A swing and a miss.
More than who Don King is, is what Don King represents - the notorious promoter - an out-of-this-world personality, an eccentric silver-gray electric-springing hairdo that looks like Einstein blow-drying himself at the speed of light, a knack for getting sued for fraud by boxing legends like Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis, and a propensity to speak with a bombastic splurge of suffix-spliced in-his-own-head jargon filled with "fantastical spectaculosity". But I'll just call it what it really is: "flamboyasuckitation".
Pompously stepping into the ring with the Fight Night franchise, Don King Presents Prizefighter struts its 2KSports logo with the menacing glare of a doppelganger. Stare as it might, though, it’s hardly anything more than a cardboard cutout of its EA Sports counterpart. The screenshots, the Burnout-esque menu interface, and the hittin’ soundtrack may all make it look like it’s a worthy competitor to Fight Night, but if you shuffle in close to the gameplay, you realize that it’s so thin and limp that you could flick it over with your pinky.
Now, there’s no shame in setting a “punchtacular” bar for yourself, but Prizefighter doesn’t understand what makes Fight Night so intense and liquid-smooth - the controls. Every basic punch in Fight Night is correspondingly mapped to a circular motion on the analog stick, with a quick nudge for jabs and straights, and a long curve for hooks and uppercuts. Prizefighter reverts back to the days of Ready 2 Rumble and Knockout Kings, using the face buttons for basic punches and the various shoulder buttons to modify them into body blows, leaning and side punches, and step-in strikes.
It’s not wrong for Prizefighter to return to an old-school scheme - it has worked without any hitches many times before. Still, it takes an incredible amount of economy, fluidity, and editing for a button layout like this to hit hard and feel swift - an amount of effort that just isn’t made here. Since inputting a punch is instantaneous at the press of a button instead of individually encapsulated as a motion on the analog stick, there is a lot of timing involved with when a punch or hit animation starts and ends and when you can input the next punch.
What ultimately happens is that you just can’t keep up with the intricacies of the animations - there are more than thirty kinds of strikes and movements - so lag between what you press and what happens on the screen creeps in from every angle and position. Causing more frustration, blocking practically requires you to know whether attacks are coming high or low, left or right, and with the lag, it’s nearly impossible to do with any accuracy. It’s just way too much for what’s supposed to be a simple one-on-one sport. The fight becomes as cumbersome as molasses, which forces you to either button-mash and luck your way to victory, or be strategically restricted by striking with single punches - and neither is all that fun.
Even if you get a handle on the controls, the hit detection and the animations ruin any sense of consistency. Many times, a punch that looks like it would hit doesn’t, and a punch that doesn’t look it will hit does. The animations themselves are decent and occasionally have the impact you would expect from a fierce hook to the face… if the fighters are standing around. The movelist allows the boxers to lean, step-in, bob, weave, and dodge, but when they get hit while doing one of these movements, either nothing happens or limbs begin to fly around in all manner of cerebral palsy imitations. Leaning in low for a body blow, you would think you could just flick your hand from the crouch position, but the actual animation has the boxer stand up slightly and then punch to the body. Why the hit states are in such an unrealistic setup is dumbfounding.
Somewhere down the line, of course, Don King has to pop his head in and try to “splendorectify” the experience. Career mode pits you as the star nicknamed “The Kid” in a documentary about the legendary successes of “the terrifying, all-defying, waking nightmare and earth-shaking, ring-quaking fightmare” (that’s you). Video collages of Don King and others who I believe are playing fictional roles - Frank Cardelli the trainer, Larry Easton the promoter, and Carla Clark the agent - attempt to put you in a real-life situation, but it has the same numbing effect as live-action video games. It’s supposed to be real, but you actively know it isn’t by how it's executed, so you’re left rolling your eyes from scripted event to scripted event. You don’t really feel like the underdog from the streets, building your stats through mini-games and gradually taking home millions in prize money, but a person playing a story that’s obviously already written for you from the very beginning.
Some of the story-driven challenges, like having to face a boxer on illegal steroids who has a large head and a small… you know…, are a notable twist on the usually straightforward path of climbing up the rankings. It’s strange that with all the characters stats and the calendar managing in boxing titles, there hasn’t been a more elaborate attempt at producing an underdog Rocky storyline. If Puzzle Quest can work out a plot for Bejeweled, there shouldn’t be an excuse for boxing. In any case, the A&E Biography-styled story doesn’t make you believe you’re just a hard-working, hard-knocks man from Brooklyn with dreams of legalized sadistic bliss. You’re following a narrowly specified one-mind track, which is only made more apparent when the only weight class allowed in career mode is heavyweight and you can’t change your nickname to anything but “The Kid”.
In fact, many options that should be available in a boxing game are just plain missing. You can only restart a match after the bout is completed, not during the fight. Boxers have a statistic for strength, stamina, dexterity, and agility, but not for cuts, recovery, and just plain defense. Cuts and bruises simply happen whenever and wherever they want to - give an opponent a nasty right hook and sometimes a bruise will appear on the opponent’s left eye. There are no alternate camera angles aside from the side-view default…
No way to disable the HUD. No way to completely customize the control scheme. No way to access the tutorial outside of creating a new career – and even then, the tutorial is far too brief. No way to change a boxer’s movelist and signature punches. Even though world heavyweight champions can become millionaires and there’s a “media profile stat” that boosts how much they earn after each fight, there’s no way to actually spend money on, say, unlockables, movies, Don King hair products, anything. And I thought Monopoly money was the joke.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Prizefighter has no redeeming qualities. The addition of an adrenaline bar lets you get out of tight situations or score a quick knockdown before the bell saves your opponent. Getting up from a knockdown has you mash a button instead of awkwardly trying to do what Fight Night asks you to do, nudging two analog-stick circles towards the center of the screen. The jammin’ soundtrack and the blurred out, unfinished stroke-styled menu interfaces bring attitude that is stronger than that of Fight Night. Besides, many people who grab a boxing title aren’t overly concerned with realism. They just want to pick up and play a title that lets them choose a couple of ripped pugilists and club away at each other, and that’s exactly what they’ll get here. None of the boxers really play any differently from each other, but the fighting system isn’t broken or unplayable. Just tolerable.
On the other hand, Fight Night does almost everything much better that putting out a tolerably average boxing title at this point feels unnecessarily painful. It’s as if Prizefighter, with its next-gen graphics and sound and obvious namedrop, was made specifically to fool the everyday WalMart shopper. Really, what’s the point of Don King being in this game? Aside from his "vocabularization", I have no idea. There's his face in the intro menu screen, several pages in the manual about his career, some video footage of him in cut-scenes, and a whole lot of nonsensical "fluffitude".
Though Prizefighter flashes its guns as a boxing title on top of a Don King autobiography, all it should have been is a good ol’-fashioned brawler. All the money spent on royalties to have Don’s name attached to it could have been put to better use. It could have been a title simply called Prize Fighter (that’s two words, sir!). It could have respected the sport of boxing, staying up until the break of dawn replaying footage of Fight Night until it learned how to counter its moves. It could have given itself a fighting chance. But just like trying to understand Don King’s “oratorlicious pretenticity”, we can only imagine what Prize Fighter could have been.