EA’s sweet science simulator makes its return this year with Fight Night Champion. FNC provides a good balance between the familiar and the fresh by changing up the punch controls a bit, adding drama via the new story driven “Champion” mode, and improving on the already great graphics. While several areas of the game could use some more polish, the majority of the experience reinvigorates the Fight Night franchise, setting the bar even higher than its predecessors.
While the game does not feature a huge diversity of modes, there is still plenty to experience. The career style Legacy Mode returns with a few changes. Your boxer can now spend money earned from sponsors or fights to train at higher quality facilities. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Legacy mode features are carried over from the last game in the series, so fans of Round 4 will probably be slightly disappointed in this area. The progression is functionally similar to both Round 4 and the last two UFC games made by THQ. You’ll still pick the next fight for your boxer and have to budget your time accordingly between training, fighting, and sponsorship activities. The training sessions in Legacy mode basically boil down to the same training minigames found in Round 4. While they seem to be slightly easier this go around, they still just aren’t that much fun. Half the enjoyment in a career mode like this is training your boxer to be the best, and the fact that the method of doing so is mostly dull saps some of the enjoyment out of the overall Legacy Mode experience.
It’s clear that the bulk of the effort from a game mode perspective went into developing the titular Champion mode. This 5 hour story mode follows the career of a promising young amateur named Andre Bishop through the incredible heights and disastrous lows of his pro boxing career. Unlike some tacked on extra feature, Champion mode shines with an amazing amount of polish. The voice acted cutscenes are fantastic. The overall story, while cliché-ridden, is incredibly engrossing. It may sound silly for a 5 hour story in a boxing game, but I found myself very invested in the characters of the story. I was rooting for Andre Bishop the entire time like he was a real boxer and this was a real story. Kudos to EA for taking the opportunity to actually invest the effort needed to legitimize a feature like this, and not just tack it on for some back of the box bullet point.
Champion mode consists of a series of fights broken up by the aforementioned cutscenes. In order to keep the story from feeling like a grind, most of the fights generally end up with some kind of condition that you have to meet in order to finish the fight and progress the story. These conditions range from knocking a guy out rather than going to decision, to more innovative ones like having to punch with only one hand because the other is broken. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this is that EA has managed to find a way to keep these stipulations from feeling contrived or shoehorned into the story. Each of them makes sense in its own way, either through the course of events in the story or based on the personality of the characters. It can’t be stressed enough how impressed I was with Champion mode and the level of effort put in to making it worthwhile. While the “story in a sports game” concept has been done before, it’s never been done with this level of polish. I sincerely hope that other sports games follow suit in the coming years. We’ve seen the potential for soap-opera like drama in real life sports, so nearly all of them could support a Champion mode of their own.
It’s clear from watching just one match of FNC that the graphics have received an upgrade despite their already impressive lineage. In addition to new lighting and visual effects which enhance the realism of the presentation, the boxers themselves have been improved upon. Boxers’ skin not only looks more natural and less like plastic, but also behaves more naturally, rippling and compressing with each blow. The damage modeling is a huge step up, featuring more realistic blood spray, stains on clothing, more realistic cuts and swelling, even hair gets messed up as the fight progresses. For you Butterbean fans out there, you can now create fat boxers (complete with realistic jiggle effects). Perhaps the most impressive aspects of the visuals are the animations, which look as smooth as butter.
The camera in FNC has multiple settings depending on your preferred view of the action. I didn’t have much trouble with the positioning in the Champion Mode setting, and only occasionally had scenarios when I felt like the camera was not in the optimal position. One frustrating aspect, however, came about as a result of the newly added referee in the ring. Often (meaning at least 3-4 times a match) the referee would insert himself between the camera and the boxers. This led to several frustrating instances where I couldn’t tell what was really going on. The referee being in the ring really doesn’t add much from a visual standpoint, and it definitely created more frustration that it was worth in my opinion. This is an area that they need to correct next year, or just use the same invisible referee the rest of the games have used.
Of course, none of the above matters if the gameplay isn’t solid. I’m pleased to report that the gameplay may be the most improved aspect of FNC. The developers have redone the setup of the right analog punch controls, streamlining it to create a more natural flow to the gameplay. The new setup (known as Full Spectrum Punch Control) does away with some of the extraneous movements the series has leaned on in the last several iterations in favor of a quicker, simpler system. Gone are the quarter and half circle motions previously required to throw hooks and uppercuts. They’ve been replaced with a system that just requires you to flick the analog stick in a specific direction to throw a specific punch. Not only does this promote a more natural flow to the fight, both visually and tactically, but it also allows the game to incorporate punches that fall between the standard jab, straight, hook, uppercut classifications like overhand hooks.
Also gone are the Haymaker controls that forced you to pull back on the stick then press forward to throw a powerful punch. Haymaker controls never really felt natural and stifled the flow of the match. Now, you only need to press the shoulder button (RB or R1) to modify your standard punches into power punches. This allows powerful punches to be more easily incorporated into combinations and increases your control over your boxer’s actions substantially. Be careful though, because among the new improvements is an improved Stamina system that will punish fighters who just come out swinging without thinking it through. You’ll definitely need to be more strategic and look for openings, because nothing is worse than wearing yourself out in the first couple rounds and spending the next three swinging lead hoses around waiting to get knocked out. Thankfully, the game also features Flash KO’s now, so you might get lucky and knock your opponent out with one flush shot.
Fight Night wouldn’t be an EA Sports title without a quality online mode and, thankfully, this is no exception. In addition to the traditional Fight Now online mode, you’ll also have the ability to face off against other pugilists for title belts in the Online World Championship mode. Functioning like an online career mode, you can build your boxer’s stats and skills and attempt to dominate your class. You can also create Online Gyms which function like a clan in a FPS. You and your friends can create a Gym, decide the rules you’ll fight under, build your XP and take on other Gyms for bragging rights through Rival Challenges. The online mode should provide gamers with endless hours of entertainment and is a huge bonus to the value and replayability of the game.
All in all, despite a few problems, Fight Night Champion is definitely an improvement over its already incredible lineage. The Champion mode is fantastic, and nearly worth the price of admission on its own. Couple that with the rock-solid gameplay and suite of great online modes, and you have a game that’s fit for not only huge boxing fans, but anyone that likes to beat up on their friends a bit. I look forward to seeing where EA goes with the franchise from here, and judging by the quality of this iteration I expect even bigger and better things.
Review copy provided by publisher.