It was my first fight as the great Roberto Duran. A few rounds in, I noticed Duran's white trunks had this odd red pattern on them. After a moment, I realized it wasn't dye in the fabric, but blood. My opponent's blood.
Fight Night Champion shows the brutal price boxers pay for stepping into the ring.
You can practically see the imprint of the glove on someone's face when you tag them enough. You can tell the severity of a cut – from mere scrapes to deep gashes – on the cheek just by looking. And once the blood starts flowing, you'll know it. It's all over the ring -- and Roberto Duran's trunks.
Fight Night Champion, the fifth entry in the series, does an excellent job of enhancing the experience in the ring. Not only can you see the impact of punches, but some gameplay tweaks give you better control over their delivery.
Gone is the old punching system that required complex analogue stick moves, such as half-circle moves for uppercuts. Now, every punch is thrown by flicking the stick quickly in a specific direction. The altered punching system not only speeds up the flow of a bout, but also puts the emphasis of your fighting skills on your strategy. It's nice to know you are definitely throwing an uppercut rather than hoping you made the right movements with the thumbstick to pull one off. You can still attempt a ridiculous rapid-punch session, but the penalty of exhausting your fighter quickly is severe. No one can really play like a fool and have long-term success with Fight Night.
Other changes include replacing the over-the-top haymaker with a modifier to simply add a little oomph to any punch, simplified blocking, and a new stamina/endurance system that's a touch more sophisticated than before. Streamlining the gameplay makes the technical aspects of a fight easier to grasp, allowing you to focus on more important areas -- like trying to actually box.
And when I say "box," I mean as opposed to brawling. The option to just wail away is still present in Fight Night Champion, but only at the default settings. Even then, the addition of flash knockouts requires even mindless punch jockeys to consider using defense. If you don't move around the ring and protect yourself, you risk more than just abuse. The threat of a one-punch KO is constant. Previous Fight Nights had "flash knockdowns" before, which means getting dropped to the mat suddenly with one hit, but a flash knockout means that you are immediately unconscious with no chance to get up. It's an instant KO.
That's new and the danger of such a sudden ending to a fight has an impact on how you play Fight Night Champion. I've had matches where I was winning easily, but because I got careless, I left myself open for the perfect strike at the perfect angle and took a shot that stunned the world.
The AI is smart. In fact, it's smart enough that boxers feel like individuals when you face them. Ali and Tyson don't fight the same way. Ali plays with you; Tyson tries to destroy you. Fighters react well to situations. If you're in the seventh round and they know they're losing on points, they might become more aggressive. If cut, they are often overly protective of that side of their face. Sometimes fighters make dumb moves. Like if Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull, is pounding them inside, they don't move around and play at a distance. Sometimes they just keep coming.
Maybe that's because some fighters are just plain stupid or maybe the AI simply isn't reacting correctly. It's hard to say. I've had fights that feel authentic and others that just don't seem to match up. A cautious Iron Mike Tyson? It happened to me once (at least for three rounds before he landed a punch that flattened Holyfield in a flash).
Even with all these improvements, the battles in the ring are missing the key element that makes professional boxing special -- the drama. As good as the gameplay mechanics are, it still feels like an exhibition. EA must have sensed this, because it took a bit of a gamble and created an all-new story mode that, at least for a few hours, injects some humanity into a generally soulless experience.
Champion Mode has you living out the rise, fall and rebirth of fictional boxer Andre Bishop. The five-hour story is a seamless mixture of cutscenes and boxing matches. Just about every boxing movie cliché is thrown in and yet the story is incredibly compelling. Fights suddenly have meaning. Whether it's kicking the ass of a white supremacist in prison, earning a gold medal at the Amateur World Championships, or stepping into the ring for your first professional fight -- the story creates an incredible impact for Fight Night.
This can lead to some interesting gameplay situations. At one point, you bust your hand on someone's head and have to fight like a southpaw the rest of the match. To get the attention of the boxing world, your corner man demands you knock your opponent on his ass. Winning isn't enough. You have to score a knockout. Some of these criteria get a little tedious, but for the most part it makes Champion Mode stand out from the rest of Fight Night. While it serves as a training tool, Champion Mode also adds some emotional weight to a series that has ignored the human drama of boxing for far too long.
If only everything felt as fresh. Much of the rest of Fight Night feels like the same old game with a new coat of paint splashed on. I don't mind the announcing styling of Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas -- I've heard them on Fight Night before -- but hearing the same people despite new lines of dialogue just feels stale. There's still no great long term stat-tracking happening. Example: there's a Trophy/Achievement for defeating every boxer in the game, so it must be tracked internally, but it's not shown to players. Why not some way to know which boxers I've beaten and whom I've beaten them with?
The real drag is Legacy Mode. This is the career mode for your own created boxer. It's very much like Fight Night Round 4, but with the addition of an economy. You can pay to train at better facilities and fund your career with the sponsorships you earn. Otherwise, this feels like it did before -- a slow, plodding, uninspired drag. I can't say strongly enough how much I dislike Legacy Mode. It's off the mark in almost every way. The training modes are too hard and become tedious. And why do boxers start off fighting so pathetically? No stamina, no power. The matches are slow and boring. I want to be a rising star. Legacy Mode acts like Mike Tyson's first professional fight had him swinging like a kid on the playground.
Legacy Mode is made all the worse by contrast to the genius of the Champion Mode storyline. Frankly, Champion Mode should be the career. All that's needed is to allow users to customize how Andre Bishop's stats improve and then to let them continue the career after the story concludes.
The only way to enjoy a career in Fight Night is online. Though you still start off way too underpowered, the online setup is clever and well worth EA investing more in for the future. Players can create their own gyms, which others can join. It's basically a boxing clan. There are tournaments as well as regular online bouts. It's a great idea, and if taking on real people and not the AI is your thing, the online mode will definitely do the trick.