A Rocky start
It's easy to have our memories of the Rocky movie series tarnished by the latter episodes (namely IV and V), but the 1976 original still stands as one of the best movies of its era, with its triumph of the underdog tale. And what better than to build a boxing game based on some pretty rich source material?
For starters, all the 'boss' opponents essential to any beat 'em up are there, all the elements of training to be a champ are there, and for the first time there's a set of consoles around with enough power to faithfully recreate the characters, sets and all the all round 'Rocky' experience.
But with good boxing games rarer than rocking horse poo, we couldn't help approach this licensed effort with a fair amount of scepticism. After all, the very nature of boxing has seemingly made it a tough sport to translate into an entertaining videogame, or certainly to make them anywhere near as entertaining as any number of other beat 'em ups, which have the luxury of complete artistic license.
Add to that the general lacklustre nature of licensed fodder, and we were half expecting Rocky to be some lame attempt at a boxing game, with some vaguely recognisable characters to give it a badge of authenticity. But it takes barely a few minutes in the company of The Italian Stallion to discover that Rage has pulled out all the stops to make this as fun and comprehensive a package as possible.
As you'd expect, there is a variety of single player modes, ranging from the basic exhibition bout to a knockout tournament, as well as the game's central Movie mode. It's here that Rocky's depth and charms become apparent. For starters, unless you're prepared to get stuck into this mode, there are precious few boxers to play as in the exhibition or two player mode. Also, anyone who wades straight into a two player game is likely to find Rocky a frustrating experience.
Rags to riches
Three difficultly settings allow even the most ham fisted fighter to make some pretty decent headway, with the Italian Stallion dispatching three made up characters before meeting Rocky's first 'real' nemesis Apollo Creed. The game continues in this chronological fashion, so that by the time you get to Rocky III era, you're taking out Clubber Lang a.k.a Mr T, and so on to Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and Tommy Gunn (who?). Clearly there is a lack of 'real' movie characters to fight, which is down to the limitations of the license, but the fictional boxers are so full of character that it really doesn't detract from the movie at all.
In between each 'movie' Rage has inserted key movie moments recreated in FMV for a bit of narrative effect. In theory this is a great idea if the rendering was up to the current benchmark. Sadly it comes across a little creaking - and cheap - at times, but it's still good fun to watch, and features all the proper voices fans will know and love. It all helps build the atmosphere of playing the movie, as does the various locations you get to fight in - starting at a pretty down and dirty fight club where the audience heckle and throw glass bottles into the ring if you hit the canvass. As you work your way up the ladder, you move up to school gyms, and eventually you're in top arenas complete with grand ego entrances (e.g. Apollo Creed arriving on a chariot!).
But before you get to indulge in such niceties you have to actually be a good enough boxer to progress, and one of the crucial elements of this is to get in a bit of training with the aim of enhancing Rocky's individual stats, such as his strength, speed, stamina and so on. At the start, you're completely useless, obviously. A major chump, and certainly in no shape to cut it as a mean, lean, killin' machine.
But with careful nurturing, you can quickly boost your fighter's capabilities. Each bout gives you two sessions to improve the areas of your choice, and you can either autotrain, which means you skip the training but still increase a specific area by five points, or enter the training yourself. This is effectively a glorified, but highly effective, rhythm action style affair, where you're expected to, for example, keep a punching rhythm going, skip in time, or perform certain moves on the command of the typically grizzled trainer Mickey.
The fighting itself can seem extremely tough if you dive straight in on the normal difficulty setting - but taking time to learn the numerous combos, and how to block and dodge makes all the difference. Certainly taking things down to Novice level made things way more manageable. We wouldn't normally play anything below the default level for a review, but in this instance the game became a much more playable prospect without negating the challenge.
Once you've learned a few combos, blocking tactics and a decent training strategy, it's possible to tear through most of the opponents on your first go, meaning you'll be returning to the Normal difficulty to play the game properly.
Now in technicolour!
As you'll have already seen, the fighter character models have been well crafted, with extremely well animated fighters always looking convincing, with punches consistently crunchy and actually connecting realistically - although some of the effects can be a little over the top in true movie fashion. Blood, sweat and saliva sprays all over the place - particularly the former, which makes a fine mess of the canvas if you or your opponent is getting a good pasting. The rings and locations are all uniformly impressive too, while the cameras deliver a helpful, but dramatic viewpoint on the action, all set in well animated environments with tons of incidental detail (like Mickey waving at you like a loon as you're getting a tanking) all adding to the atmosphere.
Control wise, there is still a sense that it's not quite as intuitive as it should be, and sometimes feels sluggish - although this is more often down to the limitations of your boxer than you. With the two shoulder buttons used in conjunction with the directional/analogue pad and the four main buttons, there are a huge variety of combos to pull off - most of which you'll need to bring into play if you've any intention of getting good at the game. While there's a sense that persistent play will bring its rewards, many players may find the learning curve a little too steep. But the more patient gamer will enjoy building up Rocky's capabilities (shame you can't relieve him of his mid 80s mullet, but hey, you can't have everything), and likewise will enjoy unravelling its hidden depths.
With a decent number of boxers to unlock, plenty of modes and a crafted control system, Rocky is a slow burning beat 'em up that takes its time to reveal its true charms. As an exercise in how to use a film license, it's perfect 'interactive merchandise' in the way that very few games have ever managed. I mean, it even recreates Rocky's "Adriaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan" moment. What more could Rocky fans ask for? For non fans of the movie, it's still by far the best boxing game ever made - so it if that prospect intrigues you, there's plenty to recommend. For the casual beat 'em up fan, don't expect a Tekken style all action romp - this is more your thinking man's beat 'em up, with enough Arcade action to keep the interest levels high.