Got my GOAT.
Like an unknown fighter from the wrong side of the tracks, Fight Night Champion has seemingly come from nowhere to take on the big boys of the gaming industry. Not content with being the best in its own small corner of the industry, Fight Night Champion steps out of the sports genre altogether and goes toe-to-toe with story-driven heavyweights like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed.
[image1]I can hear the groans already: “Ugh. A story mode in a sports game? Sounds like yet another useless menu option for me to scroll through and ignore.” But against all odds—and despite my own jaded skepticism—Fight Night Champion succeeds where so many other sports games before it have failed.
Champion mode tells the story of boxer Andre Bishop. His story is an amalgamation of classic boxing movies like Rocky IV, The Set-up, The Hurricane, and Prison Shadows, as well as bits and pieces from the lives of actual boxers, especially the rise (and fall) of Mike Tyson. Sure, it’s a familiar story, but anyone who knows and loves boxing narratives expects derivativeness. And Fight Night Champion adds enough of its own flavor so that, even though it is a conventional boxing story, it still feels unique and fresh.
There are no customization options for changing Andre’s name, appearance, voice, weight, fighting style, etc. There’s a real story here that EA Canada wants to tell, and they don’t want us mucking it up by naming our boxer "Ima Kickurass". It’s a big risk for a gaming genre that doesn’t do well with change. But boxing itself is all about taking strategic risks for the sake of big payoffs, and for Fight Night Champion, staking so much on telling the story of Andre Bishop pays off in spades.
[image2]Most of the story is told by way of cinematic sequences between fights—with voice acting and motion capture on par with Uncharted 2—but the real test comes in how well integrated the actual matches are within the overall story. Special conditions and scripted events happen before and during fights that bring the story directly into the ring. For example, when the evil manager tries to rig a fight against you, he buys off the ring judges. You can’t win the fight by decision and must win by knockout. In another fight, you break your dominant hand early in the match and must go the rest of the fight using only your left.
These are all things that have been done to some degree in sports games before, but never with such careful attention to the integrity of the story. It all fits together seamlessly. No fight feels extraneous to the narrative, and by the end—roughly six to eight hours total, depending on difficulty—I was more deeply invested in Andre’s story than I ever thought I could be.
Champion mode is so good, in fact, that the more traditional Legacy mode feels hopelessly archaic and soulless by comparison. I’ll never be able to play another sports game without feeling that something vital and important is missing. Like a relic from a forgotten era, Legacy mode is buried deep in the menus alongside the training games. Frankly, after playing through the nearly flawless Champion mode, I wouldn’t miss Legacy if someone took it out back, broke both its hands, and never let it fight again.
Where longtime fans of the series may take umbrage is in some of the big changes to the core mechanics. The new Full Spectrum Punch Control changes the game more than I expected. Each stick direction corresponds to an angle of attack, making for a much more sensible and intuitive control system. Many series vets will no doubt complain loudly, but after they spend time with it they’ll realize it is undeniably a big improvement. In addition, the new system effectively levels the playing field between stick-using diehards and button-pushing upstarts.
[image3]One of the other big changes is in the defensive game. Blocking now requires nothing but a single shoulder button modifier; no direction necessary. Not only does this shift the onus of defense to your foot and shoulder movement (where it should be), but it also means that you can more quickly and strategically throw punches from a defensive position. As a result, matches are faster, more mobile, and require a much more varied set of defensive tactics.
Where things get a bit fuzzy is in the damage and stamina balancing. Stamina is eaten up mostly by missed or blocked punches, but often stamina doesn’t seem to take enough of a hit, nor does it always seem consistent. And the only punches that seem to do any real damage are counters and power hits. Once I moved into the higher difficulty bouts and began playing online, counters became the only way to win. While counters are undeniably important in boxing, they aren’t everything. But in Fight Night Champion—as in Fight Night Round 4—counters dominate every other offensive strategy.
The online modes have also been spruced up since Round 4. In addition to simple one-on-one matches, you can again take a custom fighter through the ranks in Online World Championship. It’s a much slicker, much smoother interface. Invites appear at the top of the main menu, and matches load quickly without a lot of excess menus and interfaces to wade through.
Fight Night Champion also tracks in-game achievements among your friends list for things like most consecutive wins, and you also get pop-ups letting you know when important fighters (like title holders) are also online. It’s all incredibly easy to use and is everything you could want in an online boxing game.
[image4]The introduction of gyms brings a club atmosphere to the online game. As with clans and clubs in other games, the success of the gyms depends entirely on whether or not players end up using them. But knowing boxing culture, I think having inter- and intra-gym competitions is a perfect fit. While the fight mechanics have been refined and the online modes have been polished up, the big sell here is the revolutionary effort to bring complex storytelling to the sports genre. It’s something I never would have expected or even considered possible. All gamers—not just fans of boxing and sports games—owe it to themselves and to the talented risk-takers at EA Canada to play this game.
My biggest worry is that the gamers who would most appreciate Fight Night Champion are probably the last ones who would try it. Core gamers don’t play a lot of sports games, and sports gamers don’t play a lot of story-driven games. But this is the rare beast that could finally unite jocks and dorks once and for all, or at least pit them against one another in the same ring.