It's always a tricky thing when a developer decides to radically change the formula that made previous entries into a series a hit, but in EA's case, there were... extenuating circumstances as a result of the shuttering of the former Fight Night series devs' Chicago studio. The result was last year's Fight Night Round 4, a decidedly different take on what was previously a fairly slow, calculated game.
It was a shift that ruffled more than a few feathers; Fight Night had established itself as a thinking man's fighter, one that was less about the sheer number of punches and more about when they were used, and though there was an increased focus on counter-punching, it didn't quite have the rock/paper/scissors approach of Round 3.
Bad news for those that hated the change-up: it looks like it's here to stay, but in embracing the new direction for the series, EA Canada has at least given players a whole lot more to chew on this time around, starting with an actual story-driven side of the single-player game dubbed Champion Mode that was written by "Monster's Ball" scribe Will Rokos.
Though the three- or four-hour-long story is relatively short compared to what can be imbibed by way of the returning Create-A-Player Legacy Mode, it actually does something we haven't yet seen in sports games: it makes you root for the underdog. Sure, the whole idea of a story-based progression has happened before; Sony tried it to mixed effect with their The Life series of NBA titles, but by keeping things rather concise, the tale of betrayal and redemption by the surprisingly likeable Andre Bishop has the added benefit of presenting some interesting story-based challenges.
The tale goes something like this: an extremely promising middleweight up-and-comer, Bishop is being hailed as something of a wonderboy by nearly everyone (including in repeated live-action clips from ESPN Friday Night Fights host Brian Kenny). Andre repeatedly shoots down managing offers from shady promoter DL McQueen, instead siding with his father's trainer, Gus Carisi. McQueen, incensed, sends two dirty cops to mess with Bishop and his brother Raymond and Bishop ends up framed for assault and is tossed in the clink.
Over the years as he serves his sentence, Andre ends up becoming something of a no-rules boxing champion as he provides entertainment for the guards and other inmates until he's finally released and begins the slow road to redemption as a burlier Heavyweight fighter.
Sure, it's fairly trite by sports comeback stories, but that doesn't lessen the impact of the actual cutscenes themselves. They're voiced well, tropes and all, and the final resolution of things is immensely satisfying in that sort of fist-pumping sports movie way. The day is saved. Andre gets his payback and along the way you're treated to not only a raft of different emotional contexts, but unique circumstances that change the fight from being a simple case of beating on the other guy until he goes down.
It's a kind of slowly evolving series of matches that starts out with the contact-only grading of the amateur leagues and slowly graduates to things like having to maintain a cut eye over multiple rounds or avoiding body blows because the compromised judges will call it an illegal shot all the way up to a three-stage showdown with a boxer that's much, much more powerful than even the seriously beefy Andre. It works, and works well, adding just enough wrinkles to the formula to allow them to really gel with the increased speed of matches and particularly finicky nature of using the right stick for all the punches.
The actual boxing matches aren't terribly different from what was seen in Round 4. The Cutman interface for fixing damage is still gone, replaced with a simple meter that will refill set amounts according to how much of a beating you've taken. The boxing itself is markedly speedier than in earlier games, offering hundreds of punches over the course of even shorter games and putting a fairly heavy emphasis on the idea of counter-punching - even more than Round 4 - with just a quick flash indicating a particularly effective counter.
One-shot KOs are available to fighters with the proper stats, including shots to the body, which can make for some seriously satisfying wins - or losses if you don't actually keep that guard up and control the ring. That's still based around quick movements of the left stick, with sways and sidesteps allowing fairly speedy escapes from the corner or the ropes, but as the heavy bag minigame makes obvious, classic fighting-game-style combos can absolutely integrate movement to help sneak a shot through someone's guard if they play the straight game.
Champion's control scheme is indeed... interesting. Face buttons can be used for left/right jabs and hooks, or combined into things like upper-cuts, but the right stick was clearly meant to be the focus, as it allows for a kind of queue of different inputs that allow for fast-snap one-two-three punches or combinations that can really work over players that aren't on their guard. The decision to put the lean and lower-body blows on the same left shoulder modifier will no doubt be as controversial as the overall movement toward faster play, but it can certainly be dealt with, provided you give the game a chance to acclimate you.
It wasn't until we hopped online (more about that spread in a bit) that we realized the importance of even mixing up stronger and lighter punches. In the single-player game, particularly with Bishop as a player, his combination of speed and power meant the power punches were effectively the only way to ensure fairly quick matches. In online, though, someone offering heavy offense will actually make quick work of someone who just tries to power through with wide hooks.
Champion Mode, then, is something of an appetizer to the full Classic Mode, which has all the usual created player options from last year - including the option to use a camera to import your face, and the lengthy process is surprisingly worthwhile. What has changed this time around is the way experience points for training matches are done. No longer are you hampered by poor training rounds, and should players want it, they can simply opt to do a single minigame to boost their stats.
Instead, particular stats are boosted by paying money to train in specific cities' gyms, some of them bestowing better overall perks for stats than your normal, free operations back home. Better still, training enough will unlock abilities and stat boosts (yes, we're effectively talking about perks here), and individual minigame performance is tracked and uploaded online, so high scores can be challenged (with a little notification window when you hop online so you can challenge back).
The whole training process is encapsulated by the overall fight schedule. You can pick when your next bout is and juggle things like sponsor requirements, training and recovery during the lead-up to the fight itself, but there's a constant balancing act between managing overall fighter health and their stats in the limited window between fights since actions gobble up entire weeks at a time. Bonus objectives add an extra layer of challenge, but they can also mean better rewards that add to your overall bankroll, which in turn fuels better results in better gyms and the cycle just keeps on repeating.
Far more staggering than the surprising effectiveness of the training/fight schedule, though, was seeing what a fresh-from-the-amateurs fighter does when actually going for a proper fight win. You win by losing. A lot - mostly because your player's stats aren't going to be amazing, and if you come off playing with what is essentially a monster in the ring like Andre Bishop, it's even more jarring to not have that power. But losses are important: they help you get to know your player and stat boosts have that much more impact. Given the length that the Legacy Mode could last (especially if you spend the time to tweak legends' ranks to get them into the game with you), it's actually a rather important lesson.
Of course, if all this offline play isn't really your thing, you can take your fighter online for bouts that help continue his improvement. And while it's great that you can square off against other people, the real change to this year's game is undoubtedly in the expansion of options for playing with friends. Online Gyms aren't just a place for "clans" to duke it out against each other - you can fight with Gym buddies, helping to establish a tier system (though you obviously can't farm XP this way) for when you opt in for seasons and tourneys - or better still when you develop a rivalry with the other gym.
The Gyms allow for specific match types, too. What players can be used (though actual pros aren't used in gyms, just the guys you've made), if abilities and boosts are allowed for purists that just want to slug it out based on stats, and more. Rivals get to call each other out every two weeks and winning a two-day tourney against them boosts your overall Gym ranking worldwide.
The series made the jump to 60 frames a second last year, pulling the camera back and cutting down on a bit of the up-close detail in the fighters themselves. That's still the case, which means those awesome rippling slow-mo blows from Round 3 aren't really as visceral this time around, but there have been some nice upgrades to the way cloth physics work - particularly the pre-fight, satiny robes the fighters use. In-match, things are almost always smooth, and things like cuts and swelling can become readily apparent in longer bouts (blood will even drip off the players’ faces to run down their chests and stain shorts/the ring), but what was most impressive was the fluidity between punches. EA says they've added twice the number of animations for things like hookercuts to help with the transitions and tweening, and it shows.
Aurally, things sound fantastic, too, especially the rather dramatic flares that kick up when your boxer is dangerously close to going down or are closing in on a stunned opponent. These have a fantastic effect during the Champion Mode moments, too, adding quite a bit of punch to the situation if you've really gotten invested in Bishop's story. Things like hisses and whiffs and taps and full-on contact is all met with clear, meaty sound effects, naturally, but the crowd getting into things really does help add tension to the fight. Big blows are met with the proper reaction, and even the commentary from Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore does a good job of matching the intensity of the fight, even if a lot of the early comments are almost instantly recycled.
Fight Night Champion isn't going to reverse people's opinions of the shift in gameplay style that started with Round 4. It may help them warm up to things a little by providing more context and a story-driven backdrop, but it's still going to be a divisive decision. As someone who gave up early on Round 4, we have to admit that we've finally come around. There's just so much stuff to do in Champion that we feel the little break we gave ourselves (not to mention having to play through the game for this review) has helped rekindle some of that love affair with one of the few sports games we can hold our own in with friends. If you too can put aside the longing for the way things were and adapt to the quicker pacing, shift toward movement and countering and occasionally imprecise use of the right stick, you'll find a fighter that has more than enough content to justify that investment. If not, well... there's always the hope that if Fight Night Round 5 ever happens, it could be like it was.
One thing's for sure: the move to an M rated game, if nothing else, provided a storyline that felt surprisingly entertaining. Fight Night Champion is absolutely worth a look, even if you were burned by Round 4.
Feb 23, 2011