Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Fight Night Champion

Some time ago I hit upon the idea of Mea culpa reviews, something the game journalists badly need in order to bring a little honesty to their work and greater trustworthiness to their reviews. The idea was to highlight and explain the vast differences between your preview and your review of a game, if such differences exist, rather than simply pretending that they never existed in the first place. I wrote a Mea culpa review about Batman: Arkham Asylum after my preview (based on the first hour of the game) suggested something far more middling than the absolute cracker it turned out to be.

Which brings us to Fight Night Champion. My preview of the game was far from optimistic, lamenting the lack of gameplay satisfaction in the new punch controls and worrying that the height-and-reach physics of previous games had been neutralised by what seemed to be an unfortunate combination of bad animation and dumbed down controls. So, did I call it? Or do I need to write a Mea culpa review?

I called it. But only just. Every problem I identified in the preview is present in the main game and is just as disappointing here as it was in preview. But I have to admit that the full game offers much more than was apparent during the preview, and a lot of what’s on offer is good enough to raise my opinion of the game somewhat, to the point where I’m genuinely enjoying it, albeit not as much as I enjoyed its predecessor, Fight Night Round 4.

The game’s Legacy mode, in which you take a created or licensed fighter through their career from amateur to (maybe) multiple world champion has received several small but important tweaks. In FNR4 you trained your fighter, building different skills with different exercises, watching their abilities increase at a rocket pace during their early years and desperately trying to stall or compensate for their decline as they grew old. It was a fun and reasonably authentic system, but it back-loaded the game’s challenge, and could be circumvented by the right choice of fighter and playing style.

In Fight Night Champion there’s a different system, one that feels a little contrived but which does a better job of spreading the challenge throughout the legacy mode. Training exercises earn you XP which you can spend on polishing your fighter’s skills, but they also cost you stamina which leaves you dangerously depleted when you get into the ring for real. Balancing your skills and stamina makes the Legacy mode slightly more engaging than it was in Fight Night Round 4, and significantly more difficult as well: playing on the hardest ‘Greatest of All Time’ settting in Fight Night Round 4 was a real challenge, but here? I’ll confess, I found it almost impossible, and quickly compiled what the fight game would call a losing record. If you seek a challenge, Fight Night Champion is for you.

The game’s ‘Champion’ mode is an interesting new addition, one that adds a narrative to the boxing gameplay as you take control of young prospect Andre Bishop and guide him through a career beset by corrupt promoters and personal tragedies. The plot is nothing more than a string of boxing clich├ęs, but they serve an gameplay purpose-you suffer a broken hand that haunts you later when forced to win a fight one handed, you suffer a cut eye and have to win a fight without taking more than a few punches to the cut for fear of the ref stepping in, that sort of thing. It’s a clever idea that works very well until the final fight of the game where you’re set an alternating series of tough or tedious challenges that suck the fun out of proceedings, turn victory into a relief rather than a triumph, and actually make your eventual win feel like an afterthought to the writer’s attempt to add drama.

That’s not the only complaint either-I can’t imagine the engine has been significantly changed since FN4, but as I’ve said before, the ability to excel simply by mastering the speed and reach of a fighter is gone-jabs no longer work to rack up points whilst keeping you on the outside, as even the rangiest fighter seems to throw ‘chicken-wings’ that allow opponents to move in and do damage. In Champion, stylists need not apply, you need to be a counter-puncher to get the most out of this.

Online the addition of gyms and world ranking system break up the way that achievements are awarded rather nicely, but already EA are going to need to patch certain annoying play traits. Where FN4 was beset by haymaker-spammers, here we find block-pumpers and sidestep-spammers. They ruin pretty much every match they’re in, but if you happen to find a match with a sporting player then there’s plenty of fun to be had.

In all, Fight Night Champion is better than it looks at first glance, and is certainly worth playing, but the increased difficulty will turn some players off, while boxing purists will lament its dredging of cliches and overreliance on counterpunching. There’s a lot of fun to be had here, but we’d definitely say this is a ‘rent it’ rather than a ‘buy it’.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360