A bare-knuckle prison fight against a white supremacist might seem like an unusal way to introduce players to EA’s new boxing sim, and it is. It is also hugely effective.
Playing out like any number of the Rocky films, Fight Night Champion’s appropriately titled ‘Champion Mode’ charts the career of fictional boxer ‘Andre Bishop’ on his quest to become the world heavyweight title holder It is clear from the outset that EA have sought to construct a much grittier experience in Fight Night Champion than those found in its predecessors. Blood peppers the mat when an open wound is struck, eyes swell and darken beneath repeat blows, and knock-outs are replayed with a sickening crunch as glass jaws are smashed.
Add to this a number of in-fight scenarios the player must face on Bishop’s road to the heavyweight title (a broken hand in one match, a rigged judging panel in another etc), and the stage is set for a truly uplifting underdog story. For a conceit that could easily have been crippled by its own pomposity, the narrative is remarkably engaging; when the thundering score kicks in as Bishop pummels his faltering opponent against the ropes, you’ll forgive any lack of originality, simply because you feel like the protagonist in one of the aforementioned boxing movies.
The drawback to this is that all too rarely will Bishop be up against an opponent in a straight fight, and the handicaps and challenges can detract from the feel of Fight Night Champion as a legitimate boxing sim. Overall though, ‘Champion Mode’ is the game’s biggest highlight, and one I would be keen to see EA develop on in future Fight Night titles.
EA have also made a few alterations to the control scheme. Gone is the complex thumstick-waggling of previous titles, replaced by a simple flick in the direction you want your shot to be thrown. The right thumbstick is split vertically, with flicks to the left controlling the left hand, and flicks to the right doing the opposite. Body shots are thrown by crouching with the left trigger, and your fighter’s arms are raised in defence with the right. It is a system that still takes a little getting used to, but helps in freeing up the flow of the match, without the need for frustrating combinations and rotations of the thumbsticks. This may deter veterans of the series who have mastered the old system but is, in my opinion, a much improved method of control when the action becomes more frenetic.
For those looking for a more authentic boxing experience, there is ‘Legacy Mode’, in which you create a boxer of your own from scratch (or choose an existing template), and guide him through the world of professional boxing. Players use experience points earned in fights and training sessions to ‘level up’ their boxers, assigning power to certain attacks or increasing dexterity and defence. While this is a legitimate (if rather dull) way of managing a player’s fighting aptitude, a more organic method could have been employed, automatically increasing a boxer’s ‘left hook’ if they used it more effectively than any other attack, or increasing a player’s defence as reward for successfully blocking an opposing fighter’s flurry.
Boxer creation itself is relatively well equipped to deal with any aesthetic modifications you want to throw at it. The face templates are comprised almost entirely of cauliflower-eared neanderthals, but the wealth of clothing customisation should sate the appetite of anyone wanting to put their own mark on their in-game fighter.
Perhaps tying in with the RPG-like stance ‘Legacy Mode’ takes is what feels like a lot of grinding. You’ll book yourself a fight, train in the gym (be it strength, fitness or both), fight your opponent, assign stats, and start the process over. And over. And over.
I must admit to seeing a very small amount of ‘Legacy Mode’ simply because it felt so tedious in comparison to ‘Champion Mode’, and it is something EA will have to address in future titles. There is certainly a market for gamers who would like to create their own champion and guide him through the ranks, but at the moment EA simply aren’t addressing them sufficiently.
Of course there is always the option to ignore both the ‘Champion’ and ‘Legacy’ modes and jump straight into a fight with one of the fifty-odd licensed boxers the game ships with. The excellent AI makes each fight unique. My first was against Muhammad Ali, who proceeded to dance circles around my Holyfield, swinging helplessly like an elephant trapped in a net until Ali delivered a stunning combination that sent me staggering and knocked me cold in one fell swoop. Tyson, conversely, will charge at you with the ferocity he is famous for, delivering winding body blows and near-fatal hooks. Reading opponents and developing strategies is the key to success in Fight Night Champion, and players shouldn’t rush into a fight expecting to knock their opponent out in seconds.
Fight Night Champion then, is a worthy entry in the franchise. Veterans will find plenty of depth in the combat, whilst newcomers can enjoy a slightly more streamlined control scheme, along with the excellent ‘Champion Mode’ that will have you hooked for its short-but-sweet three hour runtime.