It was obvious that the Knockout Kings series had run its course. EA had to draw a line under the title to totally reinvent it for a determined return to the ring, fighting fit and ready claim the crown back from Rage, which unexpectedly landed a killer blow to the chops with Rocky just before the Britsoft publisher's inevitable demise.
This not-entirely-unexpected comeback arrived last Friday under the snappier moniker of Fight Night 2004, although its presence was largely unheralded by EA's standards, it has to be said. Still, we were curious to find out how the world's biggest games publisher had overhauled its approach to the noble art of pugilism, and it's as glitzy and glamorous as you've come to expect from EA with a full suite of 32 licensed boxers across six weight divisions, complemented by real venues and a pumping Hip Hop soundtrack.
Final Fantasy Fight Night
Since it's an EA Sports title, the presentation is absolutely lavish, bordering on stunning. As ever, EA displays a clinical knack of leaving no stone unturned in providing the user with a marvellous entry point into the game, allowing you to jump straight into a bout between some of the greats of world boxing over the decades. Fancy a fantasy contest between Ali and Lewis? As ever, EA provides the source material, and you get to act out the scene, and it's this priceless ability to tap into people's imagination that EA does best with its licensing muscle.
Couple this with a contemporary soundtrack (Puff Daddy et al) certain to win over a large proportion of its audience and its uncanny ability to render the boxers with eery precision (for the most part) and you've effectively got a game that walks off the shelves before you've even played it. Is it any wonder at all that EA's games sell when it packs so much effort into the presentation side of things?
Even if you're not bothered by the licensed tricks, the comprehensive create-a-boxer tool allows you to tweak and tease the life out of your creation to the point where you could conceivably make it look like pretty much anyone if you spent enough time messing around with it. Attempting to make a ginger afro-ed approximation of one of my colleagues was almost more fun than the game itself. Kudos to EA for coming up with such a simple yet effective tool to allow the user to feel somehow more attached to the game.
Careering out of control
Away from the quick match options, the Career mode is undoubtedly where the meat of the game lies, and will be the place most users will get the majority of their enjoyment from Fight Night, unless you happen to have endless two player opportunities (with online play stripped from the PAL version for some arbitrary reason).
Everything in Fight Night is designed with fantastically good intentions. Case in point being the game's radically redesigned (and original) control system, which in theory seamlessly allows the boxer to bob and weave incoming punches (by holding down L1 and circling your body around with the left stick), while the right stick offers a slick (on paper) means for delivering punches. A right hook, for example is performed by hitting right on the stick, then moving it 45 degrees anticlockwise (mirrored for the left hook). A right jab is a simple diagonal up and right poke, while a right uppercut is a diagonally down and right motion, followed by an anticlockwise circular sweep.
It all sounds so logical on paper, and you can completely understand why EA did it. For a start it completely nullifies the whole tiresome button mashing frenzy that most beat 'em ups descend into and feels much more logical as a result.
Sadly, as much as we wanted it to work, it just doesn't feel natural at all, and unlike most EA Sports titles feels like the sort of game you'd have to spend ages getting to grips with before you feel remotely at home with the concept. The chief reason it doesn't work is the punches rarely connect when you want them to, and more often than not your jabs appear well after you've moved the stick, or seemingly not at all, while even the most useless Rank 49 opponent seems like a prize fighter by comparison.
The lack of responsiveness makes no difference whether you're training up your rookie or engaging in a top ranked quick fight and quickly becomes a tiresome interface to battle against. The system does make for a jarring change, admittedly, and does slowly improve, but even after several hours it felt slow, sluggish and unsatisfying, and for a beat 'em up that's the last thing you want. It's possible that it's just one of those games that if you stick with, it all clicks eventually, but within the confines and limitations of a lengthy session of review time, it wasn't happening.
Going back to the old, logical, system of button presses thankfully is possible if you reconfigure the controls, but this isn't something the game readily points out. It's a system that is fundamentally not broken - sure it can lead to frenzied skill free button mashing, but skill wins out in these situations in our experience. The mashing effect doesn't really apply any less here - you're simply stick mashing instead, albeit with little to no benefit.
Try before you buy
As an exercise in providing an accurate representation of a boxing match, it's practically unmatched. Frenzied fighting will wear you down, the damage modelling is excellent, and everything to do with the training and career progression is carefully considered. It's almost as good a boxing game as you could wish for... apart from the default controls. With this in mind it's definitely a try before you buy.
Who knows, maybe you'll have a difference experience and get on with it, as some people obviously have, but in this reviewer's estimation, it's a system you'll want to admire but ultimately come away from feeling unsatisfied. Fight Night works well for the most part, but feels almost overly tactical even when a degree of control mastery is attained. At the very least a more responsive stick-based system would have been a plus. but as it stands it almost feels too much of a simulation at the expense of action - although doubtlessly some of you will admire that approach. In short, Fight Night is a heavyweight contender in so many ways, but ultimately has a glass chin in the controls department. Approach with care.