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Fancying ourselves as fighting game gurus, TVG takes a swipe at EA's Facebreaker and come away with a bloody nose...
If you pick up a copy of Facebreaker at your nearest videogame store this weekend, you might assume that it's an easy going boxing game with a humorous comic styling - good for a laugh with your mates but no real challenge for the hardened gamer. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Facebreaker is a hardcore fighting game that demands razor sharp timing from its challengers. Underneath its seemingly harmless exterior beats the heart of a rock hard Japanese fighter (even though it's been developed by EA Canada) boasting combo and parry systems, finishing moves, and characters with oodles of depth.
Contrary to the boxing rulebook, below the belt punches in Facebreaker are a-okay. The two basic attacks are jugular high and pelvis low punches (X and A respectively on the 360), which has allowed EA Canada to build a parry system in the archetypal fighting game format. Players must match the attacks of their opponent with either high or low blocks using the right trigger. Of course, even if you do preempt your opponent's jabs correctly, the block will soon crumble after a few blows and this is where parrying comes in.
It requires the eye of a hawk, but if you press the X or A button while blocking and as your opponent's fist is rocketing towards you, you'll then grab their punch and send off a counter-attack simultaneously. Okay, so it's the same basic format as many other parry systems, but believe us when we tell you that it's no mean feat. EA Canada has also built a dodge system into the game that certainly isn't in the same basic format of other fighters. While holding down either X or A you'll charge up a high or low punch. If, for example, you're charging up a high attack then your boxer will dodge all of the high punches thrown at them. However, your adversary is able to successfully land low punches.
The effects of this are twofold. Firstly, it allows you to take back the initiative while you're under a barrage of attacks. If your facing a quick fisted character who's laying into your waist, then simply charge up a low punch and dodge a few, before letting that punch fly and stealing the momentum while you're at it. Secondly, this dodge system has allowed EA Canada to make the fighting in Facebreaker incredibly fast paced and frantic. In fact, there aren't many fighting games that can rival the sheer tempo of this one. It's no Rocky Balboa... it's an Apollo Creed.
You see, without the dodge system Facebreaker would just be a jumbled mess of lightning fast jabs, but with the system EA Canada has brought order to the potential chaos. Due to its inclusion, players are able to link punches together into a mesmerising blur, but the pressure is always on them to mix things up otherwise their opponents will soon suss them out and steal the momentum at the drop of a hat. The result is that it's pretty hard to string together more than four or five punches without your opponent dodging one successfully, and this is where the combo system comes into play.
This combo system is assigned to four boxes in the bottom left of the HUD. The more boxes you fill with consecutive punches, the more brutal your Haybreaker attack (performed by pressing the Y button) becomes. One filled box results in a fairly standard Bonebreaker, which is pretty good for stunning opponents. Four or six linked punches opens up the more devastating Groundbreaker and Skybreaker moves, both of which require a well timed second punch after the Haybreaker to launch your opponent into the sky or onto the ground with bone crunching effect.
On the rare occasion that you manage to string together 10 punches without missing or being blocked/dodged, then you can illuminate the fourth red box. This gives you a chance to unleash a Facebreaker finishing move by pressing the Y button three times at specific prompts. As with the rest of Facebreaker's gameplay features, this combo system is built upon the tenets of classic fighting games, but the way in which it's presented is more accessible than a Street Fighter or Soul Calibur. It's not that it's heavily simplified or dumbed down - hardcore fighting enthusiasts will certainly enjoy this game - but figuring out the intricacies of each system isn't quite as convoluted and hidden as a game like Tekken or Virtua Fighter.
At the same time, there are nuances to Facebreaker's various characters, just not in a way that requires you to do a 90 degrees clockwise flick on the analogue stick in two nanoseconds to perform a special move. One of the female fighters called Sparrow (because of her cockney twang) can do a darting punch from one side of the ring to the other that almost always stuns opponents, Voodoo breathes a green gas that makes other players punch themselves, and Steve can make a throw move (using the B button) that makes him disappear in a poof and re-appear directly behind his opponent. These moves don't require you to align the planets in order to make them work, but they are well balanced enough to make each boxer a decidedly different type of handful than the last. This is particularly the case in the single-player campaign where we had to trawl through rematch after rematch with the same opponent just to probe and eventually unearth their Achilles heel.
This differentiation between the characters also adds to the visual appeal of the game. The variation in animations, from Ice's frictionless dart across the canvass to Socks' hand puppetry, is enough to keep you both aesthetically and comically entertained. We may have been hoping for a little more from the facial deformation though as we were expecting something a little more detailed than a face that looks like it's been put in a vice. Some knockout close-ups with slack jaws swaying from side to side would have been more down our alley, but you can't have everything. We're definitely looking forward to playing around with the create-a-boxer feature though, which has pinched Tiger Woods' Game Face technology and added comical touches that are more in keeping with Facebreaker's style. For example, you can take the body of a monkey, add the eyes of an alien, and finish with a mauve skin colour. The possibilities are endless, especially with the potential of user uploaded boxers on Xbox Live and PSN.
As far as the sound is concerned, Facebreaker's backing track has the usual high production of an EA game and most of the music will sound both familiar and suitably hip. What we really wanted to know about was the sound effects and you'll be glad to hear that each type of punch and breaker move has its own resounding thud that's more potently satisfying than being able to say I told you so.
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