Don King really does present Venom Games' new boxing endeavour. From the very first screens, hairstyling's answer to the brillo pad is everywhere - there are samples of his voice in the 70s themed funk music, and a deep red, posterised picture of his face looms ominously behind the menu screen. And that's even before he starts talking at you (excitedly, and at great length) in some of the game's many, many live-action video clips. This, after all, is a paean to the golden age of heavyweight boxing, the 1970s - and it's hard to deny that Don King, arguably the sport's most famous and most successful promoter, was a pivotal figure in that era.
The career mode in the game is, according to 2K Sports, its pivotal feature. It's certainly the game's most interesting and novel aspect. Beginning with a flash-forward to the start of a fight near the end of your career, it takes the format of a sports documentary - with a series of talking heads discussing the career ascent of your character, The Kid, through the ranks of the greats in the 70s.
The kid stays in the picture
These aren't just animated models discussing you, however. The cleverly edited documentary format is filled with clips from some of the legendary names associated with boxing, recorded specially for the game. There's Don King himself, of course - who becomes your promoter once you've proven yourself in the early days. But there are also people like Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, and even director Mario Van Peebles, all chatting away to the camera in soundbite clips about The Kid and his ascent.
Padding it out are a number of fictitious characters, actors and actresses playing people like your former girlfriends, sparring partners and the likes. It all fits together fairly seamlessly, and certainly looks the part - it could easily be a real sports documentary, albeit one undermined a bit by fairly simplistic depiction of your key rivals as heavy-browed, snarling villains.
Backing up the documentary-style presentation is a wealth of classic boxing footage culled from Don King's own archives. This can be unlocked as you progress through the game, and provides one of the big incentives to play through. Another incentive is the ability to unlock a number of classic fighters for the various quick match and multiplayer (both online and offline, naturally) modes.
A selection of contemporary fighters are available from the outset, including a number of boxing's up and coming stars, but to play as the greats you'll need to defeat them in superbly presented black and white dream sequences that pop up during career mode. Conspicuous by his absence from the otherwise fairly impressive classic fighter line-up is Mike Tyson - not, we're told, for any financial reason, but rather due to the former champ's rather fragile state of mind (Prizefighter's producer touches his finger to his forehead and whistles - "there were some issues there" apparently).
As interesting as the documentary style of the game is, it's also a somewhat limiting factor, since the developer hasn't created any branching storyline elements within the format. Lose a fight, and you don't get to stage a comeback - you just get a Game Over. The game does, however, offer some variety by letting you find a balance between media exposure and training.
As your career progresses, you'll get an increasing number of media opportunities being presented to you - everything from appearances in the press to sponsoring entire lines of sportswear. However, each time you spend time enhancing your media profile, you'll be using up precious time that could otherwise be spent training - whereas, if you disappear up a mountain to train, you'll get much fitter but will pretty much disappear from the public eye.
Roar of the crowd
Staying in the public eye has advantages inside the ring itself, too. While the advantage of additional training is pretty obvious - it boosts your power and stamina, for instance - the advantage of a high media profile is subtler: the game has a system that factors in the adulation of the crowd. With the crowd really behind you, you get an adrenaline boost that allows you to pull off special moves - not ludicrous overpowered specials, but the haymakers and so on which can really batter an opponent - and there are two ways to do this. The first is simply to play well, throwing your opponent off balance and landing some good punches. The second, as you might have guessed, is to have a high media profile, which allows you to start a match with your adrenaline bar pre-filled to quite an extent.
Training and media exposure aren't the only elements that require careful balance. When you're knocked down in a bout, you also have to carefully time getting up, because you get the option to hammer one of the buttons in order to recharge your health a bit. Get up too early, and you'll have very little health for the next punishing bout, but get up too late and the count will finish while you're still staggering to your feet. The training modes themselves are unusual; mostly button-matching mini-games, a play style not far from the likes of Dance Dance Revolution. There are five different training modes, each with an online leaderboard, and you can always set training to Automatic in career mode if this kind of frippery doesn't take your fancy.
Never mind all that though - what about the actual game? The face-punching extravaganza, as opposed to the presentation and mini-games? Actually, we were wondering the same thing throughout 2K Sports' presentation. Right now the company wants to talk about the unique presentation and style rather than the core gameplay - perhaps hoping that that will speak for itself when we get to go hands-on with Prizefighter in due course. We did, however, extract a few morsels of information about the gameplay. Tactical movement will play a very major role in the game's mechanics, with no artificial 2D lock-on to keep the fighters face to face, which should encourage lots of sidestepping and moving around.
Taking on the champ
The game is also fast - very fast, if the bouts we saw are anything to judge by. While acknowledging that Fight Night Round 3 is the main competition - and arguably the benchmark for the boxing genre - 2K Sports has chosen to go entirely the other direction. The game still looks great, but seems to have sacrificed detail for speed, with a control system that owes more to Street Fighter (albeit with simpler combos) than to Fight Night, replete with really immediate, responsive controls and a fast and furious rate of play. Indeed, the game's producer isn't afraid of dishing out some pre-match smack talk to Fight Night - commenting that EA's champ "sort of cheats" by slowing down the action so that you can see every punch land, and going so far as to say that Fight Night 3 is "a beautiful game - but it's mostly just beautiful, and that's about it". Ouch. Fighting talk fits the boxing genre, at least.
While Prizefighter will, in the end, be judged on the quality of its boxing and little else, we can confirm that all of the window dressing is looking excellent. The documentary format of the career mode is a great addition, even if the lack of branching storylines is a bit disappointing, and the line-up of fighters and arenas (22 venues in total, which is a huge number for a boxing game) is pretty much impeccable.
Graphically, too, it looks the part very nicely - with the slight drop in detail compared with FN3 compensated for by well-modelled characters. The create-a-character system is flexible, allowing you to modify every detail about your fighter's face and build - even the colours and patterns of his clothing and gloves - and every fighter you create looks realistic; the slider bars all interact to create believable faces, rather than the freakish aliens often seen elsewhere.
It's worth noting as we conclude that Prizefighter isn't actually Venom's first boxing game - the studio previously created the actually rather good Rocky titles - but it is 2K Sports' entry into the boxing genre, and this really is a case of going up against the reigning heavyweight champ. The developer has some great ideas (and we're intrigued by the casual mention of a Wii version that will utilise the Wii Fit Balance Board along with the Wiimote and nunchuk), but then so did Fight Night. We'll let you know more when we get a chance to slip on the gloves for ourselves in the coming months.