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- Fight Night Champion
- CLR [rating:3.5]
Release Date: March 1st, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Boxing Sim/Movie
ESRB: M for Mature
A Heavy Handed Jab at Legitimacy
I never thought I would ever write a review for a sports game on CLR. Nothing against the genre, but they’re all pretty much what you would expect; yearly updates to simulacra that seek to emulate their respective athletic competitions. There just isn’t too much else to say or comment upon. You’re either going to pick up your new copy of Madden 2012: Post-Apocalypse Football, or you’re not.
But boxing is a little bit different, isn’t it? As a sport it has pretty much received a knockout blow in the public’s attention from MMA, at least as one that‘s still regularly followed in bars. Yet as an idea, the sport still captures our attention for all of the great films that have been devoted to it. Rocky, Raging Bull, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, and the recent Academy Award Winning The Fighter; all highly acclaimed films that catalogue the triumphs and travails of heroically flawed underdogs attempting to seek fame and fortune in the squared circle that is the boxing ring.
Drama is where EA has decided to focus their efforts this year on their very dominant boxing franchise, Fight Night. In their fifth iteration Champion, they’re actually going for all-out glory and trying to bring the impactful narrative aspects of the sport that filmmakers have relied upon for years to players at home, and hoping to capture new interest in a dying fan base. But is it a decisive blow, or a whiffed right hook?
Starting up the game, you are immediately thrust into the shoes of Andre Bishop, knocked down in the middle of an intense prison boxing match. Wise words about the courage of getting back onto your feet from his grizzled old trainer Gus float into his head. So he does just that and puts more heart into it, going on to defeat the white supremacist opponent who wants Andre’s head. Retaliation is swift in jail however; the next day the gang member’s cronies attack Bishop in the showers, leaving him for dead. Recovering from the assault in his cell, Andre takes a long deep look into himself and the road that led him to his current predicament.
The result is a series of flashbacks revealing that Andre used to be a middleweight fighter, turning an Olympic medal win into a professional career. He quickly ran afoul of D.L. McQueen, a viciously minded promoter who ruined his life and career. The following tale of Andre’s fall and then rise after prison proceeds at an incredible pace, only punctuated with set piece matches between Bishop and a varied cast of opponents great and small. It eventually culminates in a vicious fight for the heavyweight title against Isaac Frost, a monstrous behemoth obviously based upon the dominating presence Mike Tyson had at the top, except he’s white as a sheet and even more a celebrity jerk than Kanye “Imma let you finish” West.
This attempt at narrative is a true breath of fresh air for a genre that has traditionally never tried to create unique or compelling stories, and if for nothing else the folks at EA should be proud for taking the risk of trying something new. Unfortunately for fans of this particular genre of film though, it’s an obvious first effort, containing far more clichés than characters. Every safe genre trope you can think of is touched upon, from have the grizzled old trainer straight out of Rocky, a prison sequence intended to appease Undisputed fans, and a little familial squabbling that I’m pretty sure will be familiar to those who just saw Christian Bale’s winning performance in The Fighter.
One issue is that the story is conveyed as a series of cinematics surrounding matches, rather than as part of a game that you’re actually playing. You never feel like you’re actually becoming Andre but rather occasionally getting to control him in between short films that have the production value of a Hollywood picture but the expertise of an amateur. It’s to the game’s detriment that this was the path taken, as it just can’t compare to the films it seeks to emulate, and doesn’t take advantage of the medium it’s in.
The story also has about as much subtlety and nuance as a freight train containing jackhammers riding over an active artillery range; the “evil promoter” McQueen is portrayed like Snidely Whiplash, screaming threats at our protagonist and carrying a menacing sneer from the second we see him. If you’ve ever seen David Mamet’s excellent Redbelt, then you know the same character can be done with far greater finesse (though that film is about MMA rather than Boxing, but the sentiment is the same). Plus, it seems most of the scenes only serve to setup the next fight, and rarely do we actually spend much time with the characters. Every great boxing movie has always focused more on these quiet moments between the actual fighting, but this is one aspect that lead writer Will Rokos either missed or didn’t quite grasp.
Now it’s not all bad though, the actual performances of most other characters are rather spot on and the actors tapped to play them, from LaMonica Garret as Andre to Eliza Dushku as McQueen’s daughter Meagan, do fine jobs. The matches themselves are also mostly clever ways to create unique moments, from Amateur League scoring rules, to no holds barred jailhouse brawls, to an intense professional fight where Andre receives a cut in the first round and must beat an opponent without receiving further damage to it. The final battle with Frost is a boss fight on par with some of the best in video games, a long multi-stage affair full of intensity and excitement, but it’s a shame gameplay moments like these aren’t matched by the segments that surround them.
Of course the game’s story is only a small portion of the overall package of Fight Night Champion. It’s still part of an esteemed gaming franchise and all of the other game modes that have garnered the series acclaim are here too. There’s the “Fight Now” mode allowing for one to two players to duke it out as various actual boxers. The roster here is humongous, offering over fifty pros from the likes of Tyson, Ali, Foreman and Pacquiao as well as oddball Butterbean. There’s also a fully featured single player game entitled “Legacy Mode” and it is itself a single player offering as worthy as most other entire games.
In Legacy Mode you design your own fighter with the game’s impressive custom character tools and then proceed from the bottom amateur ranks and into professional bouts at venues as small as local gyms to the largess of the MGM Grand, while hoping to achieve the title of Greatest of All Time (or G.O.A.T.). In between matches you keep your boxer in shape through a series of (surprisingly difficult) training minigames, and manage your remaining time between celebrity appearances, endorsement deals and challenges from other boxers. Most of this is well thought out, but there are strange design choices, like the fact that it apparently takes a week of your boxer’s time to make a simple appearance on a podcast, and that you can get “last minute” fights that are still three months away. In my experience “last minute” is when you rush to make an appointment in an hour, not enough time for seasons to change.
If this isn’t enough of a hearty meal of face punching for you, there are a bunch of online features, from standard player-versus-player fights, to being able to form a clan with other players (appropriately called a Gym), and even uploading and downloading custom boxers. Since the ESPN license is in full effect there’s a nice ticker on most menus to inform you of real time scores on various sporting events. You can even record your matches and then edit together highlight reels with an editor that let’s you be the next Scorcese for twenty second snatches.
When you do, the game’s graphical prowess becomes very apparent (if these screenshots weren’t enough to show this) as the level of detail on the character models and animation is superb. Little details, from pores, stubble, sweat, cuts that get worse as they take punishment and the very realistic wobbles of relaxed muscles are all rendered with such fidelity that it becomes hard not be fooled that what you’re seeing isn’t actually taking place in front of your very eyes. Of course the graphical power this takes up leaves less room for everything else, and minor players like referees and corner men don’t look nearly as impressive and also all seem to be using the same retextured models (also, the scorecard girls all have an odd bit of butterface syndrome).
The audio is no slouch either, featuring very accurate sound effects from your fighters, roaring crowds and copious amounts of play-by-play dialogue from trainers and ringside announcers. The announcers are fairly entertaining for a while, especially the older slightly punch-drunk Joe Tessadore, whose impromptu boxing analogies can come out of left field and deliver some hilarious lines reminiscent of Fred Willard’s best moments from Best In Show. After a while though, even these two engaging personalities start to repeat themselves heavily, and you can thankfully turn them off after you hear them talk about your jab for the hundredth time.
The soundtrack for the game also delivers, both with the story mode’s sweeping orchestral sounds, and groovy licensed menu songs that are almost impossible not to bounce around to. If nothing else the soundtrack might be one of the best workout mixes I’ve ever heard; I found myself occasionally doing push ups just to keep to the beat between matches, and also probably out of shame. You never realize how out of shape you are until you’re staring at half naked athletes in their prime for hours on end, even when they’re just virtual copies.
The actual fighting mechanics utilize a unique approach of flicking the right analog stick to throw punches, though button press options are also present for the more traditionally minded. For the most part the controls are tight, but quite often you find that they are a bit unresponsive with rapid commands, and it’s very easy at first to make extra punches until you adapt to pulling off your thumb after each input. This becomes frustrating as each punch thrown drains your fighter’s stamina, and these errant swings can cost you in longer matches. Overall though it’s a scheme simple enough to understand, but offers enough depth to keep interest for the long haul.
If the last boxing game you played was Punch-Out, be prepared for a steep learning curve as this is a hardcore simulation that expects you to know boxing strategies inside and out. This tough curve is also due to the fact that the game never really teaches the player much. There are in-game manuals that show command lists, but other than that you’re on your own, especially if you decide to go online and fight hardcore fans.
The story campaign can serve as a bit of a tutorial, but it’s much easier than every other mode and neglects fundamental strategy in favor of novelty. Learning how to fight a short brawler when you’re a long range jabber, or how to properly weave out of the way of a powerful blow and deliver a counter is never directly taught to the player, and it makes it very difficult for a new audience to come to the table, which just seems counterintuitive to Andre Bishop’s otherwise newbie-friendly epic. After fifteen hours of playing the game I still found myself learning more on how to actually play the game from comments the announcers made and intuition than anything taught to me purposely, which is a sign of at least partial failure of informing the user on key information.
While the poor training may be a direct result of appealing to the hardcore, and can be overcome with perseverance there is another far more troubling and fundamental issue that can only be attributed to poor production quality; the game crashes all of the time. This could be due to a poor print run of discs at the manufacturing stage, or perhaps to awful streamer programming. Huge gameplay hitches of ten to twenty seconds occur mid-swing often two or three times a fight, and occasional disc read errors will force you to reboot your system causing lost progress or a disconnection loss to an online opponent. There are also nasty crashes that seem ingrained in the game’s programming; my Middleweight Legacy Mode fighter seems forever stuck, as after I won my first belt, the game crashed every time I tried to book a new fight.
Though this might seem to be isolated to a single disc, a quick online search proved otherwise; crashing seems to be a common problem for Fight Night fans across the world. Some of these issues will hopefully be fixed with upcoming updates and patches, but if the culprit does lie in a manufacturing error there’s little to recommend other than to not buy the game. It’s unfortunate, and I hate to comment on such technical issues in any critical analysis, but when they’re this bad it becomes impossible to ignore. After all, no one ever read a book and found that the words blanked out on them when they turned the page . . . well except maybe some unfortunate Nook users.
At the end of the day Fight Night Champion, when it works, proves to be a great experience. The addition of a story brings heart and soul to a genre where these elements are often the most lacking, and hopefully other sports and fighting games will see this as an invitation to surpass rather than ignore. The other features are rich in value and the core gameplay is fun, looks great, and contains plenty of depth for those that stick around. While it’s not the greatest boxing tale ever told, it’s competent enough for a first effort in new territory to merit a gander. My only hope is that this continues on in a sequel that learns when to pull its punches rather than simply deliver haymaker plot devices, and you know . . . won’t crash constantly.