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EA Sports rolls out its latest prize fighter as we go toe-to-toe with Fight Night Champion over the full 12 rounds...
The undisputed heavyweight champion of boxing games is back and we can tell you right now that, without a shadow of a doubt, it's going to retain its title from 2009's Fight Night Round 4 with this latest instalment. And the reason for this isn't so much the series' unsurpassable quality (it is good, don't get us wrong) as much as it is a lack of genuine contenders on current-gen consoles. The punch-drunk Don King Presents: Prizefighter from 2008 failed to even land a couple of clean punches on the Fight Night series, while the only other viable challenge has come from Facebreaker, a caricatured take on the sport that had more in common with traditional 'fighter' video games than it did authentic boxing. You have to go all the way back to the previous-gen Rocky games to find another boxing series that stands out like Fight Night, but nobody in their right mind is going to consider them an alternative with all the visual and technical prowess that EA's series has mustered in the ensuing years.
The only question remaining for boxing fans, then, is whether Fight Night Champion does enough to warrant itself a purchase over its predecessor and the answer to that is, 'kind of, maybe - well, it sort of depends really'. Looking back to our review of Round 4, it's encouraging to see how many of our major criticisms are answered in this new instalment: more modes? Tick; more dynamic opponents? Tick; more variation? Tick, tick, tick. It's just that where EA Canada has been fiddling around with the gameplay elsewhere it appears to have spoilt the balance somewhat, thereby cancelling out many of the improvements it's made over Round 4. To say that it's one step forward and two steps back seems a little harsh but the phrase, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' comes to mind on occasion, prompting you to bury your head in your hands out of sheer frustration.
It all starts with the fighting controls, which were truly the pièce de résistance of Rounds 3 and 4. Under the previous system, the right thumbstick controlled punches through an intuitive scheme that prompted jabs with simple forward flicks and heavier punches by executing trickier gestures (e.g. hooks were performed by flicking sideways and rotating upwards on the stick). The system was perfectly balanced - really, it's hard to conceive of a better possible solution to boxing gameplay mechanics - but now EA Canada has gone and changed things slightly, ushering in a new 'Full Spectrum Punch Control' scheme (it's usually a bad sign when a publisher uses marketing spiel like that, and this is no exception). Under the new regime, stronger punches such as upper-cuts and hooks are easily dispensed by merely flicking downwards or sideways on the thumbstick respectively, effectively detracting most of the intuitive feel to the previous system.
We can see a few reasons why EA might have opted for the new scheme. Perhaps it isn't just that it lowers the bar a bit for newcomers to the series - you can make a strong argument that it speeds up the pace of fights as well, making for a more action-packed experience. It may also be the result of demands from some corners of the game's fan-base; presumably the same fans who successfully lobbied for a post-release patch to Round 4 that added traditional face button controls. By simplifying the old thumbstick scheme, EA Canada may be attempting to level the playing field for both types of control method online. Whatever the case, and whichever fan-bases the studio is trying to appease, it's had a detrimental effect on the gameplay. It now feels less intuitive and more like you're flailing wildly at the opponent, while there's also less differentiation between each type of punch, meaning that you'll often reach for a straight and end up finding an overhand punch. Granted, the 'Full Spectrum' does offer a wider range of punches than its predecessor, such as hookercuts and flared straights, but at a singificant cost to the overall balance of the controls unfortunately.
Beyond that though, this control system is nigh-on sublime (mostly because it remains largely untouched elsewhere). There's a silky-smooth interchange between the blocking and weaving controls on each trigger button, while the right shoulder button acts as a Haymaking modifier for hooks and uppercuts. This control setup is then dished out through the now standard Legacy Mode where players foster the career of a boxer (either user-created or picked from the 50-strong roster of classic and present-day fighters) all the way from a lowly amateur tournament to the heights of pro rankings. Not much has changed here other than the usual range of user-interface spruces; training games retain a similar line-up to Round 4 (a similarly unimaginative one too), while the process of ranking-up through the board against fairly predictable AI opponents is also wearily familiar.
Where this certainly isn't the case is through the Champion Mode. It's the headlining new feature for the series and, basically, it adds a story mode. You take on the role of one Andre Bishop (or 'Dre' to his friends) through the trials and tribulations of his career as he attempts to become the champ. As far as storylines go, not many get as clichéd as this: there's the boxing promoter villain, the short and husky-voiced trainer (who couldn't be more like Mickey from the Rocky films if he tried), a complementary love interest for our rising star, an arrogant world number one for him to brood over as he climbs the ranks, and of course some bare-knuckled white supremacists to fight against (okay, perhaps that last one was the least clichéd).
Where this mode really starts to shine, though, is in the way EA Canada varies up each fight with a snippet from the story. In one match-up you'll be up against a boxer with a particularly nasty left hook, one blow from which will send Dre collapsing towards the canvas, while in another fight you'll face a fleet-footed speedster who darts around the ring landing jabs like a quarrelsome mosquito (the challenge being to pin him in a corner and nail some Haymakers). Later fights see Dre breaking his right hand, forcing him to fight on with only left-handed punches. It finally gives Fight Night the platform where it can vary up the sort of challenges you'll face with each passing boxer, making for a more dynamic experience from the gameplay. From this standpoint, the Champion Mode excels greatly even if its plot could use a little work.
Expansions to the online multiplayer, particularly through the new Online Gym mode, add to longevity as well. Served-up alongside returning online features such as World Championship, these Online Gyms allow you to create a custom boxer from scratch, build up his XP and stats through a season of online match-ups and compete towards an end of season tournament for the ultimate prize. In short, it adds a considerable amount of content and appeal to the online multiplayer and, alongside the offline Champion Mode, forms a fairly well stocked package overall.
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