Well, this is unexpected.
I am a few minutes into the latest edition of EA Sports’ Fight Night series, and my boxer is lying prone on the ground, a bloody and broken mess, after being jumped in the prison showers by three white supremacists. Of course, I did just head-butt my way to a prison-yard victory over one of them, but this still seems like a fairly sharp left-turn for what had until now been a fairly predictable franchise.
In an attempt to spice things up for the series (and create the sort of new angle for marketing that the stagnant boxing world seems unable to provide), the focal point of Fight Night Champion is not the traditional ‘create a Superstar and fight your way up the ranks’ approach players will be familiar with. Instead, it is the Champion mode, following the ups and downs of a fictional contender. It’s a brave new approach for the franchise and for sports games in general, and it certainly throws up some surprising moments.
The story is that of Andre Bishop, an up and coming middle-weight for whom things quickly spiral out of control in an every-cliche-in-the-book tale of corruption, greed, sibling rivalry and racially tinged prison violence. Players control Bishop in each fight on his path to glory, and despite some predictable plot twists, its an engaging story that provides context for the battles fought, and throws up unexpected in-game challenges.
However, players do not control the story. You are the actor here, but not the scriptwriter - a predetermined character on a predetermined path. Lose and you have to keep bashing away until you progress. In other words, it is fun, but only until you’ve negotiated the plot once. It’s also both brutal and full of the sort of language that is part and parcel of modern gaming, but not so common in sports titles. I’m as far from a prude about such things as it is possible to get, but it does seem a shame to think that the red rating label on the case will mean some poor kid out there will be unable to pick up a boxing title because of a few largely unnecessary nods to the Grand Theft Auto market.
Of course, despite its title, Fight Night Champion does not live and die on its Champion mode. The more traditional Legacy mode, in which players progress a created character fight-by-fight from amateur to champion, remains intact. There are, however, a few tweaks, considerably improved graphics and refined gameplay.
Most obviously, the game is significantly prettier and smarter than its predecessors. Fighters are more realistic both in appearance and action. They look and move much more like real people, run when hurt, struggle when out of breath, bleed like stuck pigs when cut, and actually fight with distinctive personalities.
Gameplay has also been improved by refining the right-stick punch controls. The same variety of blows is available as before, but they’re all easier to access. At times they’re perhaps too easy: more than once I got stuck punching air as I unleashed a backlog of superbly executed upper-cuts. Combined with more natural in-ring movement, the result is a less-structured, more fluid and more realistic fighting experience, with greater need for good defence, and greater excitement generated by good offence.
Unfortunately, where the Champion Mode is all too brief, the Legacy Mode still seems to take forever. Its recurring issue with fighting simulators: taking your fighters to the top is too often a tediously repetitive task. Boxer development is a more involved process here than in Round 4, and there’s a new financial element introduced by way of prize purses and purchasable training camps, but training remains a chore between bouts. So to does the too-slow process of advancing through the ranks.
While the excitement of finally matching yourself against Tyson, Ali, Liston et al remains, there are precious few surprises to keep you interested on the long slog to those lofty heights. Will my next fight result in a horrific injury? A referee screw-job? A falling-out with my trainer? No, it will result in me rising or dropping a place or two in the world rankings before fighting another fight.
Of course, the online mode offers a range of different approaches to testing your mettle against other fighters. However, while this makes for more meaningful bouts and will appeal to those for whom it is all about a quality online experience, it still can’t capture the excitement and drama that should be attached to rising from a dingy gym in Brooklyn to the main event at Caesar’s Palace.
Ultimately, and a little ironically, as I progressed down the familiar path from 27th in the world rankings to 25th in the world rankings, I couldn’t help but find myself longing for a few of the twists and turns of the Champion mode storyline, despite the limited long-term appeal the mode holds. Somewhere between the two modes lies the perfect combination of player self-determination, true-to-life drama, and meaningful achievement. As it stands though, Fight Night Champion presents some excellent fighting packaged in what amounts to two less than perfect game modes.
EA is clearly trying to push the envelope though, and we can look forward to seeing where they go from here. Until then, I’ll be steering clear of prison showers.