Whether you’re a boxing fan or not, you have to admire what EA Sports has done with the Fight Night series. With Round 3 it created a game that helped define sports games for the current console generation, with pretty damn close to photorealistic graphics, literally hard-hitting action and some smart ideas - particularly dropping the health gauge and letting the visuals tell the story - that made the experience incredibly immersive. With Round 4, they could just have rolled out the traditional lazy update, but instead they streamlined the gameplay even further, worked on the analogue controls, and threw in classic bouts that came packed with genuine Raging Bull and When We Were Kings atmosphere.
It’s impressive, then, that the quality hasn’t dropped off with Round 5, or as EA has decided to call it, Fight Night Champion. It’s not only the best in the series, but a sports game that’s potentially just as revolutionary as its predecessors.
Why? Because EA has gone back to the cinema for inspiration, and realised that boxing is the perfect sport for a more narrative-led approach. The game’s major new addition - the Champion mode of the title - is a classic yarn of life inside and outside the ring, following a rising star, Andre Bishop, on his journey from young contender to heavyweight champ. It’s a story that’s got it all: the early wins, the corrupt promoters, the late-night warning about what happens if you don’t play ball, the frame-up, the jail years and the comeback.
It has a likeable hero, an equally likeable heroine, a dastardly villain and a seemingly inhuman rival who won’t stop gloating until you knock him down. Is it clichéd? Maybe, but it’s brilliant. EA has nailed the close-up visuals, the script, the voice acting and the plotline, and the result is a drama that keeps you hooked as much as the exceptional gameplay.
What’s more, Champion mode works perfectly as a way into Fight Night for the casual player. You don’t have to worry about training, scheduling fights or looking after your boxer; all you need to think about is getting through the cutscene to the next bout and putting the other guy on the canvas. Champion mode also mixes things up a little, with scenarios that see you unable to punch with your right hand or suffering from a cut that dramatically effects your performance. The atmosphere is electric, with brilliant use of ringside commentary and between-match TV coverage, and the urge to just see what happens next is ridiculously strong. Let’s face it: played on your own, most sports games get dull after an hour or two. Not Fight Night Champion. We haven’t felt this compelled to keep coming back to a sports game for donkey’s years.
Of course, you can also see it as a starter before the main meal - the return of Round 4’s Legacy mode. Here, in traditional EA Sports style, it’s all about building your own boxer using the excellent character editor, and pushing him through a career of training, scheduled matches and tournaments as he climbs through the rankings. This is closer to the traditional Fight Night experience, complete with training mini-games and aspects of management. However, even here the game shows signs of improvement over the 2009 model.
It all comes down to the core gameplay. Round 3’s analogue stick-based controls helped give the boxing a more visceral feel than most button-based boxing games, but it has to be said that some of the movements involved made it difficult to pull off jabs, uppercuts and combos reliably. Now it’s been simplified, so all that matters is where you flick the right stick, while the controls for blocks and heavy punches have also been effectively streamlined. This all makes Fight Night Champion feel noticeably more accessible than its predecessors (and you can still opt for button-based controls), but without turning it into a watered-down pugilism sim. You still have to time your moves, preserve your stamina, block, duck and weave and string together punishing combos if you want that title shot - just as it’s always been.
In fact, watered down isn’t a phrase you can apply to Fight Night Champion anywhere. We had thought that Rounds 3 and 4 had pushed the graphics and sound as far as they might go, but Fight Night Champions still manages to trump them. The visuals are even more impressive, with a more dynamic camera and a more effective use of close-ups, and the injuries are even more brutal, as you’ll get plenty of chance to notice in those legendary face-distorting slowmo replays. There aren’t many sports games where we marvel at the sound design, but when you see a big thump connect and hear the boom and listen to the sound go hollow, you know that you’ve just taken some serious damage. If Fight Night Champion were any more immersive, you wouldn’t actually want to play it. It would probably hurt.
Needless to say, it’s also packed with online features - not just the expected two-man bouts, but virtual gyms where you can compete with friends or challenge rival gyms to team-based tourneys. If there’s any complaint you can make about Fight Night Champion, it’s not that it’s lacking in things to do.
Are they any valid reasons to moan? Well, some of Round 4’s sense of boxing history has disappeared, along with the superb period effects that accompanied historic bouts. You might also say that the odds are stacked too far in your favour for most of the Champion campaign, before the rug is suddenly pulled from under you two-thirds of the way through. However, thinking about it, it’s more the case that you’re missing something fundamental, or just ignoring the need to defend. Up your game, and you’ll soon find that you’ve got what it takes to win through.
Not just an exceptional boxing game, but an exceptional sports game, Fight Night Champion is a knockout whether you’re a fan of the noble art of pugilism or not. Unless you’re squeamish or allergic to cheesy plots and the classic training montage, it comes highly recommended.