Version tested: Xbox 360
There was a time when I wouldn't have taken a second glance at Fight Night Champion. But ever since Eurogamer asked me to transfer my arcade fighter fanaticism to a preview of UFC Undisputed 2009, I've realised that strategic stamina control can be just as intense as setting up cross-ups and frame traps. This epiphany then prompted me to sample the other simulation of the moment, namely Fight Night Round 4.
Moving away from the familiar Dash Straights and Machinegun Blows, I discovered something less instantly gratifying but no less technically rewarding. This was a boxing simulation in its purest form, both as a martial art with an elegant dance of full body movement, and as a sport where the only way to deal damage is by propelling padded knuckles above the belt line. But the transition from arcade to simulation was far from easy.
For those weaned on a stick and six buttons, the switch to dual analogue control is initially met with frustration bordering on deep-seated loathing. Those first few bouts are a harsh lesson in the nuances of pugilism, but after gradually getting to grips with leaning, weaving and effective counterpunching – rather than just flailing like a rabid wolverine and getting rocked for your trouble – you'll start to develop the boxing fundamentals.
In Round 4, this translated to Total Punch Control, a system that used circular motions on the right stick to convey the bread-and-butter of boxing ballistics. While this was technically sound, there were many who disliked the strict recognition that would often turn a well-timed hook into an unplanned uppercut – which, if you'd spaced for the former, could leave you wide open for a galling counterpunch.
Champion's more elegant solution is the revamped Full Spectrum Punch Control. This system ditches the motions from the previous game in favour of directional inputs which translate to straights, hooks and uppercuts when tilting the stick either up, down or to the side. These three punches form the basic tools of your striking offense; in order to give the exchanges more depth, in-between inputs will result in flared straights and hookercuts.
For those who dislike the idea of using the analogue stick, Champion's default set-up has the face buttons working in tandem, giving simultaneous access to the three standard punches. This means button-pushers lose out on the fancier thrusts and swings, but as a compromise that allows fighting game traditionalists to enjoy the boxing without diluting any of the analogue sophistication, it works well and is unobtrusive.
A reworked Power Modifier means you can now load every type of strike, including jabs and straights. Furthermore, blocking only requires you to hold down the button, which depending on your boxer's Reflex and Blocking ratings, will automatically guard against oncoming punches whether high or low.
As a trade-off, effective combinations can now find their way past your defence and hit home. So while you still need to keep your hands up, timing your block as a punch connects or leaning and weaving out of the way is still the most effective method of avoiding damage and setting up lethal counterpunch opportunities. But unlike Round 4, where the counter system was almost too powerful, counterpunches now have a narrower window of execution and feel more balanced.
When you combine all these revisions with a faster tempo and more fluid animations, Champion's combat feels more faithful to the sport. You have to make use of your fighter's strengths as an inside brawler, outside sniper or conventional all-rounder. You have to manage your stamina effectively so that you apply consistent pressure, but not to the point where you have no stamina left if the fight goes the distance. And you have to mix up your strikes by landing combinations on both the body and head. With perseverance, Champion comes into its own and you'll come to understand and appreciate its many improvements over Round 4.
EA Canada has also been busy with the new Champion Mode. This tells the story of Andre Bishop, a young boxing prodigy who is trying to fulfil his late father's dreams by becoming the Middleweight Champion of the World. Cue leather jackets, bad haircuts and plenty of dun... dun dun dun... dun dun dun... dun dun derrrrrrr. That's an obvious dig, but EA Canada has in fact risen to the challenge.
It's not going to win any literary awards – all the characters fit into stereotypes like jealous brother, corrupt boxing promoter, old-fashioned trainer wearing a flat cap – but the five-to-seven hours it offers are oddly compelling. It also helps that Bishop is genuinely likeable and by the second half of the story, you'll savour the moment when he falcon-punches the cocky smile off the arrogant heel's face.
But it's the way the story compliments the gameplay that sets Champion Mode apart. Rather than offering 22 straight fights against increasingly difficult opponents, each exchange challenges you in a different way. At first these start out fairly straightforward, but before long you're bare-knuckle scrapping in prisons against headbutt-happy convicts or fighting professional boxing matches with your right hand broken.
These early scenarios teach you the ins and outs of the comprehensive fighting system, while later battles demand you put everything you've learned into practice. And for those who really want to put their skills to the ultimate test, four difficulty settings will see if you have the skills to survive.
As accomplished as the Champion Mode is, the bulk of Fight Night's single-player is in the returning Legacy Mode. In Round 4, this was fairly shallow, but after taking some pointers from EA Sports MMA, EA Canada has graced its career mode with more reasons to keep playing.
While levelling up your character in Round 4 was a simple case of training before a fight in order to raise a handful of attributes, Champion introduces a more complex progression that separates your character's boxing Skills from their physical Athleticism. Skill training takes the form of interactive mini-games and includes four new stand-up games like Get Inside and Stay Outside. These help improve your spacing techniques and every training session nets you a certain amount of XP based on your performance.
These points can be spent on improving your fighter's Skills in 17 areas, and whether you distribute them evenly among your punches and defensive manoeuvres or instead max out your right hook so it gains one-hit-KO potential early on is entirely up to you. This means you have more creative freedom and a lot more to think about between fights.
The flipside of the Skill system is your fighter's Athleticism. At the start of his career your 18-year-old fighter will be in outstanding shape and able to shrug off injuries with ease, but as he gets older and advances through the ranks, you'll need to invest time into athletics programmes so that they can stay physically competitive.
Then by the twilight years of their career – when their Skills are established but each fight takes a greater toll – you'll need to switch over almost exclusively to athletics training as you attempt to defend multiple titles. All these extra considerations make for a more involved Legacy Mode, and when you factor in purses which can be spent on better training camps, you have a more exhaustive simulation that makes you think outside the ring.
Rounding off the Fight Night Champion package is the online functionality which, unfortunately, we haven't been able to sample at the time of writing. EA Canada is promising a similar set-up but with "improved match-up logic", "totally new anti-cheat logic" and "a complete Lobby system for hanging out, talking boxing and matching up". Above anything else, it will need to make sure the netcode is stable.
You can now create your own online Gym by inviting friends to join up with their own boxer creations, allowing you to take part in fights and sparring sessions while earning XP. Once you've got a solid team together you can then instigate a Rival Challenge against another Gym and take part in Rivalry Fights. Then, having risen to the challenge of their rival, the winning Gym will increase in rank with the opportunity to challenge better Gyms – dun dun derrrrrrr.
The Fight Night series has a boxing monopoly, with little in the way of direct competition and a roster that includes over 50 of the world's most famous pugilists past and present – including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, David Haye, Manny Pacquiao, both Sugar Rays and Butterbean. But despite its dominance, EA Canada has deflected any "lazy update" accusations by listening to fan feedback and crafting a game that improves upon its predecessor.
It's far from a revolution – much of the framework will be familiar to Fight Night fans – but as the best-looking and most technically accomplished game the series has yet produced, this evolution exceeds our expectations, without totally blowing us away. Fight Night Champion has both the guts and the glory, and if the online functionality compliments the excellent offline modes, then it's going straight to the top.
8 / 10