In the second scene of Fight Night Champion, the most unusual boxing game EA has ever made, you're getting beat up in a prison bathroom. You're a guy named Andre Bishop, and you've just beaten a neo-Nazi-looking guy fair and square in a bareknuckle fight in the middle of a ring. Prisoners in orange jumpsuits were cheering you on.
Now this neo-Nazi-looking guy is trying to kick your head off. (Note: Nazis sure find their ways into a lot of games, huh?)
You're a few years younger and you're about to box an amateur fight. Red trunks vs. blue. Headgear. No bathroom beating will follow this.
Just as 2K Sports forced anyone who booted up last year's incredible NBA 2K11 into the shoes of Michael Jordan on the night of one of His Airness' big playoff games, the announcer bellowing his — your! — name before you could go on a super-charged tear, EA's new boxing game will force you into a prison brawl. That's what you start with when you first run the game.
The game's creators don't want us to miss it. This is the main event, the story of a fallen boxer, an adventure we'll be able to play one punch at a time as we figure out how our guy, Andre Bishop, got there. Hours after I played Champion's opening minutes yesterday, I was home watching a segment on HBO's Real Sports about Mike Tyson. The former heavyweight champion has ridden one of pop culture's most steepest, most stomach-knotting roller coasters. The chapter we're in now is that he's trying to be a nice guy, post-childhood, post-arrests, post-championship-reign, post-rape-conviction, post-religious-conversion, post-comeback, post-ear-bite, post-knockout-victim, post-Hangover-co-starring-role, post-heartache-over-the-loss-of-a-child.
I only saw and played the opening minutes of Champion. I have no sense of how much EA Sports will let players be like boxing's Mike, no sense of how much bite — pun intended — there will be to Andre Bishop's life, how much we'll be responsible for his fall and any rise that follows. We will, at least, throw punches in the ring. The only hint to how radically Andre Bishop's life changes is that one of the game's developers told me there are three versions of the guy in the game. Hey, maybe Bishop will pull a George Foreman and enjoy a comeback as a 40-something fat man.
Fight Night Champion is a sports game. It's got what the Fight Nights before it had: career and multiplayer modes, dozens of real boxers, multiple venues. It's got what you'd expect a boxing sports game to have, even though its most interesting aspect is the part that makes it a boxing role-playing game. As players of the new game will probably feel, controls have been simplified to flicks of an analog stick instead of arcs. Alternate button controls for punches are available from the start. Those details will matter to those who will play the Fight Night for the combat, but they'll be secondary for those of us who desire to play it as an adventure.
Boxing is a sport that has long been romanticized. Before people guessed what baseball players were thinking or saw the real lives of NBA superstars, they grafted on Joe Louis and Max Schmeling the tale of America vs. a threatening Germany, they saw in Muhammad Ali's clash with Floyd Patterson a test of 1960's Americans' tolerance of confident black men. Boxers from around the world have long stood for their ethnicities, in the eyes of their fans and in those who rooted against them. Boxing has been as much storyline as sport, as much drama beyond the ring as in it. This is the element Fight Night Champion has the chance to capture. That's a lot to expect of a sports video game. We'll see. The entrance walk has begun. The bell rings when the game comes out for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 1.