STAFF REVIEW of Fight Night Champion (Xbox 360)

Monday, March 21, 2011.
by Matt Paligaru

Fight Night Champion Box art Fight Night has become the definitive voice of boxing video gaming. Ever since Knockout Kings made way for Fight Night in 2004, every game has been better than the last, with all types of enhancements along the way. It has been a fairly lonely 18 months at the top for Fight Night Round 4, a game that showed some of the highs and lows of boxing. EA did well to support the product, providing numerous DLC packs along the way. Some overpriced ($5 for a ruleset?,) but many free, and all fun. EA would also run product placement server updates as recently as September, where your fighters could appear on Friday Night Fights sponsored by the new Resident Evil movie. Combine a great fight engine, an interesting (read: unresponsive but tolerable) stick control system and the largest roster to date, and what's left that's still needed?

Realism. Fight Night Round 3 had very little, and while Round 4 had more, it still left a bit to be desired for those seeking a real boxing experience. While the game wasn't overtly cartoony or unrealistic, Fight Night Round 4 left behind some of the in-game fight damage mechanics its predecessors had brought to the forefront. This realistic element is what EA Sports hopes to capture in its upcoming release Fight Night Champion.

Champion hopes to fix some of the oversights of Round 4, as well as providing a much more realistic and dark portrayal of the realistic possibilities in boxing, and not necessarily in the ring. How realistic? It has been given an M rating based on the brutality promised. Also added to the fray are one-punch knockouts, something boxing has, but Fight Night lacked. Fight Night Round 4 suffered slightly in the fact that rarely did your fighter provide you with a one knockdown win, no matter how devastating the beating laid upon the opponent prior to the fall.

The newest and biggest addition to the Fight Night Family is the eponymous Champion Mode, something that was previewed as game-changing, taking you away from the comfort of a regular boxing ring and training regimen. You would begin the game in prison of all places, working your way out into boxing supremacy ala Dwight Mohammed Qawi (who still has yet to make his Fight Night debut.) Pushing the fight outside the ring is a huge risk as well. Sports games that have deviated outside of its normal boundaries have either done very well (Fifa Street) or have been so poor that the mere mentions of their existence cause the stiffest of toes to curl and the freshest of milks to curdle (WCW Backstage Assault.) A simple playthrough will determine whether this risky mode and risky addition of one punch knockouts would overshadow the entire game experience.

Much like NBA 2K11, the game starts you in a scenario and has you pick up and play right away. Once the game is popped in for the first time, you're taken through a slight cinematic and then start in the middle of getting knocked down, of which you're supposed to get up to find yourself in a bare knuckle brawl. Welcome to the first part of Champion Mode, where you will be playing out the life and livelihood of Andre Bishop. You're not clear why he ended up in jail, but you've got better things to worry about when your opponent is flying toward you in a fit of rage. Once you move past that, you play what is almost a movie-video game hybrid documenting Andre's rise and fall from boxing stardom, and his interaction with his family and friends in the face of a corrupt boxing promoter that will do anything and everything to get his way, or ruin those around him if he doesn't. This mode employs every single boxing movie cliche in the book, including:

-The 100 year old trainer with a Brooklyn accent that wears a painter's cap and hates the corrupt promoter.
-The protagonist's parents dying previously in a mysterious accident.
-The attractive daughter of the corrupt promoter that has better morals than her father.
-The corrupt promoter being about 60 and looking like Malcolm McDowell.
-A Younger brother that follows in his brother's footsteps
-Jail and jail gangs
-A clear-cut e plots with numerous types of fun adversity to overcome that only a high-budget Hollywood film (or high budget video game) could provide.

The only thing missing was a plot-defining montage featuring the music of Joe Esposito or Bonnie the way, you'll learn how to strategize your fights based on the scenario presented in front of you. It is my recommendation to continue on with Champion Mode, as it is clearly put together well enough to train you how to play the game well along with guiding you through its story. It's never clear to you whether it is ok to quit, however, or whether you have to continue on to the end, which is approximately 4-6 hours of gameplay. You should know the game does save after every fight/checkpoint scenario, so you are able to quit and pick up later. The game also does not change if you lose, or quit, and will simply allow you to start from the last checkpoint (it automatically saves.)

As I'd mentioned, the gameplay for Champion Mode is approximately 4-6 hours total depending on how quickly your fights are over. You're put into some very interesting scenarios along the way (such as completing a fight with a broken hand) that will help you sharpen different aspects of your fight game until you reach the final match, or the "boss fight" if you will. I admit - I breezed through story mode with relative ease until I got to the final boss, and at the time of writing this, I had not completed it. The skill and difficulty jump is so great that I had trouble making it out of the 5th round no matter what I did. Not to say the boss is unplayable, because he is not. However, because of the closed ended nature of the mode, you do not have the ability to grind out better skills through training camp, and it may be a frustrating experience until you are done. Waiting for you on that side are a cool 10 achievement points, and bragging rights that you actually completed champion mode without throwing the game in the trash in a fit of rage.

Next up is legacy mode, which bares many similarities to the mode of the same name in Round 4. Same premise - You start as an up and coming fighter and work your way up an amateur tournament and into the pros enroute to becoming the greatest of all time. There is a lot of deja vu here in the outlay, down to the fonts used. A similar HUB and similar features are interfaced differently, however, the new training style is a fair bit more realistic, with the ability to focus different styles for different fighters, which you can prepare through by paper scouting your opponent prior to. There are better opportunities to apply logic to your approach of a fight, but if you're the type that just wants to run and gun and stand toe to toe with your opponent raining down hammers, well that's still there for you to do too. The XP system is a much better way to hone your fighter than generalized permanent increases based on training, and will create a much more accurate fighter overall per your preferences.

Outside of that, there isn't much more to add. If you've played Fight Night Legacy Mode before, you know that mixed in amongst your training and fighting, you can be challenged to different fights from different fighters (I found this to happen, however, only when the fighter was an up and comer. After establishing yourself in the top of your division, nobody was asking for title shots.) Moving up a weight class is different than Round 4 too. You no longer need to prove yourself and work up through the top ten. Once you are an established fighter that holds titles in a lower weight class, you're free to challenge for the next division's titles right away. You are held, however, to just the one weight jump. Even though most weight classes are less than 10 pounds apart, you cannot be the next Manny Pacquiao and hold titles in 7 different divisions.

Lastly is the standard exhibition or "Play Now" mode. The roster, while fairly rounded at 54 fighters, isn't as large as previous games. Fortunately, there is a Fighter Share mode provided by EA. Much like Smackdown vs. Raw 2011, you can download other peoples' created fighters. There are some great reproductions, and some very very bad ones. Cleverly, some afficionados took to using the XBox Live cam and a picture of the real boxer and creating their fighter with that, so you do have some very good looking reproductions. This is a quick way to help you bolster that roster with the likes of Rocky Balboa and Clubber Lang, find some user-created versions of fighters dropped from previous editions like Arturo Gatti and Floyd Mayweather, and even find those fighters that haven't made it yet like Dwight Muhammed Qawi and ever charismatic Prince Naseem Hamed, arguably the most popular fighter to never make it into these games.

You will hear a familiar sound when you launch into your first fight - Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas are back calling all the glitz and action. Both bring back the charm that has made their commentary work so well throughout the years. Tessitore's enthusiasm is unparalleled, as it Atlas' inability to make sense. Atlas throws out some absolute gems this time around, including comparing boxing to a hot dog eating contest, and a fighter that regularly wins by KO to "A character in one of 'dem jaw movies" (probably in reference to Jaws).

If you have played a previous Fight Night, you'll also see that the controls are different, yet the same. Total Punch Control has been tweaked slightly, and is still available via the stick, however, they have also brought back button control punching that was popular previous to Fight Night Round 4. This allows for both types of players to thrive, as well as allowing the more experienced players to vary and switch up on the fly. You may also notice that the punch recognition engine has changed. In promising a more realistic fight experience, punching has changed to where your punch is impacted by where, how and when you throw the punch. Throw the wrong punch too close in, and you will simply hook your arm around your opponent's head. Punch too soon and you whiff. Severity of punches will depend on how they land. No longer will all of your punches be so crisp and perfect, which took away from much of the simulation aspect of the past. This will require a re-adjustment phase, but thankfully that shouldn't take long.

The only downfall of the new control structure is with so many buttons for punching, all of the other functions end up scrunched up into what little buttons are left over. The majority of left over functions now reside on the left side D-Pad, and it is an absolute pain. The signature punch is gone, and forget being cutesy and switching stances mid-frenzy. With low blows being mapped to the up and down of the D-Pad, it is too easy to try to switch stances and accidentally head butt your opponent. Likewise, it is too easy to TRY to headbutt your opponent and accidentally taunt, leaving you open to a clean shot.

The unveiling of Champion up until release was through a series of stunning trailers and preview pieces. These trailers were so well done that they could make the hardest of boxing haters excited for such a game. Unfortunately, it ended up being like one of those comedy trailers where the funniest parts are in the previews already. It's not to say this game isn't good, because it is. I just felt something was missing overall, whereas I felt like I received a pretty complete experience playing Round 3 and Round 4.

The Andre Bishop story mode is very well done, and to those who have not played the game, don't quit out when it begins because it is not just a solid (albeit predictable) plot line, but if you have never played it, or Fight Night in general before, it will teach you not just how to get started, but how to become a well rounded fighter.

Overall, is this game worth $60? Maybe? It's definitely not "no" but I admit I would pick most EA Sports games made over the last year before I picked this one if I could only pick one. I consider myself to be one of Fight Night's staunchest supporters, and while I appreciate the improvements and changes they made, I had a hard time separating some of the darker aspects of this game being any different than just Fight Night Round 4 with the contrast setting on my TV turned lower. Certainly, the game is much more graphic at times (especially with some of the cinematic elements of Champion Mode) but some of the on-screen gore seemed to be re-hashing some of the ugliness available in Fight Night Round 3 before it was somewhat toned down for Round 4.

I can certainly see value in the game's claim of providing a much more realistic experience, as you will quickly see when punches no longer make automatic beelines for your opponent like magnets to a fridge, and you'll laugh the first couple times a punch completely sails by your opponent's head while he is in a daze, however, the game still lacks a few key elements in regard to making it a much more realistic experience. Still, the game does well to give a bit of a look at the seedy underbelly of boxing, and the fact that the franchise remains unlicensed means EA should have the ability to continue to do with the game as it pleases.

Graphics: 9/10 - The game's graphics remain pretty and full of detail. The Andre Bishop cinematics look fantastic, and the amount of detail put into everything (even small things like skin blemishes) is admirable. The amount of work done to continue making the fighters as real as possible also continues to be one of the strongest visual suits of this game. Cuts and swelling continue to be as close to the real thing as possible too. The biggest complaint I have with this game is with the amount of seemingly recycled everything. Much of the presentation outside of the graphical enhancements are basically the same thing over again, especially some of the cooler aspects of old like the slo-mo multi-angle knockdown cam during fights, which is basically just the same thing 3 games running now.

Sound: 7/10. Something's missing. Everything here just does not match up to where it should be. So many of the sound effects have been shuffled over from Round 4 that it feels like I never left at times. After releasing an amazing soundtrack that is comparable to any of the best sports games of all time in the previous game, this one makes me neither excited or fired up to box. It seems like the Konrad Old Money show with one fantastic track (Aloe Blacc's "I need a Dollar") and a dozen other unmemorable secondary tracks. EA could have kept the recycling ball rolling and put the Round 4 soundtrack into this game as well, and it would've scored higher. Still, credit where credit is due. The sound does not falter, and does well to accentuate the fights and training. The tense music during the Andre Bishop fight scenarios is a bit cheesy, but given that the whole thing is supposed to play out like a motion picture, it's more than tolerable.

Controls: 6/10. Button Cacheing. Badly mapped left D-Pad controls. Get past these and the controls are pretty good, however, it's a hindrance knowing you could accidentally throw low blows when you mean to switch a stance, and that the total fight control on the right stick can sometimes be so feather sensitive that it lines you up 6 punches when you meant to throw one and shuffle for another. This will ease up with experience once you have gotten used to how the system works, but it can be extremely frustrating those first few fights. It's nice to have the ability to use both the sticks and the buttons at your leisure to throw punishing combos, but those default controls really cripple tactical switch fighters that like to mix things up.

Overall, this game is so indicative of the rest of the current boxing industry that it's ridiculous - So much promise, but a tremendous let down in the end. Much like any of the boxing superfights being hopped at any given time, fans get so amazingly excited only to be left with an empty wallet asking "That's it?" This game feeds into the "That's it?" mentality. It's strange thinking about this as I type out my final thoughts, but too often we ponder that a perfect game may be achieved by taking elements of a couple games and putting them into one release. EA did here, and somehow, there's something missing. This game took the brutality elements, control scheme and realism potential of Fight Night 3, the other control scheme, basic mechanics and fight engine of Round 4, injected it with a dose of reality and a permanent in-game dimmer switch and called it Champion.

Please don't get me wrong. This is a very good game and those of you who will be picking it up having never played a previous current gen boxing game will be very happy with it. However, for the dedicated fans who have waited with baited mouthpiece for that next vulgar display of brutality, it falls short. Putting it in cinematic terms, this isn't like EA presenting Godfather III as a worthy continuation of an amazing series. This is more like EA releasing Back to the Future II. Sure it's great, but when you have knocked a previous attempt so far out of the park and set the bar of expectations that much higher and then show up on release day with this, it's just going to fall short in its overall expectations.

The game, however, remains faithful to the sport of boxing, and continues to be a worthy ambassador for the dignity it looks to get back after so many years of disappointment. Champion Mode, as cheesy as it is remains a gripping look at the hardships we don't see that often out of professional athletes while never letting you forget that this is in fact a video game. The one punch knockouts happen appropriately, with an appropriate enough frequency that it never gets old, and the game does make you earn it before you actually get to have it. My previous complaints aside, as a longtime Fight Night fan, I will continue to show up and support every effort this series puts out, but there's a lot of rebuilding that will have to be in-store for whatever they choose to call the sixth game.

The controls are far too sensitive out of the box. If that can be somehow re-tooled for the next game, that would be awesome. Control mapping is just fine (even the left D-Pad can be managed if everything was less sensitive) and I would really recommend leaving that the way it is because I think it's finally at that point where it could work for everybody.

It might be time to completely retool the Legacy Mode and add more elements of reality. The cuts/swelling damage meter is a great addition, but I'd like to see more in the way of career threatening/ending possibilities, like one too many head shots taken resulting in things like concussions and too many concussions leading to PCS symptoms resulting in early retirement. Legacy Mode sponsorships seemed to be a bit broken as well. I don't think I encountered a case where I was getting more than 5,000 for sponsorships, even when I was a world champion pulling in so much money per fight that it made no sense to not just wear my own gear.

Outside of that, what else could make the game that much cooler? A promoter mode for Fight Night 6 would be amazing. All the other sports games have some form or variation, but the ability to promote and sponsor fights and fighters would be a great boost. Make sure promoter mode fighters come with their baggage too, whether it be a penchant for performance enhancing drugs, or money, or what have you. It's not boxing without dramatics and theatrics.

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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