Fight Night Champion Preview

21 Feb

As Tyson’s fist connected with the right side of Ali’s jaw and I watched him crumple to the mat I felt I’d made a tiny amount of progress. The fight ended with Ali’s hand raised, but I was Rocky, I knocked down the champ, I had him on the ropes. This was my third attempt to take Ali off his perch with the undersized and overpowered Tyson, and by far the most successful. Landing a punch was hard at first, with the counter-punching Ali dodging and retaliating to every move I made. He was smart, quick and strong, a wonderfully accurate recreation of the legendary fighter in far more than just looks. It’s like watching a dream bout play out, Tyson goes in low and fast, swinging uppercuts, only for Ali to step back and use his reach to keep Tyson at bay. Never have I seen such accuracy in a sports game.

This is Fight Night Champion, the latest in the hitherto complex and inaccessible series. Use of the right thumbstick to control punches led to an altogether awkward, though extremely well put together, experience. Reverting to buttons has lost none of the nuance, and added a much more intuitive system that will be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the Knockout Kings series or Rocky on the Gamecube. The right stick is still an option, should you want it, but bringing the tactile response of buttons back is a welcome move from EA Sports. Punches are simple to execute, right and left straight and hook are all mapped to specific buttons, two at once for an uppercut and hold R2/Right Trigger for body blows, and L1/LB for a big hit. The option to headbutt and low blow is there too, which will make 2-player fights that little bit more fun. Blocking is simple, hold one button, and weaving, clinching and the like are all intuitively executed, allowing for instant mastery of the controls.

Properly connecting with punches is satisfyingly tough

Fighting however, requires some serious concentration. Punches bounce off shoulders and gloves, misses leave you open to counters and going for the body can leave your head unprotected. It’s astoundingly tactical and captures the mechanics of the sport beautifully. The stamina bar and clinching have all been seen before of course, but there is far more subtlety at play. Clinching after being staggered is all important, but going in to clinch is a dangerous game. Running away is even harder. Being overly aggressive is a sure way to lose, but holding back can be fatal as well, there is a delicate balance between offense and defence and without attempting to adapt to an opponent’s style and utilise your own, victory is impossible. With Tyson, the only way to get at Ali was to keep coming forward at his body, then take the occasional swing at his head when he tried to block low. Anything else was countered and Tyson pushed back to where his reach disadvantage could be punished. Going forward though, was often met with an aggressive response, and Ali actively attempted to keep Tyson at arm’s length.

This level of attention to the specifics of the sweet science has been praised in Fight Night, but the new controls mean that now it doesn’t take hours of practice to appreciate. The roster has plenty of big names, though whether each boxer’s style is fully realised remains to be seen. Either way, it would have been nice to see some more modern boxers, but the casual players will be happy with the legends on offer. For boxing fans, the chance to match David Haye against one of the Klitschko brothers is an interesting proposition. There are some omissions, most notably Floyd Mayweather, which is disappointing, but I can’t complain all that much when Butterbean is back as a playable fighter. Yes, you heard right. Butterbean.

Boxers are brilliantly realised, physically and technically

Graphically the Fight Night engine has always been impressive, and this is no different. The boxers look solid, and punches connect with a satisfying heft when timed correctly. If not, they slip over the gloves or head of an opponent with the kind of precision physics other games never offer. It’s the engine that makes the game work so well, with no clipping or glitches as far as I could see. Coupled with the phenomenal AI, it genuinely looks real. The fighters are large and take up most of the screen when punches start flying. Presentation is high quality as always, though the ‘Hollywood inspired’ Champion mode seems a little silly. Based on an unknown boxer, it seeks to emulate the Rocky experience, I suppose, but the concept seems a little at odds with the otherwise serious game. It would be nice to see a really solid career mode, based more on stat-building RPG elements than cheap dramatics, but we shall wait and see if EA Sports can deliver an interesting story before being too harsh.

Fight Night Champion releases on March 1 in the US and March 4 in Europe.

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