Version tested: Xbox 360
"Martin Luther King took us to the mountain top," Don King once said. "I want to take us to the bank." 2K Sports is up for that, and so we have Don King Presents: Prizefighter, which pretends to be a sports documentary looking back on the life of a world-conquering boxer called The Kid. You.
We begin by designing The Kid. The Career mode focuses on heavyweights, so options are limited to appearance, whether he's orthodox or southpaw (right- or left-handed) and what sort of trunks he wears. Be careful though, because if your man's tall and his shorts are short, he looks like a bloke in a nappy. No one wants that. Apollo Creed wouldn't stand for that.
Then you watch some videos. This is Prizefighter's gimmick: Don King and other figures from the world of boxing, and a selection of actors, have recorded a range of fake interviews detailing the trials and tribulations The Kid faced on his route from back-room brawler to heavyweight champ. The game's producers (or more likely Don King's production company) have chopped them up into little quick-fire sound-bites and strung them together.
It's like speed-dating a gossip column. The man on the yacht says such and such was inevitable, but Don disagrees. Then an old girlfriend says The Kid was pushed, a man drinking champagne in a limo concurs, a man on a bus says no, man on yacht says yes, mechanic says something else, and Don has the final word. It's quite convincing, but it's hard to keep track of what you're being told, because there's no specific exposition - just recollected bias about whichever situation The Kid was in at the time, delivered in a couple-of-minutes sequence every time you beat the current tier's top contender. Still, it's a bit different.
More familiar is that, as a boxer starting out, you have to warm up by punching nobodies. So, following a quick button tutorial and two rounds of training mini-games, you're in the ring going toe-to-toe with the semi-fictional boxing world's expendables. Unlike Prizefighter's main competition, EA Sports' Fight Night Round 3, attacks are mapped to buttons and triggers. Right and left hooks, the jab and a straight punch get their own face button each, while uppercuts, body blows and sidestep-punches are combinations of trigger or bumper and face. There are loads of combinations to figure out.
As you fight, the camera circles close to the fighters, watching largely from the side so you can react to what the other fighter's throwing, and observe gaps in his defence. Defence is a mixture of ring movement, using the right stick to hold your hands in front of your face or at your sides to block body shots, and standing on the spot weaving your upper body around to keep your head out of trouble.
It all looks alright from this perspective, but isn't anything to shout about. Fighters are a bit angular but sweat convincingly, although they start to resemble rain-drizzled metal after a while under the lights and faces lack life. One of Fight Night Round 3's tricks was a one-two combo of low light and clever shading, and Prizefighter stumbles into the old trap of going bright a bit too starkly on faces.
Meanwhile, arenas and other characters - most notably trainers, who have dialogue spoken through yapping mouths on otherwise-immobile faces - look like PS2 rejects, not even in new clothes. Remember the old days of shirts that were just textured skin? They're back. Combat itself is better: there's enough muscle and skin movement all over the body to capture the sting of a strong punch, and most of the attack animations have a certain heft to them if they connect.
Key to landing those attacks is learning the basic buttons and then paying attention to your stamina - a blue meter that starts off full and empties quickly when you dash, throw punches (whether they connect or not) or take hits. With full stamina you can attack somewhat fluidly, but once you run out of stamina you slow to a crawl, so unless the other guy's on the ropes (literally or figuratively, for once) you need to withdraw or go defensive for a few seconds to recover your speed.
Pressing the attack is important, though, because the health system is in two parts, and one of them recharges. Your current health status is bright orange, and when you run out and receive a punch you will be knocked down, but over time without impact this health will recover. However, the degree to which it can recover diminishes over the course of a fight's many rounds, particularly if you get knocked down a lot. You can tell who's on top at any given time by looking at the orange, but it's the darker full-health bar that tells the story of the fight.
It all sounds flexible, but it's not terribly. Movement around the ring is slow, combos are difficult to build up, the jab is very weak, and a fighter's reach is virtually insignificant. Heavy hitting is key. Collision detection is poor, which is pretty fatal for a contact sport where the level of contact decides the winner. The single-player AI is also susceptible to particular tactics or repeated bursts of the same attack. It's rarely so clear-cut that you can shortcut an entire bout, but you'll welcome the opportunity to hammer an opponent with the same left-side body blow over and over again when it's presented.
You can almost always get the first punch in when the bell sounds, too, which coupled with a stored "signature" move gives you the upper hand - and potentially a knockout in the latter stages of the fight. Signature moves are Prizefighter's heaviest hits: an adrenaline bar, which lives below health and stamina in the bottom corner of the screen, fills up as you grow into the fight. When it starts flashing you can hold the left bumper and press an attack button to unleash a more powerful punch. If it connects, which isn't certain, the other guy drops a big chunk from his orange bar.
Outside the ring, things are quite rudimentary. Beyond the snazzy documentary sequences, Career mode is basically three main screens: a PDA for reading messages from your promoter, who will try and get you to ditch training to do some publicity (not interactive, sadly - we quite fancied going mad at a book launch), a screen for booking fights with anyone in the current tier of half a dozen, and a training area.
The training games are the only other gameplay, and cover heavy bag and speed bag work, jump rope, focus mitts and shuttle running. The mechanics are a mixture of button-matching and button-mashing. Some of it's quite manic, and there are leaderboards to challenge your PBs, but there's also an auto-train button that saves you the hassle and still upgrades your stats a bit. Oddly for a game about becoming the best boxer in the world, produced by Don King, the only advice you get on improving or adapting your technique is from throwaway clichs tossed around by the trainer before and between bouts.
It's not all fighting and training and watching TV though, because there's also some more fighting. To help break up the pace, your trainer sometimes plonks himself on the couch in your office-cum-menu-screen, and tells you how something you're facing reminds him of the good old days. The game then flashes back to whichever fight he's remembering (Braddock versus Baer in the 30s, for instance), applies a sepia tint, and gives you a mountain to climb. These one-off bouts might give you a busted left hand to contend with, or just ask you to survive to the end of the round against a superior fighter, exaggerating handicaps that are also put to dramatic use in Career.
Which just leaves multiplayer. We couldn't do too much of this at the time of writing because Prizefighter wasn't out, but the few bouts we did play through were fine, performance-wise. The issue was that, while you can select from a few dozen licensed boxers (including Joe Calzaghe, Chris Eubank and Rocky Marciano), quirks of Prizefighter's combat mean they can't be relied upon to be strong in the ways they are in real life. And that the combat's not very entertaining.
It's not that it's bad, particularly. To some extent it suffers from selective authenticity. Ten two-minute rounds against a tough opponent can be tight, tense and technical, but the skills you're applying are arbitrary: not hammering the buttons impatiently, which often buffers one more punch than you want to throw; pressing your advantage when your opponent starts yielding to an obvious sequence, like three left hooks to break his guard and an uppercut to land a free hit; saving up a signature attack for the free first hit at the start of the next round. You might as well be learning any game's system, or how to ask the way to the post office in Belgium. You get knocked down too often, and so does the other guy. It's not really boxing, and you know it.
That said, casual gamers will gradually reach a compromise with Prizefighter's quirks that allows them to enjoy it - in much the same way football fans used to enjoy FIFA when it was basically on rails, but a bit limited. Sports games are never realistic (unless you count Wii Fit), but the difference between the likes of modern FIFA, Fight Night and this is that their mechanics were fun to learn with suitable on-screen rewards. Prizefighter is too clunky and gruelling to qualify for the same praise, and all the high-def cut-scenes in the world can't make up for that.
6 / 10