Fight Night Champion is the latest edition in the Fight Night family and it asks only one question:
"How bad do you want it?"
Fight Night Champion is a brutal game, but hey that's boxing in general. With this latest edition in the boxing family, it doesn't bring a huge upgrade to the series, but it does improve upon the foundation that was laid down by Fight Night Round 4. You might as well call FNR4 a 1.0 version, with Fight Night Champion being a solid 2.0 version of the game.
Let's start with gameplay.
In the last edition of the series, you could pretty much go into fights swinging wildly without many repercussions for the carelessness. It was more about power in the punches and the way you can bowl through the rankings/opponents. It was like watching an 80s action where the hero would dodge bullets effortless while delivering kick-ass, non-stop action. Well, Fight Night Champion is the reality show in comparison, as what you'll see is what you get. If you come out thinking you're going swing away and just beat your opponent to a pulp constantly then you're in for a very rude and frustrating awakening. Unlike previous versions, this edition of Fight Night requires you to block, to plan your punches and to bob/weave your way through a fight. Instead of coming out delivering brutality, you'll be expected to create a strategy to survive 10 rounds. For example, in Champion Mode you'll find yourself under control of Andre Bishop in a series of flashbacks. You'll start Bishop's story in amateur boxing where the competition is more likely to drop their block and swing away with you. As you progress in the story you'll have to start applying defense, especially for around the fourth or fifth fight, where your opponent has a mean left hook. If you don't block or plan for that hook then you'll find yourself on the ground faster than you can say, "Down goes Frazier!" It only took me about four times before I began to adjust and it was a very frustrating experience. Coming from a more open style of play in Fight Night Round 4 to a more complicated system of fighting was a bit jarring.
In other words, for you Fight Night fanboys out there you had best come prepared to make your boxing game deeper, though most of what you are use to in terms of gameplay are still intact. I could pretty much imagine this will be an issue with diehard fans, but work through it and you might even become better with earlier versions of the game.
Speaking of the game, let's talk abou the modes you're going to come in contact with in Fight Night Champion.
The first mode you'll dive into, and it's only about four to six hours in length (depending completely on your skills) is the Champion Mode. This is where you get the intriguing Andre Bishop storyline. You start out fighting in prison then work your way through a series of flashbacks involving Bishop's fall from grace. Without the story the boxing would have been flat, so it was nice to see a sports game with a well thought-out story. Anyway, you don't have to do a lot of building or leveling like you do with the Legacy Mode (we'll get to that next). You basically sit back and enjoy the show, and get your strategy on from fight to fight. My only beef with this mode is how dramatic the difficulty of the game gets towards the middle. Typically games like this will ease you into a series of boxing matches, which the game does. When you run into your first challenge, like I mentioned above, the difficulty jumps from tiny to a mile long. You'll be expected to move Bishop with grace and anticipate punches. It's incredibly difficult to get use to the jump, and it can get extremely frustrating. Stick with it and you'll move beyond it, but you'll still notice the leap from normal to difficult. Again, it's a bit jarring. Regardless, you'll enjoy the short period of time you have with Champion Mode. It's got a good story mixed with some fun matches.
So what about Legacy Mode? With any sports game made in the 2000s you'll find a 'character building' mode attached to it. It seems like with each passing year this type of mode gets more complicated. For me, I really liked Legacy Mode, despite the criticism of other reviewers. It brought a personalized element to the game for me and it was just as tough as Champion Mode. My guy, Greatest Ever Baer, royally sucked at the beginning. Much like the other mode, Legacy Mode puts you in some easy fights as you start out; giving you a false sense of confidence. Once things turn on then you have to decide on how you need to treat your boxer as you're building them up. You'll have to decide what the best training facilities are and what type of training they need to build on their strengths. For example, I was a sucker for sparring because I wanted to build up on my stamina and power. I felt like if I could knock the crap out of someone in the hardest possible way then there wasn't much I needed. I had visions of Mike Tyson as a youth pummeling people in the first round, and I wanted G.E. Baer to be the fighter. That was a bad decision that led to poor strategy on my part, especially when boxers ranked between 44-48 consistently whooped me because my speed wasn't up to par. Sure I could hit them and make them hurt, but it would take me forever to get to them once they were hurt. When they recovered they simply danced around me and whooped my ass.
So, as you can tell you have to create a balanced fighter that is fast, blocks well, throws combinations well and can bring the hurt. If you focus too much on one thing then you're going to have gaping holes of weakness, which might frustrate fans of the previous Fight Night. With that said, you'll need to pick good training facilities, earn money and 'think' when you're fighting someone. You have to be disciplined and patient to play this mode to truly enjoy what it has to offer. The more success you have during Legacy Mode the more experience points you'll gain, which turn into upgrades for your boxer (punching, blocking, combinations, etc). Again, some critics didn't like this mode, but I can't honestly understand their logic. It offers a much deeper, more fulfilling experience that is personalized by the gamer. The only drawback to the entire mode is how much patience you're willing to invest. Having played this mode for four straight days it's baffling how someone wouldn't like it.
Anyway, let them deal with it, just know that if you can lock yourself down and invest some time in Legacy Mode then you're going to be one happy camper.
The final mode worth mentioning is the online mode, which sports some of the coolest online structure. You have online gyms to use, groups you can join and fights you can have online to win trophies. If you're good enough, and you've got a very balanced ability to fight then you'll survive easily in this mode. Make sure you understand that defense is important and that most people playing online don't give a lick about it. Go into it prepared, especially from Legacy Mode, and you'll move up in the leaderboards pretty quickly.
Shifting gears slightly, let's talk about controls. The game offers players two types of controls: Analog and buttons. If you choose to go the analog route then you're serving up a more complicated control scheme to learn. If you learn it then you'll uncover an easier route. I had the roughest time getting use to the analog 'only' portion of this game. Once I got the controls down then it wasn't as difficult and it felt natural. EA's need/want to push an analog system in their games has paid off quite a bit. In Madden NFL 11 it brought a more even playing field for all gamers, plus it felt very much natural. For FIFA Soccer 11 it made complete sense because it gave you complete control of the soccer ball. For Fight Night Champion it makes sense, but the learning curve is a lot bigger. For button mashing folks, EA still loves you. If you don't want to use the analog solution then you can sit back and push those buttons, but it does take you out of the experience just a bit. I like what EA did with the analog sticks and it makes me not want to go back to button mashing.
So what about the presentation of the game? Good lord. While I was playing it this weekend I was telling my wife that I had never seen graphics like this before in a boxing game. The skin textures, while not perfect, are damn close to perfect in comparison to real-life boxers. The fighters' muscle reaction to movement is just absolutely stunning to see. I had the fortunate weekend of playing both this and MLB 11 The Show this past weekend and it was a graphic love-fest. This isn't even counting how alive the environments of the game are or the shouting from your corner about what you need to be doing in order to win (that's during the fight). Every bit of the visuals and audio in this game create a completely immersive experience that you really don't want to break away from.
Graphics aside, the music selection needs to be sold on a CD. I'm not sure if EA does this, I've never been this fascinated with the music in a game, but it sounds kick-ass in a 5.1 setting. After this review I'm going to search the interwebs for this soundtrack because I would love to play it in my mini-van as I roll up to the daycare in the mornings.
So what about the fun factor of the game? This is probably the biggest gray area of Fight Night Champion. While many purists of the series will swear the last edition of the game is so much better, the amount of fun you'll find in FNC will rest solely on how much time and patience you're willing to invest in the game. For me this game was tough as nails and fights my patience as hard as Evander Holyfield fought Mike Tyson the second time around. If you're too comfortable with throwing punches then you're going to have a rough, tough time enjoying the game; it's as simple as that. If you're willing to take the time out and get to know the controls, the strategy of a balanced fight then you're going to come out a better person at the end of it all. EA's job was to capture the magic of boxing, which includes both defense and offense. With Fight Night Champion they brought a one of the closest experiences, which equals out to a more complicated version of the series.
So, ask yourself, "How bad do you want it?" If you're willing to lose just as many times as you win in the beginning then you are the fighter for this game. If not, then you might be better off sticking with Fight Night Round 4.