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Fight Night 2004 review

Excellent

How did we cope for all those years? Bash, bash, bash, punch, punch, punch. There were endless strings and sequences to remember alongside ever more combinations and modifiers to memorise. Press right, hit Square and hold Circle just to launch a jab in the nads? It was like trying to perform brain surgery with mittens on - which is pretty much what boxing is anyway. Surely there has to be a better way to box?

Well, thanks to EA, now there is. Fireballs and flying kicks aside, boxing games have always been the poor relations of their karate cousins. They are just too sluggish, too slow and too complex to learn because the combat system hasn't really evolved since Frank Bruno's Boxing. One button, one punch, CRACK! Another button, another punch, SLAP! That's why the big hair, big blows and below-the-belt laughs of games like Ready 2 Rumble started to dominate and serious but sparky sims like EA's own solid Knockout Kings series slipped out of favour.

NOT-SO COMICAL ALI
So how does a control system mark out Fight Night 2004 as a ring revolutionary? Well, how about the fact it's so well balanced? The left stick still lets you move but when the right one is flexed and shoved it throws punches! To complete the picture, the top two shoulder buttons enable you to block and weave while the other pair lob in an illegal move and a trademark big-show blow that matches each boxer's name and fame. And that's it: there is nothing else to remember.

Which on its own wouldn't make Fight Night the game to grab non-fight fans, but it does and it bites down harder than Tyson on a tasty lobe. The secret is in the satisfaction of the swing. It just seems right. The sweep of the stick matches the path of the punch and its power perfectly. So for a right hook you flick your thumb out and slam it forwards towards your opponent's face. And the quicker the stick shifts, the faster the fists. It's the same with a jab or upper-cut, each punch is mirrored by the movement of your fingers and so it takes longer to launch a hook than a jab. It's direct, it's engaging and it feels so damn good.

However just because a system feels right that doesn't make it user-friendly or instantly intuitive - it's actually the opposite. Don't think that just because you can spark out your brother you won't spend the first five bouts scooping your pearly whites out of the front row's popcorn. No, this is a game that takes time to master or even survive. Which isn't a problem because you'll want to play on. Defeat will inspire you into leaping straight into another pasting, and another, until finally you understand how to ride a flurry of jabs and deliver a perfectly timed and devastating upper-cut. So the pad might be slammed down once or twice but it will always be picked up again.

SCRAP HEAP
By playing through the thrilling two-player mode or the 20-year Career option you will be forced by a steep learning curve to box clever. Knowing when to dance away and when to slug toe-to-toe as your opponent reels on the ropes is vital. But be careful because arrogance means gaps and with the controls making feints and dodges so easy, a quick counter attack can swing a fight from triumph to failure in seconds.

To match the physics and physicals, come the usual EA selection of bits, glitz and even tits. So among the six weights of fighter you get 32 licensed trunk and texture mapped faces, elaborate ring walks, a flexible create-a-fighter option and a solid online mode that will let you scrap over the net. Which all means that while games like Rocky have more character and instant playability and don't suffer with such a sparse Career mode or punishing training, they can't match the sophistication, strategy or spark of this gorgeously poised and polished heavyweight.

Fight Night 2004 will hit PS2 on 30 April

A sublime evolution of a serious sports simulation that doesn't make life easy to start with but rewards you with depth, blood and belts

More Info

Available Platforms: Xbox, PS2

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