In exactly the same way that last year’s Madden NFL 11 decided to inject its campaign mode with a palpable aura of cinematic magic – riffing briefly on Oliver Stone’s ignored-at-the-time-but-now-seminal American Football flick Any Given Sunday – Fight Night Champion has clearly taken a direct, and potent, cue from the 1976 Sylvester Stallone classic that in this day and age surely doesn’t require naming. It’s a brilliant move, introducing a tight narrative and some vigorous grittiness to a series whose construction was beginning to err on the mechanical and formulaic. Champion mode has clearly been taken so seriously by the development team at EA Canada that they have done everything that they possibly can to ensure that you don’t ignore it.
And you won’t. Placing you in the shoes of underdog middleweight Andre Bishop before you’ve even caught a glimpse of a menu screen, Fight Night Champion‘s forthright narrative is gripping from the get-go. When the action suddenly stops ten minutes in, to ask if you wish to continue with it, it is a truly disheartened gamer who doesn’t oblige. The game’s primary villain is ridiculously easy to detest (he’s more like Brick Top from Snatch than Don King) and Andre Bishop’s overbearing sense of morality occasionally makes him feel like a holy, Luke Skywalker-esque cipher, but Champion mode is so thoroughly unusual – and successful – that it’s all but impossible not to get completely swept up in it. There is no question that the structure of the plot is rigidly conventional, but when it is executed this sharply and with this degree of attentive clarity… who cares?
Newcomers won’t even have much to complain about, as a lightning-quick (but solidly extensive) tutorial is woven into the structure of the opening half-hour. Every move that Andre Bishop makes under your control is reflected in the (reliably coherent) in-game spiel of the commentators, and in the aftermath of significant tournament victories, the game cuts to video footage of a real-life ESPN presenter; both of which serve to draw you ever deeper into the game’s hackneyed but superbly written plot. Various characters that you encounter in the game’s cutscenes will also give you sly tips that’ll help you to beat certain opponents; and if you’re playing on anything other than the Amateur difficulty setting, you’ll have to heed their instructions… which is yet another tool devised to draw you into the story even more.
The control scheme has been thoughtfully re-designed too. Whilst the ground-breaking Round 3 iteration of Fight Night tried to cater for everyone (with analogue thumbstick commands mapped simultaneously to the PS3 and Xbox 360 pad’s face buttons) Round 4 belligerently scrapped face button support altogether; a move that alienated some, and only really pleased the hardcore Fight Night player base. A late-in-the-day patch appeased a few people, but Fight Night Champion sees full-on face button support return. But, because the entire control scheme has been re-worked – with simple flick gestures replacing the much more involved and complex rolling thumbstick motions seen before – you’ll no longer feel at a disadvantage if your opponent is using face buttons when you are not.
Round 4’s Legacy mode is still here, and it still allows you to nurture the boxer of your choice (real or user created) towards the glory of winning a prestigious weight-specific belt. As before, this is a very detailed and pedantic series of events – involving the clear-headed distribution of experience points and money to further your career and status – but it has become such a staple part of the Fight Night package that many fans are certain to spend countless hours with it regardless of how familiar it may seem. Another new addition (deletion?) means that you now no longer have control over your recovery processes between rounds either; all of that is now done automatically, and is entirely out of your control.
One initial fear that recently emerged amongst Fight Night fans (palpably nurtured by the recent demo) was that the refurbished stamina meter would break the flow of combat. It refills alarmingly quickly and barely appears to deplete even after three or four rounds, but this actually represents a thoughtful and well-implemented modification to the game’s core dynamic. When encountering a hasty, hot-headed opponent who is infatuated by the idea of securing an early knockout (especially during an online multiplayer bout, where this happens often) the new stamina system allows you to maintain your distance, keep proceedings tactical, and even allows you to perform the fabled ‘Rope-a-dope’ technique on your oppressor. If you can orchestrate such a scenario (and it isn’t easy) and are able to then go on to secure a victory; there is truly no buzz in contemporary videogaming that can touch it.
So, some hardened Fight Night fans may not have been expecting this much rawness, this much clever pandering or this much covert innovation, but Fight Night Champion is easily the finest game in the excellent series. It even manages to keep fans of EA MMA – one of last year’s most shockingly underrated videogames – at bay, by refreshing the gameplay enough to appease those who may have thought that they could no longer engage with a combat system that didn’t involve a kick button or demand a thorough ground-game plan. Fight Night Champion is certainly a world-class boxing game, but it’s also a world glass videogame full stop; and is the kind of property that is entirely capable of bringing a whole host of new followers to the sport. It’s a stone-cold classic; no doubt about it.
Watch the Fight Night Champion trailer here: