When you launch a new product range, your first game/cheese/film/whatever has to embody everything that’s good about the brand. SSX was the perfect launch game for EA BIG because it captured everything the label stood for; that is to say exciting, extreme and over the top. Unfortunately for EA Freestyle, flagship title FaceBreaker couldn’t be a bigger mismatch if it tried.
In EA’s words: “EA SPORTS Freestyle games, while based in sports, will be playful, inclusive, casual, and easy to pick up and play for kids and parents, women and men, and casual and hardcore sports fans of all ages”. Yet in a catastrophic miscalculation of judgment on the developers’ part, FaceBreaker’s target audience will find themselves alienated by an impenetrable difficulty curve. The frustrating thing is that this isn’t a complicated game. Between jabbing two buttons for high and low punches, and holding them to dodge incoming swings of the same height, you’ll be able to breeze through the first few bouts. Timing is crucial. The difference between winning and losing is your reaction to the split-second warning of a countered punch. If you can switch between the offensive hammering of a button to holding it when one of your swings misses then you’ve essentially mastered the game.
Goth-chick Kiriko is the perfect example of this strategy at work. Predictably for EA BIG’s successor, there are plenty of larger-than-life characters, each with a signature stun attack. In Kiriko’s case this is countering a dodge, and it will leave the opponent groggy for a few seconds. With one move she’s able to gain a valuable advantage, and one which can win a match in a heartbeat. The current office record stands at nine seconds. It’s all down to the titular FaceBreaker move – a Fatality-style instant-win. String enough hits together in a row without reply and a couple of jabs followed by an uppercut (along with two well-timed follow-up punches, but simply mashing the buttons will suffice) are all that’s needed to win the fight, regardless of health bars or knock-out tallies. As such, both single-player and multiplayer bouts boil down to who can dodge and counter the quickest to build up their FaceBreaker meter. Nothing more, nothing less.
To try and mix things up there are other commands at your disposal. One button blocks incoming hits, and, if timed correctly in conjunction with a dodge, you’ll catch your opponent’s fist in mid-air and nail them with a punch of your own. You can also throw the other boxer into the nearest corner and unleash a guard-breaking uppercut. Given the strength of the dodging tactic they’re rarely called upon, but it never hurts to mix up your style.
But even on the easiest setting, the AI is uncompromisingly tough. Either you’ll manage to time those blocks just right, or you’ll be beaten, bloodied and broken in seconds. It’s not uncommon to see every punch countered, something that the game boasts about from the off: “Expect to lose, frequently. Once you’ve been humiliated thoroughly, try practice or pull out the ‘how to play tips’. Wuss.” To make matters worse, the AI will string together the same few moves again and again until you either keel over or find a way to halt the barrage.
FaceBreaker is designed to be inclusive, casual, and easy to pick up and play, but with the exception of practice, the single-player mode is redundant for the very audience it’s trying to cater to. The ability to import pictures into the Photo Game Face mode and create a lifelike boxer is a wonderful tool, as are the character and highlight reel sharing options. Interesting boxers, amusing locations (attention to detail, such as the two crabs tussling on The Ship’s ring apron, is particularly impressive) and simple-to-learn moves only serve to further emphasize this is a game conceived with EA Freestyle’s audience in mind. All that was needed was enough play-testing to balance the game. Instead we’re left with multiplayer matches dominated by the characters with the easiest stun moves, and no worthwhile single-player experience to speak of. EA Freestyle’s first swing at greatness, while technically impressive, lands miles off the mark.
Sep 4, 2008