Better luck next time, kid.
You know you've spent too much time playing video games when you find yourself emulating a game while taking part in a real life event. This very thing happened to me recently at a press event for an upcoming boxing game. Despite the inevitable lawsuits, shattered egos and gallons of Mountain Dew-infused sweat, they threw a gaggle of gaming editors into an actual boxing ring in order to give us a feel for the sport. It also gave us a taste for blood, and in my case, a bloody knuckle and the inability to move my limbs for about three days afterwards.
So there I am in the ring, a total novice, trying my best to put some dip in my hip and some glide in my stride and not get the crap beaten out of my head. And right there in the middle of the round, right as I'm ducking the World's Geekiest Punch, I actually muttered the following mantra:
"Stick'n move! Stick'n move! Bah-dee blow! Up-per-cut! Up-per-cut! Right hhhhhoook!"
Thank god wedgies are illegal in the ring.
If you're lost, then pat yourself on the back for having a life and go find a copy of Punch Out, which to this day remains the best boxing game ever made. The reason I bring it up is because it really shouldn't still be the best game around. Knockout Kings should. Yet for inexplicable reasons, the series just can't put together a one-two combo to save its life.
The latest version, Knockout Kings 2002, is a very pretty fighter that tries a few new tricks. But years of Rocky and Raging Bull have taught us that looks don't win fights, and the guts of this fighter are woefully inadequate.
For the record, the Xbox and PS2 games are identical in every way - they even look just about the same. So if you've read the review for the Xbox version, don't bother hacking through this one, too.
Let's start with the good bits; namely, the graphics. Both the PS2 and Xbox versions of KO Kings 2002 feature perhaps the best-looking boxers ever rendered. The details are awesome. As fighters take hits, they slowly start to form location-specific bruises which worsen or improve over the course of a fight. As the rounds wear on, sweat starts glistening on the boxers' torsos and flies off in sprays when they're popped in the face. Couple that with excellent face mapping, smooth animations and believable movements and you've got a beauty.
As in past games, KO Kings 2002 is all about licensed fighters. There are 45 boxers in here, but only 21 are real, including Ali, Frazier, Holyfield, Leonard, Duran and De La Hoya (No Hagler? No Holmes? No Foreman?). You can fight in 8 arenas, though aside from different backgrounds and crowd sizes, they're all essentially the same.
However, the gameplay engine has changed. For starters, someone decided that clinching slowed down the gameplay and removed it entirely. Further, you can block for only a second, then you drop your guard. This means you're constantly having to duck and bob and weave to avoid punches, which would lead to a faster, more frantic fight... were it not for the heinous control.
In a bold move, the developers tried to better emulate the subtleties of dodging that makes or breaks a champion boxer by incorporating very sensitive analog movement. Press the stick hard to actually move around the ring, or press it very lightly to duck left, right or back. It sounds great on paper but is very hard to use in real life. Most gamers will not bob and weave with half the fluidity of the computer.
Instead, the game boils down to a slugfest, time and again. This also isn't so bad on paper... were it not for the ridiculously fast jabbing. You'll rarely get popped by one jab - they come so quickly you're more likely to get whacked by four of them at a time. The game still employs the 'stamina to punch power' ratio (punches sort of charge up so as to discourage throwing too many at once), but usually the stronger boxer wins.
KO Kings 2002 introduces one very interesting concept - the option to play without health meters. Instead, the Xbox or PS2 controller will vibrate to simulate your boxer's heart rate. The quicker it vibrates, the more trouble you're in. This is a nice idea for two-player games as you don't really know what shape your opponent is in, though he does.
The game features the same few modes as its predecessors - Exhibition fights, which let you fight outside of weight class restrictions, a customizable Tournament, or the real meat of the game, Career mode.
But once again, the Career mode is a big letdown. You can pick from a paltry 10 skins and you cannot tweak the physique, face, hair, or really anything interesting aside from choosing different colored shorts or gloves. Depending on your weight class, the Career mode pits you in a pyramid fight structure, leading up to a fight with the 'champ' - in the heavyweight division, it's Muhammad Ali. You have some stats to augment along the way, but there is no training like in Ready 2 Rumble; you just get 15 more points in your pool if you win a fight.
Along the way you are treated to incredibly lame in-engine FMV of some incredibly Italian manager giving you incredibly useless advice. By the way, he manages every single fighter in the game. Think the fix might be in? How smarmy.
To make matters skimpier, it all ends if you beat the champ and defend your belt three times. It just ends. That's it. You're done. No more stat-augmenting, no more title defense. You literally cannot continue fighting in Career mode past about 15 wins.
You're allowed to choose one (!) of about 5 specialty punches for your customized fighter. Might I suggest the 'Rocket Uppercut?' I managed to post a flawless record by simply moving to the right and swinging my big uppercut. It never really mattered how much I got hit, because Ye Olde Rocket Uppercut would time and again obliterate the competition. I knocked Ali down about 7 times before he quit, though I only landed about 60 punches compared to his 500.
And from there, things just get weaker. There are no ring introduction sequences, aside from when you challenge the champ the first time. There are exactly TWO win animations. The announcing is redundant and doesn't match the action. The game just feels incomplete.
Which is a total shame, because KO Kings 2002 looks so good. I don't know why this series can't get it together, but it really needs more work. Though you'll have some fun with this as a rental, do not make it a permanent addition to your library. Instead, go drop some coin on a Punch Out machine and relive the glory days, when boxers were green and bulls were bald.