Version tested: Xbox 360
In a fight to be the most irritating game of the year, FaceBreaker would undoubtedly box its way hyperactively onto the podium. Far from being part of EA's great new era of 'no more crappy games', it's a prime example of how to miss the point with game mechanics so ill-conceived you'll wonder how they ever made it past the design stage, never mind EA's apparently harsh new quality control process.
The first questionable decision is to reduce boxing to a basic fighting game with stripped-down controls. Opting to reject the refined, logical brilliance of the Fight Night control set, EA has instead mapped most of the controls to a pair of face buttons and the right trigger. There's a high punch, a low punch and a block, and blocking allows you to pull off high and low parries with the punch buttons.
They can also be held down to charge up punches, but obviously at the risk of taking one on the chin. On top of that, you've got the option of throwing your opponent with another button and landing a powerful Breaker punch with the fourth. Left stick, meanwhile, handles movement, with the added option to dash by flicking left or right at the appropriate moment.
On paper it sounds refreshingly straightforward, but in reality it's a Tartrazine-fuelled game of rock-paper-scissors, where proceedings degenerate into wild flurries of cheap attacks and flashy jaw-wobbling animation. If you're ten and wired on Sunny Delight, FaceBreaker probably makes perfect sense, and maybe that's the point. But we're not.
As ever, EA nails the presentation and front end in such a way that it's hard to see how it can't be fun. Viewed from the sidelines it looks irresistible, and comes rammed with boxers. It's Punch-Out brought bang up to date: crazy, exaggerated cartoon boxing with wild signature attacks and bags of personality. How could you screw that up?
It starts off innocuous enough, with an approachable array of simple gameplay modes like Brawl For It All, where you get to fight through four tiers of three boxers in sequence. At this point you can either dive straight in and choose one of the preset fighters or go off and create your own. The options here are excellent, with the facility to put your own ugly mug in the game via the Xbox Live Vision Camera or a photo uploaded to an EA website. Although your mileage may vary, it's always fun to mess around with these sorts of features - especially as you can actually upload and share your creations with the rest of the world.
Sadly, boxer-customisation was about the peak of our enjoyment. Diving into the ring with pad in hand, it completely unravels. We pine for Ready 2 Rumble. FaceBreaker is just too damned eager, and way too excitable to be fun for more than a few bouts. Look at me! Look how fast I can go! Look how many times I can repeatedly spam you with an array of unbalanced attacks! Wheee! It makes Dragon Ball Z look sedate.
After the initial bewilderment, you start to cotton onto the fact that every fighter has an Achilles heel, and that's where the rock-paper gameplay comes in. Some are impossible to fight toe-to-toe, and the game wants you to fail - and even warns from the first loading screen that you should expect to fail often. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: you need to be able to predict what attacks are incoming and react accordingly. So, for example, if your opponent charges up attacks and comes dashing at you, an appropriate counter just as they launch their punch leaves them exposed. Once you get into a rhythm, it's surprisingly easy.
But the process of trial-and-error is so ludicrously frustrating that the 'reward' of another murderously annoying bout feels more like punishment than anything. The process of learning through failure is compounded by only being given three chances to beat any given fighter before you're basically relegated, and forced to battle the previous fighter again. Quite why anyone thought that was a good idea is just one of long list of quirks and foibles you'll discuss with your increasingly grumbly inner monologue.
But, now and again, you feel like you're making progress. Out of the blue you might find yourself stringing together an awesome array of unbroken attacks. While this is going on, a power meter rises and, when full, you're able to unleash an incredible Breaker attack, which launches your opponent high off the canvas and ends the match in slow-motion, slack-jawed glory. It's a fitting climax to the chaos and nonsense. Sadly, when it happens to you, the same can't be said. You could have been completely on top of the match, winning by two knockdowns to nil, and then get caught in a loop and end up on the end of a Breaker. Game Over, better luck next time.
Some characters are worse than others when it comes to slightly suspect - some would say cheap - attacks. With so many unbalanced elements at the core of the experience, it takes almost no time before people (and the AI, come to that) fall back on repetitive attack loops to win. Any serious fighter will find these exploits in a matter of minutes, and it's at that point you might as well stick two fingers to FaceBreaker and its cheap, ill-conceived mechanics and potty dodge system. It starts off bewildering, gets slightly better, and then fails dismally.
In multiplayer things do improve an awful lot. For a start, no human on Earth has the psychic ability of the AI to react as quickly as it does in FaceBreaker, but there's still the overall suspicion that, in the wrong hands, the mechanics are easily abused. When certain characters allow you to stun your opponent for several seconds, you know all too well that such pointless attacks will be used over and over again. And they are. In addition to all those kinds of shenanigans, it's simply too frantic for its own good, and no more enjoyable for feeling like you're playing on fast-forward.
Whatever your thoughts are on the finer points of the game, it all boils down to one thing, really, and that's the fact that you're essentially mashing the same two or three buttons repeatedly, and largely winging it most of the time. It's rhythm-action, if you like, but the very worst kind. As a boxing game it's useless, and taken as a fighting game it's almost as bad. Rarely before has a game looked so technically polished and been this bad to play. If this is representative of what EA Freestyle is all about, then there are some interesting reviews ahead.
4 / 10