When Ubisoft's surprising movie-inspired boxing videogame Rocky
first hit consoles in the autumn of 2002, I was surprised at how well it captured the theatrical experience. Though it was no secret around the office that quite a few of us were Rocky
fans already, the Rage-developed fighter drew us in with more than just the power of its license -- it also nabbed us with its easy to understand boxing mechanics and satisfying fast-paced gameplay. Not to mention the fact that its two-player head-to-head modes were amazing fun, with only a few technical glitches and AI issues holding it back.
Despite our strong feelings about the game, however, we never expected in a million years that Ubi would ever follow it up with a sequel; especially after developer Rage Software closed its doors not too long after Rocky was released. But much to our surprise, Ubisoft has indeed brought us another installment of the franchise and brought back the original development team as well (under the new guise of Venom Games). At first glance, the features list sounds pretty impressive too -- with several new modes, additional boxers, 13 more venues, and other cool extras that weren't available before. But in the two years since Rocky first graced our consoles, a lot of things have changed in the world of sporting videogames. Production values have dramatically increased, gameplay mechanics have evolved, and standards have been steadily raised. All of which leave us to ponder the question: does Rocky Legends still hold up?
For undemanding action fans who aren't looking for a simulation of the sport, then that answer is probably yes, as Rocky Legends is still incredibly easy to get into and can be classified as a pure arcade boxer. Identical to the last game in terms of control, it's a drastically different experience than EA's Fight Night 2004 and will probably give fans of that game quite an awkward adjustment.
Though analog movement is possible here as well, Legends doesn't employ the right analog stick for punching at all. Instead, throwing your fists is handled with the four face buttons with the top two representing left and right head shots and the bottom two corresponding to body blows. Pressing up and down on the directional pad or analog stick while throwing a simultaneous punch provides hook modifiers, while holding down the trigger is what allows you to throw uppercuts. Make no mistake about it, though, the system is nowhere near as intuitive as Fight Night, but it's nowhere near as complicated either -- and just about anybody of any skill level can string together some nice combinations to give even the most novice user a fighting chance.
In fact, it's Rocky Legends' reliance on tap-tap combo mechanics that almost qualifies it as a traditional fighting game rather than a boxing title. Bob attacks, one-twos, and weaving body shots can all be pulled off just like they are in real life, but the flow of the match is much more reminiscent of the choreographed fight sequences of the movie than that of the actual sport (which is exactly what it's supposed to be). Either way, a number of new gameplay elements have been added over the last time to enhance the engine even further -- like the incorporation of three-hit super combos and an all-new push-off maneuver to keep swarming opponents from leveling you too quickly. Another new addition, the audience bar, is what allows you to build up your three-hit combo meter in the first place (which is raised based on a consistent performance), and an interesting new feature known as "Fury Mode" helps players in trouble (aka 30% or lower health) throw punches twice as fast to avoid being knocked out.
Overall the various gameplay additions make for a pretty entertaining bout of pugilism, but even more so when playing against a human opponent; as the same AI hitches that allowed your CPU enemies in the last game be so dominated by jabs, is the same problem that users will run into here (though the AI is at least a little bit harder than it was before).
For quicker players on the go, however, the stiff movements of your characters and the somewhat delayed and mechanical blocking system may get frustrating when facing flurry punchers (I know it did for me), and makes you wonder why the analog block introduced in EA's Fight Night 2004 wasn't adopted here -- because with a fighting system so reliant on combos, it would have added a nice strategic element.
If returning players don't have any of the gameplay hang-ups that are left over from the original Rocky, though, then there's quite a bit to like here. As not only can players now fight their way through the career of the Italian Stallion just as they did before, but they can also take part in the careers of Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago. Curious as to how Apollo met his trainer Tony or how Drago got into boxing in the first place? Then this is the mode for you. And though the storyline elements in your journey are rather limited when compared to the fleshed-out narrative of the first game, it's still pretty cool to watch Clubber fight his way out of prison or watch Apollo sport the world's biggest videogame afro since NBA Street Vol. 2.
I also liked the much more realistic ranking tree that enables players to fight the guys they want to fight at their own pace: providing them with almost 40 different fighters (each with unique styles and abilities) to compete against as they go along with the plot. But since this mode is merely meant to tell a story, don't expect the lineup of ranked fighters to change that much -- it's just not what it's there for. Instead, it's used as a great way to get players to beef up their character for the final showdown against whomever it is they're supposed to ultimately fight -- and to coerce them into participating in the various training mini-games.
The mini-games are can be pretty fun too and are much better than they were before. Totaling nine in all, each of the stat-enhancing side missions allow players to skip rope, use the heavy bag, perform sit-ups, or even chase chickens around a back ally; and each and every one of them uses unique and varying mechanics to differentiate each exercise from each other. Some of these mini-games are even character specific (like Drago's squat push or Apollo's sparring), and the majority of them are pretty challenging to master. Clubber's chin-ups, in particular, can be a total pain in the ass and will require players to practice like crazy before they can do things as easily as they'd like.
There are several other remaining modes too, be they traditional survival contests, customizable knockout tournaments, or the de facto exhibition matches. And when you throw in an absolute ton of unlockable fighters, venues, trailers, and extra costumes that can purchased with your fight earnings, Rocky Legends is definitely a much deeper game than the first one -- but with one glaring omission.
You see, contrary to previous reports and press releases, the online mode has been completely removed from the game entirely. Though never confirmed for the PlayStation 2 version, it was definitely expected to appear on Xbox Live; and was supposed to add a considerable amount of replay to what is easily Rocky's most appealing mode: its two-player competitive play. But regardless of which system that feature was supposed to appear on originally, the lack of online support in either version is a pretty big loss -- especially in an age when just about every competitive game is online by default. The reason that this feature was omitted comes as a complete shock to me and is a powerful loss for those of us expecting to go worldwide with our Rocky skills like originally planned.
On a more positive note, Ubisoft has managed to correct a few of our nitpicks from the original version of the game -- the first and most obvious of which, is that Rocky and Clubber Lang are now southpaws like they're supposed to be. Moreover, the developers have now added a slight body damage effect to the ribs and chest area as well -- expanding on the already-cool facial damage system that was introduced in the first game, with perhaps the most pleasant surprise being the fact that the incorrect scoring problems that were prevalent last time have now been completely fixed -- and it's actually possible to get 10-7 rounds like you're supposed to.
Ubisoft has also gained the rights to a few additional theme songs from the quintilogy of movies that it hadn't had before, and the new venues, fighters, and audiences have all been improved considerably. Though not as realistic as the oft-compared Fight Night 2004 in terms of facial likenesses, animations, or textures, what we do get is still more than expectable and a noticeable (if slight) improvement over the Rocky of 2002.
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