Throw in the towel.
Ah...boxing. A sport based on the ability to inflict as much bodily harm as possible. Boxing gets right to the heart of the matter. Forget your teams, forget your fancy new stadiums, forget your technological advances in shoe design - just step into the ring and kick (punch) as much ass as you can. The winner gets a new Caddy; the loser, a one way ticket to the drive-through window. Would you like fries with that body-blow?
First off, a quick rant. The fact that there have been no boxing games for the next-generation systems is nothing short of mystifying. Who can forget the sheer joy of knocking out Bald Bull in the classic coin-op Punch Out (U-pper-cut!)? Or spending hours honing your boxer's skill in Evander Holyfield Boxing for the Genesis. The last boxing game that I can even remember is 4D Boxing. C'mon developers - get with the program.
The lack of any other boxing games makes this a tough one to review. I was initially really excited to check it out. But considering the depth, realism, and graphical detail of most sports games these days, Knockout Kings comes up short in many areas.
I have to give EA enormous credit for including a staggering number of history's greatest boxers. In all, there are 38 legendary fighters in this puppy, and you can fight as, or against any of them. EA also bought exclusive licenses for 4 of the greatest - Oscar de la Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, and the poetic Muhammad Ali. They even got TV judge and snarling referee Mills Lane to call the shots. This is truly a treat - for the first time ever, a boxing game that feels cohesive.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward. As a boxing game, you're not going to see any kicks, fireballs, or 15 hit combos. It's just you and your fists. I like the fact that EA keeps things real, though this has a downside.
For starters, the game moves kind of slow. Even the lightweight boxers don't really move around fast enough, and speed takes a huge back seat to timing. This really nullifies the abilities of fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, who rely on quick hands and feet. Everything is just too sluggish. I suppose you could chalk this up to realism - boxing is in reality an often slow and unexciting sport. But this is a video game, and quicker action is a necessity.
Control is overly simple; two ways to block and a few different kinds of punches. You can also bob and weave (sort of) and throw usually ineffective standard combos. There are two gauges to watch - your overall health meter and your punch power, which depletes and replenishes as you throw punches. I found that throwing big punches worked much better than trying to wear down the opponent with jabs, and the game eventually turns into a toe-to-toe battle.
The graphics are a mixed bag. While the boxers are polygonal and motion-captured, they're also quite doughy and shapeless. Only a few textures help define the more ripped fighters (like the statuesque Holyfield). Plus, not enough time was spent on the faces. EA is responsible for the awesome faces in the NBA Live series, yet these boxers bear little resemblance to the real guys. On the other hand, the polygons are tight and you won't see any clipping errors. This just looks more like a first or second generation PSX game, one that came out in 1996, not at the end of 1998.
There are also several camera angles to choose from, though there isn't much of a difference betweeen most of them. The first person camera, while certainly an interesting idea (read: Punch Out), is about as effective as it would be in Pac-Man (read: not effective).
The sound is fine, nothing really bad or good. The announcing and background sounds are generic, but you're not playing this game to listen to the crowd noises.
There are three different play modes: Exhibition, Slugfest, and Career. Exhibition is the standard - you choose a weight class and a fighter and duke it out against the computer or a friend. Bouts last up to 12 rounds and all basic boxing rules apply: no illegal punches, 3 knockdowns in one round is a TKO, etc.
For the more adventurous, there's Slugfest. This lets you throw any two boxers (regardless of weight class) into the ring for up to 3 rounds of no-holds barred brawling. There's no ref, and the rules are gone. While a nice idea, the aforementioned problem with speed becomes quickly evident as the heavyweights ALWAYS beat the lighter boxers.
The most interesting mode is Career mode. You create a boxer and advance through the ranks to try and challenge for the title. I was really excited to try this out - I vividly recall gleefully wasting hours working on my boxer in Evander Holyfield for the Genesis. But I was destined for disappointment, as EA really copped out on this one.
For one thing, the level of detail is minimal. You can choose righty/lefty and make basic changes to your look, but that's where the depth ends. There are only three skills total - Strength, Speed, and Stamina. You don't get to modify your skills from the start, unlike other sports games that allow you to really customize players. Therefore, every boxer starts out the same. What about left/right hand power? Or defense/offense ratings? Or choosing best/favorite punches? Or even something simple like birthplace? These are just off the top of my head, and I didn't spend the last 2 years working on the game.
And training is pathetic - you just select 'speed' or 'strength' and press a button. Voila - your skills have risen. Some sort of actual user-controlled training would have helped immensely.
Nearly 6 years have passed since the last console boxing game, and absolutely no improvements have been made to boxer creation. The lack of depth carries into other areas as well.
While the 40 legendary boxers are a great addition, you don't get any sort of bio or fact sheets. You don't get to see their ratings, you don't get to see their best punches, and you don't get to really feel their specific fighting styles. Sure, Rocky Marciano is hard to put down, and Larry Holmes packs a mean punch. But there just isn't enough to differentiate the majority of the fighters, particularly if you're unfamiliar with the older ones. I really wish they would have added some sort of boxer-specific combos, and some more inforation, something to add distinction to each fighter.
Yet despite all this griping, I still find myself playing the game. It definitely has an odd sort of appeal, though much of this could be attributed to the lack of any other boxing game. I have a feeling that I'd be playing another game if one were available, but alas, no such luck.
The problem with Knockout Kings isn't what it is, but what it is not. With the industry's most proven track record, EA looked like they had a sure winner on their hands with Knockout Kings. While some good ideas abound, mixed graphics and severely limited depth stop this fighter before it can reach the later rounds.