Don't call it a comeback.
Usually when a boxer loses a high profile match, he claims not that he was beaten by a superior fighter, but rather that there was a flaw in his preparation or that the guy landed a few lucky punches. It's all about saving face, even if that face looks like a giant swollen blueberry after a two-hour meeting with a leather glove.
EA Sports, though, didn't have much to offer in the way of explanation for its relatively unsuccessful Knockout Kings series, but you get the feeling that if they did, it would have been a story about coming into the fight unprepared. To prove that they could take a punch, the company opted to avoid putting out a game last year in favor of going back to the gym, studying some fight footage, and rebuilding this bruiser from the ground-up.
The result, Fight Night 2004, is more than just the same old game given a brand new name. Its interesting new control scheme marks a big step for the boxing game genre, though it still manages to take a few hits by failing to deliver a truly solid Career mode.
Picking up where Knocking Kings left off, Fight Night lets you step into the ring as one of 32 current and historic boxers spanning six weight classes, from heavyweights like Ali, Frazier and Norton to Bernard Hopkins, Sugar Ray Robinson and cover boy Roy Jones, Jr. A few notables are missing, such as perennial problem child Mike Tyson and some classic brawlers like Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns or Julio Caesar Chavez, but in general it's a decent selection.
Regardless of whether you're a big lug or a quick twig, Fight Night 2004 gives you an entirely new way to box. Dubbed Total Control, the scheme removes the concept of button-mashing by effectively removing thebuttons. This is done by relegating all punches to the right analog-stick. Move the stick to the upper right to throw a right jab, swing it out and around to throw a hook, or bring it back and bust out a quarter-circle to try an uppercut. Meanwhile, the left stick controls general movement around the ring as well as evasive maneuvers when standing toe to toe. And what about those face buttons? Not much use here aside from one special and one illegal punch.
Taken together, this daring new approach totally changes the way most gamers have played boxing games in the past. You can no longer just stand there and mash out jabs and hooks. This leads to a slower, more methodical fight that's much closer to the real-life sport it attempts to emulate. You'll need to learn how to dodge and counterpunch if you want to get very far, giving what used to be bland, typical fighting a significant, much-needed learning curve.
The last Knockout Kings made a fatal error by not allowing you to block for longer than about two seconds at a time. This ridiculous concept has been ditched in Fight Night 2004, so you can once again block punches indefinitely in an effort to wear down your opponent. But another irritating element of the last game, the inability to clinch, is here as well. Clinching is an essential part of the sport; how else are you supposed to rest for a second if you're getting maimed? Run away, I guess, but that's not very effective in a twenty square-foot ring. Clinching is constantly used in the real-world sport, but it's missing from Fight Night 2004 and the game suffers for it.
There isn't much in the way of gameplay modes, just a Fight Now option for quick exhibition bouts and a revamped Career Mode. Here you can build your own boxer and take him from the bottom of the rankings up to the title, if you have the patience. This mode is where the boxing genre has had the hardest time competing, and while it's better than before, the one in Fight Night 2004 still has a long ways to go before it comes even vaguely close to the depth of nearly every other serious sports game out there.
You start by building a fighter using the decent character creator, one that merely gets the job done but pales next to the likes of what we've seen in EA's own Tiger Woods 2004. From there you move your way up the rankings by beating fictitious boxers, eventually reaching the top ten, who are all real fighters. Along the way you can gain stats by partaking in four different training exercises, essentially little mini-games that feature increasingly difficult point challenges. Winning fights earns you cash, which can then be spent on items like new trunks, gloves, and even personal dancing ladies during your ring entrance. Naseem, eat your heart out.
The bummer is that none of these items have any affect on your performance, so unless you're really into playing Boxer Barbie, the cash becomes useless quickly. Plus, you automatically retire at age 40, so even if you max out stats and are in top form, you throw in the towel. George Foreman would be very displeased.
The training segments get pretty repetitive after the fourth time around or so, and in a bad deisgn move, you cannot choose which training to undertake. It simply cycles from the heavy bag (improves strength) to the practice dummy (improves agility) and so on, which means you cannot truly customize your boxer by opting to train strength over speed, for instance. The whole mini-game training concept is a bit dated anyway - how about letting you pick from a list of sparring partners that match your upcoming bout, duke it out a bit and watch your stats go up based on your performance? Or how about a Career mode that reflects the shady undercurrent of the sport? Dealing with promoters, outlandish egos and millions of dollars sounds compelling, but is ignored here in favor of a very safe and ultimately unrewarding mode.
Fight Night 2004 is a good looking game. The facial mapping is accurate, the animations are smooth and the framerate is rock solid. Bruises and welts slowly form over areas that take too much pounding. The loading times on the Xbox are better than the PS2, but otherwise the two games look the same.
In a strange move, the developers decided to toss in a rag doll physics system only during a knockdown. The effect is a little unsettling as punch a guy nine times in a row, and then on the tenth he suddenly loses complete control of every limb and turns into a lifeless corpse that falls to the ground. Creepy.
The sound is disappointing if only because the soundtrack is entirely new school rap/hop hop. If that's not your bag, you'll grow weary having to endure the same 10 beats over and over again.
The PS2 version of Fight Night 2004 does offer online play, which works well enough. You can take your created boxer online to go up against other PS2 pugilists, giving the notion of a title defense more weight.
By virtue of its impressive new control scheme and solid delivery, Fight Night 2004 doesn't really have any peers and by default can be declared the unanimous champ. However, it still needs a much better single-player Career mode before it can stand toe to toe with other, deeper sports games.