Fighting on New Terms, but Still a Champion

I've taken head butts and held on through jaw-cracking, brain-rattling missiles; I've fought against runners and cowards and cheats and made them all pay. Never have I fought in a place this unfair, with these terms dictated to me.

"He's a penitentiary sergeant," says my corner man, "that ref ain't gonna do nothin'. Which means you got to knock that cracker on his ass."

Thus begins Fight Night Champion, EA Sports' reimagining of a video game staple, the boxing genre, through the lens of a boxing film. Like a rawboned heavyweight, it throws everything at you, good and bad; and like a seasoned performer, it does some flashy things for show, but knocks you out with the fundamentals.

Why You Should Care

Fight Night Champion is the first major sports game to dip its toe into M-rated territory. Promising a dark, cinematic narrative called "Champion Mode," you'll battle against skinheads in prison and the despicable fixers of the fight world, then continue the fight in the series' more traditional online and career modes.

What We Liked

Best Defense: Full Spectrum Punching, which puts your fists on the right analog stick, got simplified gestures this year. But the real winner is the new blocking mechanic, given the critical importance of defense to this game, especially with the addition of flash knockouts. No longer are you direction-blocking with the trigger and right stick; the trigger does it all, both directions. Further, you can clamp down on that and cover up, wing off a punch with the trigger still depressed, and return to hands-up once the punch (or combination) is complete. Parrying blows will still require you to hit the trigger in time with your opponent's strike. In multiplayer, it's a little strong for online fighting and requires a strong commitment to pick apart if you're gunning for a knockout. But realizing that I could punch out of my base defense and return to it automatically was a breakthrough in effective fighting for me.

Fighting on New Terms, but Still a Champion

The Hit Stick: Yes, it still has face button commands. You won't want them for anything other than the heavy bag minigame. Fight Night Champion removes the angles from certain punch gestures - no more winding the stick in a 135 degree arc for an uppercut. Everything is a one direction flick, left or right, with six different punches now, giving you flared straights in addition to jabs and hookercuts in between hooks and the jawbuster. You can much more reliably throw all punches in your arsenal and Full Spectrum becomes instinctive very quickly. If it has problems, it's in the subtlety of the directions and the sensitivity of the sticks. Even after acclimating myself to it I still found myself winging a three-punch hook combination having intended only to throw one.

Sweeter Science: Fight Night became a tougher series with Round 4 and is even more demanding in Champion. This is not a brawler; if you want to do that, stick it on amateur difficulty and bang away, it will tide over those nostalgic for Round 3. Stamina and defense will take on an importance that casual fighters may not understand. Spam your punches or overload your offense from one direction and you will see weak strikes, regardless of where you are in the bout. It's a real - and deserved - punch in the balls to mindless fighters in online fights. In singleplayer, most of your problems will be borne of your own impatience and fighting without a plan. I'll confess to some tantrums. But the system is reasonably transparent and justly applied. In the end, once you take full stock of your capabilities and act on them, Fight Night Champion will both teach and inspire you.

A Hit Between the Eyes: Just going back to Round Four to confirm some features as new or old opened my eyes to how uncannily animated and richly presented Champion is. It's not even close. Round Four's combatants bob and jerk in and out of their constituent animations like rock-em-sock-em robots, compared to utterly lifelike fighters in Champion, given more transitiory animations between actions. You'll punch high out of a duck, reach back and high when jabbing on the inside, graze your opponent with a stiff arm as you slip to the outside. Much is made of the bloody spectacle but it, combined with shiners and welts and even messed-up hair, delivers a solid affirmation that you are effing the other guy up. The only minus is the addition of a referee who, in the Champion camera view, has an uncanny ability to get in the way right as you move in for a combination. You can neutralize him with any other camera view (I preferred dynamic, the career-mode default), and you may change the camera in Champion mode as well.

Fighting on New Terms, but Still a Champion

What We Didn't Like

A Paper Champion: This game's biggest disappointment is the wasted opportunity of its one-of-a-kind sports narrative. Promising a gritty view of boxing, Champion's story is devoid of anything that makes boxing truly dark. I can forgive the formulaic plot - all fight movies are, basically, a comeback story. But Andre Bishop, your fighter, has no palpable fire in him. Framed for a nothing crime that results in a risibly stiff sentence, Bishop emerges from prison just as emotionally inert as he went in, and stays that way until the end. Neither he nor any character - not even the white supremacists in jail - show any apparent damage in their lives. As a major, licensed sports game that boldly took the plunge on two firsts - the Mature rating and narrative mode - I expected to see more risk-taking than using the words "shit" and "fuck."

Champion's Games: In terms of gameplay, Champion is really a four-, maybe five-hour tutorial taking you on a Mister Miyagi tour of the fundamentals of boxing. In one bout, you'll have to win by knockout. In another, you must protect a cut. In a third, your right hand is broken and you have to fight entirely left-handed. At least one of these, even on Pro difficulty, will be controller-throwing difficult for you, made more mystifying by the fact your opponent's stamina bar isn't exposed to you (like online multiplayer), so your punches don't feel like they're connected to anything. (I recoiled in horror thinking this would be the default elsewhere in singleplayer; thankfully, it isn't). The worst came when I flash KO'd my opponent with a left - but the script called for me to knock him out with my right. As novelties among a longer career with more conventional bouts, these would be fine. But in Champion Mode's brief arc, every single one of them is painfully micromanaged, especially the finale.

A Meager Legacy: Training now gives you a fight camp option to work on specific attributes of your boxer, and they're broken down into skills (served by minigames) and athleticism (background calculation after you choose to train that.) Otherwise, there wasn't much of an upgrade to the game's career mode. The training games are still ridiculously hard. Coupled with the fact your boxer is a bit of a pussy early in his career, you'll be slogging through a lot of decisions with punches that sound like someone flicking the side of a balloon. The training mini-games need to be completely reimagined with more achievable goals, and if Fight Night wants you to work for your power, it should extend your amateur career so you can debut as a compelling professional capable of really doing damage.

The Bottom Line

For career-mode boxers, Fight Night Champion will serve what is roughly the same experience, but with better controls to take you through the early grind. Champion Mode is more of a matter of taste; it has its moments, but even at its best it doesn't do anything to suggest a new trend in sports games. Online, a refined command set and the imposition of new stamina demands provide plenty of carrot and stick to get people off the buttons and to the right analog stick, while leveling the competition considerably. That's a design accomplishment, given years of resistance to gesture-based punching.

It may not excel in all classes, but Fight Night Champion is still pound-for-pound better than anything you've played.

Fight Night Champion was developed and published by EA Sports for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, released on March 1, 2011. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Completed narrative Champion Mode and tested all singleplayer and online multiplayer modes.