Does EA’s latest deliver a knockout blow?
A lot of sports games can be criticised for their yearly release schedules, with each new title offering very little from year to year in terms of meaningful new features, instead boiling down to a couple of gameplay tweaks and a roster update. With EA’s Fight Night series there isn’t the burden of annual releases so the team at EA Canada have extra development time to really refine and build upon their previous successes. With Fight Night Champion they’ve surprisingly gone above and beyond what is expected from a sports game, not only improving upon the core Fight Night experience – the art of boxing – but also introducing a fully fledged story mode with an interesting narrative and gameplay implications as a result.
The story in question is known as Champion mode, and the game takes little time in throwing you into the boots of fictional protagonist Andre Bishop. Before the main menu has even appeared you’ll be dazed and confused as Bishop finds his feet inside the ring. But this is no ordinary boxing fight; this is a no-holds barred prison brawl where head-butts and low blows are legal. A vastly different and novel concept for the franchise. This serves as a basic tutorial, teaching you the ropes before the narrative shifts back in time a few years to the Olympics as Bishop’s pro career is ready to begin. From there you’ll chart the rise, fall and comeback of a champion, complete with myriad characters like a trusted old trainer, a cocky brother, the evil promoter and even a love interest here and there. It’s a cliché of every single boxing movie, TV show or book out there, but it’s surprisingly engaging, weaving an entertaining story amidst the violent world of boxing. And since there’s no governing body for the sport, like the NFL or FIFA, EA Canada are allowed to venture past the glitz and glamour you see at every pay-per-view, and take a closer look at the seedier side of the sport. It’s a bold move for the franchise, both in its content and execution, and hopefully it’s only the first of many.
Once you step inside the ring there are other noticeable improvements. The Total Punch Control from Fight Night Round 4 has been replaced with the similarly named Full Spectrum Control. Once again you use the right stick, along with different modifiers, to throw punches. However it has now been streamlined so it’s exponentially more rewarding and intuitive to land any combination of jabs, straights, hooks and uppercuts. Rather than twirling the thumbstick in giant circles to execute a simple right hook it’s now as simple as flicking the stick in one direction. This allows for much more dynamic and controlled fights as you can be much more accurate, able to throw the exact punches you intended. Combine this with improved blocking where you only need to hold down one button and you have an intuitive system that contains a lot of depth.
Avoiding punches isn’t as effortless as holding down the block button as you’ll need to be constantly on your toes, ducking and weaving to avoid devastating blows. It’s also worth factoring in the type of fighter you’re using and the fighting style of your opponent. Fight Night Round 4 focused on inside and outside fighters, using Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson as prime examples of each style. Fight Night Champion embodies this same boxing philosophy, so if you’re tall with a long reach you’ll want to stay on the outside, throwing jabs and straights and wearing your opponent down; while fighters on the opposite end of the scale - shorter with limited reach - will want to get in their opponents grill to land some gruesome hooks and uppercuts. And this is taken a step further with counter-punchers, brawlers and more conventional fighters. No one fight is the same, even if you go in expecting your opponent to fight one way they could very well surprise you so be prepared for anything. There’s a copious amount of depth to this fighting system that feels satisfying and rewarding whether you earn a second round knockout or a judges’ decision after ten rounds.
It’s certainly an accessible system but learning every nuance can take time. Luckily Champion mode does a fantastic job of teaching you about different fight styles and tactics to win whilst simultaneously tying into events in the narrative and keeping the gameplay fresh, away from the normality of regular fights. For example, in one fight you’ll come up against an opponent with a destructive left hook, so you’ll learn how to move your feet and keep away from it. In another fight you’ll break your right hand early on so any punches thrown with it will damage Bishop even further. From there it becomes a struggle as you’ll need to win solely with your left hand. Every fight presents these different dynamics, each one vastly different from the last. You’ll have to atone for dirty judges, fight-ending cuts and the trials and tribulations that come from prison brawls. It provides a nice change of pace from the regular fights and grants you with ample knowledge of tactics you can carry over into over game modes.
Legacy mode returns once again, offering the chance to take a fighter from bum to the greatest of all time. Sadly, however, there wasn’t much time spent improving this aspect since Fight Night Round 4’s outing. It’s still an excellent way to build a fighter from the ground up and move up the rankings, but the presentation is redundant, offering a pointless e-mail and calendar system that clutters your passage from one fight to the next. The training mini-games, including heavy bag combos, a maize bag and simple sparring, are never long enough to incite frustration, though they do get very repetitive after a few tries. If you just want to get down to the business of moving up the rankings and fighting as many varied opponents as possible then Legacy mode is the way to go, but it could have done with the personality and humanity of Champion mode, perhaps offering a more personal experience that really focuses on your fighter rather than the lifeless e-mail system in place now.
Of course, if that doesn’t take your fancy there’s a plethora of online modes to test your might. Gyms have been added, similar to what was introduced in EA MMA last year. Here you and your friends can start your own gym and create a roster of different fighters in each weight class to compete in fights and tournaments. Each new fighter you create works similarly to those in Legacy mode as you use XP won in fights to upgrade various attributes. You can also host your own internal tournaments to decide who the best fighter in your gym is, and you can start rivalries with other gyms in the hopes of earning more points and prestige. It’s certainly an interesting concept and one that adds a degree of social interaction to the experience.
You can also start ranked matches with any one of the fifty licensed fighters on offer. From David Haye, the Klitschko brothers and Manny Pacquiao through to Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield and Sugar Ray Leonard, each fighter looks stunning. The Fight Night series has always been praised for its graphical fidelity and Fight Night Champion is no different, with realistic skin textures, fantastic lighting and phenomenal animation at a stable framerate; this is still a graphical powerhouse. Once the action is slowed down you can see that not every punch makes contact despite the hit detection defining that it did, but this is only a minor gripe in any otherwise highly polished game. Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore return to the commentary booth yet again and they do a solid job with plenty of anecdotes and inside analysis of the sport. In Legacy mode, however, they’re as plain as usual, offering little in the way of entertaining or helpful insight; but this changes in Champion mode as they’re free to speak about Bishop with more personality, as a real character rather than a generic concoction built from sliders.
And its Andre Bishop’s journey that makes Fight Night Champion stand out in the crowded sports genre. It has the lifeless career mode that’s good for fighting from round to round but little else, but it’s the innovation found in Champion mode that elevates the Fight Night series to new heights. It might not entice non-fans of the series or the sport to jump on board, but those that do will find a refined fighting system that streamlines the technicality of the sport whilst retaining a vast amount of depth. Allowing the player to concentrate solely on the brutal combat itself, employing multiple tactics and fighting styles to come out on top. Boxing may not be the powerhouse it once was but movies like The Fighter reveal it still has a cultural relevance today. Champion mode pulls inspiration from the likes of Rocky and Raging Bull to craft a narrative around the sport that people still find engrossing. It’s the perfect path for the series to take and we can only hope the next Fight Night builds on this promise, telling more tales from the world of boxing.