Fight Night Champion is the first mature title in EA Sports line-up. It’s bloody, there’s plenty of cursing, and even features some adult-orientated situations. In reality, it has more of a PG-13 feel, but it is pretty graphic for a sports game. Everything about Champion feels authentic, or at least that’s what it seems developer EA Canada wants us to believe. I’ve never stepped foot in a ring before and I probably never will. This is unlike most of EA Sports’ other games; I’ve played soccer, baseball, basketball, football, hockey, tennis, golf, and just about every other sport an average American can play, but never boxing. So judging the authenticity of Fight Night Champion is through the eyes of a guy who’s watched a handful of classic boxing movies and a few pay-per-view events.
The authenticity doesn’t really matter to me, but it may to some diehard boxing fans. If you are an average gamer, you are probably more interested in how much fun Champion is than how authentic it is to the sport. The good news is that Champion is really enjoyable and easy to learn. The bad news is that once you get through the Champion (story) mode, you will probably find yourself disappointed by the standard career mode on offer.
From the moment you press start, the game throws you into the boots of fictional boxer Andre Bishop. He’s a level-headed young man but gets caught up in some sticky legal problems. What really struck me about this game was how enjoyable Champion Mode was. It’s short, lasting only about three or four hours, but completely captivating nonetheless. Will Rokos, who penned Monster’s Ball, provided a great story full of characters that are plucked directly from classic boxing movies. Yes, it’s full of clichés, but playing Champion Mode makes you forget this is a just another EA Sports game. It’s not perfect, but it’s a solid step in the right direction for the genre.
The story is told using some nice cut-scenes, but the real visual appeal comes in the form of the character animations during gameplay. The movements are extremely smooth and the details are so precise that you almost feel the sweat dripping off your TV screen. The slow motion replays are enhanced, and you definitely get a sense that your boxer is reacting as an actual boxer would if he got tagged by Iron Mike Tyson. I still wish you could bite your opponent’s ear, but head-butting is probably bad enough.
The controls have received a fairly substantial and welcome overhaul. All your punches are controlled with simple flicks of the right analog stick. Quickly tap the right stick a bit to the left to throw a jab with your left hand, and then follow it with a quick and easy right uppercut. This change helps matches feel more authentic, or at least what I imagine a real boxer could conceivably pull off. A single button acts as your punch modified, essentially giving your boxer a bit more strength. This, of course, reduces your stamina, so you’ll have to be careful how often you try to rip your opponent’s head from his body. Defense is really key in Fight Night Champion, so you won’t get too far in the game by simply swinging away at your adversary.
The graphics are realistic, the controls are tight, and the story mode is interesting, so what happened to the career campaign? Legacy Mode did very little for me. It’s pretty much a rebirth from Round 4. You start off with a pathetic boxer who hits like he’s fighting against his grandma, and slowly earn XP to boost your abilities. You train in different gyms, get sponsors, and slowly make more money with bigger purses. The interactive training mini-games are about as lame as it gets, but they seem unavoidable in the end. Overall, Legacy Mode is decidedly ponderous and dull in terms of progression, and while we understand the need for character development, the whole affair comes off incredibly dry and lifeless in comparison to Champion Mode.
The parts where this game really shines are limited, but they are quite bright. I absolutely loved bare-knuckle brawling in prison and watching the rivalry between Andre and his baby brother. Honestly, I would had been more than satisfied if EA had simply given us a full game based around these characters, though when it comes time to tell your own story, Champion sort of falls on its face. I hope that the next round in the series finds a way to incorporate these two modes to give players a more personal approach to their own legacy.
You can take your game online and compete in world championships, rival challenges, and even build your own virtual gym. This was another cool concept but needed a bit more fleshing out. If you aren’t into the whole online experience, you’ll get a lot of variety out of the game’s AI. Boxers each have unique approaches to their bouts, again adding to the overall authenticity of the package. This diversity helps give the game some legs, but if you are looking for something to really sink your teeth into, it’s just not here. The Champion Mode is the game’s crowning highlight for sure, but once you’ve ploughed through that, you’ll likely find yourself tiring of the other modes relatively quickly. Perhaps you’ll play a few online games and cobble together your own gym, but beyond that, Champion doesn’t pack much of a punch.
At the end of the day, Fight Night Champion is a brutal, bloody, and realistic romp through the world of boxing. EA Sports did a fantastic job of telling an actual sports story instead of just giving us a sports game to play. With sharp graphics, easy to learn controls, and realistic gameplay, Fight Night Champion delivers a knockout blow to the competition. As such, it’s a crying shame there’s not that much to compel you beyond the stellar Champion Mode.