Knockout Kings 2002 is the first version of the game for the Xbox, and it's certainly the best of the series to date. The Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions are virtually identical; both versions deliver the same thrill of being in the ring, with responsive controls, great graphics, and a control scheme that offers players a phenomenal amount of control over the fighters in the game.
Knockout Kings 2002 includes 45 fighters from the lightweight, middleweight, and heavyweight divisions. Twenty-one are real fighters from the past and present, including the likes of "The Golden Boy" Oscar de la Hoya, Evander "The Real Deal" Holyfield, Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, and Felix Trinidad. The other 24 fighters are fictional fighters you can play as or against. You can also create your own fighter in the game's 15-bout career mode. In all, the game features three modes of play: exhibition, career, and tournament.
The game simply strikes a very good balance between being an authentic boxing experience and being a very intuitive and fun game to play. The game's authenticity includes the real fighters and venues, and the fighters deliver believable performances that are comparable to those in real life. Sure, you won't see Felix Trinidad throw 1,700 punches in a real fight, but the way he bounces around the ring and the damage his punches inflict seem just about right. The gameplay is intuitive, thanks to a great control scheme that is very similar to that of Midway's Ready 2 Rumble Boxing series and Empire's Victorious Boxers. The buttons on the face of the controller deliver your fighter's punches, which include left jab, right cross, left hook, and right hook. The left analog stick controls not only your fighter's movement in the ring, but also the position of his upper body. For example, if you slightly push your analog stick forward, your fighter will duck down. If you push the analog stick slightly to the left, your fighter will lean his upper torso to the left. Pushing the left analog stick all the way in any direction causes your fighter to move in that direction. The great thing about this control scheme is that it actually lets you bob and weave without giving up any mobility or the ability to fire off punches. Another benefit of this control scheme is that you can naturally duck down and throw punches to your opponent's body by using the same buttons you use to throw punches to their head. Even blocking punches takes skill, since you have to push the block button once for every punch you want to block, which forces you to become skilled at timing your opponent's punches and combinations.
The opponent AI in the game is quite good. The game features several levels of difficulty, ranging from extremely easy to ultrahard. The difference between the settings is simply the number of punches and combinations that the computer throws and blocks. On the easy setting, your opponent is little more than a moving punching bag. On the hardest setting, he blocks and evades a good majority of the punches you throw. Plus, he throws a heavy dose of well-placed punches and combinations. The game's pro setting is the sweet spot, since the fighters throw a reasonable number of punches and don't stop everything you send their way. The fighters pick up on your habits as the rounds progress, which means while you may get away with a lot of body punches in the first round, your opponent will start to throw uppercuts to counter them in the second. The fighters even try to stay away when you have them in trouble, which is important since the game doesn't show any health and stamina meters by default, making it important to watch your opponent's demeanor.
Visually, Knockout Kings 2002 for the Xbox is a great-looking game. The first thing you might notice about the game's graphics is that the 3D modelers were very generous when creating the fighter models. Trinidad and the rest of the fighters in the lightweight and middleweight classes look extremely muscular--more so than in reality, but within reason. The faces of almost all the fighters look pretty much like their real-life counterparts. Their faces also realistically degrade after taking damage over a period of rounds and even contort when being struck, which is a neat effect--but it can be seen only during a slow-motion replay. The real eye-catcher that makes Knockout Kings 2002 look great is the game's animation. The fighters move and throw punches quite realistically, although the animations when fighters get knocked down are a bit over-the-top. When you're knocked down, you'll see a neat visual effect of a blurry referee seen from your fighter's view. All the action during play can be seen quite well, since the default camera angle intelligently moves with the fighters during the bout. You can change the camera angle to a variety of views, including a first-person view that actually works fairly well. The only thing that looks a bit off is the collision detection, but only during replays. During play, the collision detection looks spot-on, but when you watch a replay, the punches don't look like they are making realistic contact. To accentuate contact, you'll see sweat and occasionally even blood fly off the fighters as they are struck.
If there were one place that Knockout Kings 2002 could use some improvement, it would have to be in the game's audio department. The ring entrance music, sound effects, and even play-by-play commentary are all well done but simply not as stellar as the game's other aspects. The sound effects are a bit over-the-top, and the ring entrance ditties are fairly generic. Larry Michael and Max Kellerman call the fight and provide commentary, but unfortunately, it's repetitive and dry. It would have been nice to see the designers take advantage of the Xbox's custom soundtrack capability to let players insert their own ring entrance music.
In the end, Knockout Kings 2002 is a great boxing game. It's not a simulation in the sense that it gives you the ability to do everything in the ring that real fighters do, like clinching, but it's a simulation in the sense that the game simply delivers a terrific interpretation of the sport of boxing. You can use finesse and box your opponent if you want, as well as go toe-to-toe--and the game's damage and stamina system rewards you for doing either well. The game looks great, plays very well, and offers enough of a challenge to last a while, which adds up to make Knockout Kings 2002 a must-own for any fighting fan.