I had my fair share of fights at school. Looking back, if I'm to be honest about it, that's probably because I was an overly intense, semi-sociopath who really couldn't take a joke. However, for the purposes of this review, we'll say it was because I was a crusader for justice. Got that?
Right. The thing is, playing Rocky Legends kinda reminded me of playground bust-ups (and yes, I'm still referring to my childhood, smartypants). Because when you're a kid you get away with physical retribution; if someone does you wrong, you can just punch them in the face. Sure, you might get the odd complaint from teachers, parents, child psychologists, but dammit - morals aside - it feels good.
Stitch this, Jimmy
The best aspect of Rocky Legends, by a long distance, is how it satisfies that physical need for angry punch-ups that we all repress and pretend not to notice. You know what I'm talking about - the Fight Club syndrome, the sheer primal urge to take everything that's wrong with your life, ball it up into a fist, and release it in a punch.
The reason Rocky does this better than most other games has less to do with actual gameplay than it has to do with aesthetics. Even before this game gets booted up, it has a slight advantage over its rivals on this level; after all, Rocky Balboa is the fictional embodiment of a never-say-die, fight-your-corner attitude that is perfectly suited to gaming. So immediately there is an air of expectancy (albeit entirely unrelated to actual gameplay) that you're not just getting a boxing simulator, but a kind of defiance simulator.
Far more important, however, is the actual 'feel' of successful punches. When Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang lands a right hook, you know they've landed a right hook. When Ivan Drago connects with a six-hit combo, you don't want to know. For all the technical advances made in games over the years, it's hard to think of many that really satisfy that sense of 'thump' that you get here. Soul Calibur II might be streets and streets ahead in terms of depth and gameplay, and the interactive arenas in Tao Feng and Dead or Alive worked well, but in neither case do you really feel like you're actually hurting someone.
Rocky and roll
Unfortunately, if what I've just described doesn't sound like your kind of gumguard, then it's unlikely that the core gameplay is going to get you very excited. Legends is a 'prequel' to last year's Rocky on the Xbox, but the basic controls remains the same. There are four punch buttons - one each for high left, high right, low left and low right. You can throw hooks by pressing said buttons along with up or down on the control stick, and throw uppercuts by pressing them while holding R1. Along with the normal array of punches, each fighter also has a couple of special 'super punches' that you can pull off by tapping R1 and pressing the required button. Incoming blows are blocked with the L1 button, and you can also weave, duck and sidestep out of harm's way through use of L1 and R1, or L1 and the control stick.
As I mentioned, when punches hit the mark it's quite satisfying. However, landing said punches is actually harder than it sounds. Even on the standard 'contender' difficulty, opponents really come at you, leaving very little time to dodge their blows, while doing a very good job of avoiding your simpler attacks. Gamers in the market for a simple, pick-up-and-play boxing game will not find it here; from the word go, it's clear that to succeed in these fights means learning a list of combination attacks. It took a good hour of losing almost every round in the initial fights before I finally gave in and started practicing combos.
Thankfully, these combos only require you to string button-presses together and, aside from using 'up' and 'down' for uppercuts, don't necessitate annoying directional inputs as well. For the most part, you can get away with using four or five-button combos, but there are more elaborate strings there for that extra 'ommph'.
Once a few of these combos are burned into your brain, the game suddenly becomes much more enjoyable and... well... not quite as 'rock' hard. In saying that, however, this is also where you suddenly realise just how limited Rocky Legends really is. Basically, it all comes down to this: you dodge a few blows, then fire out a combo. The AI fighters are fairly admirable - in that they won't let you repeat the same combo over and over - and the complaints from last year's version, where fights were supposedly winnable by using quick jabs and nothing else, don't seem to be in evidence here. But after a while the sense of contact and violence is watered down slightly by too much focus on stressful button-pressing. It's a shame that the game doesn't have a 'speed' option, because slowing it down a little might have given more time to plan out and enjoy your punches.
In terms of modes, Rocky doesn't do anything out of the ordinary. As with most sports games, the career mode is where it's really at; in this case, you can choose from Rocky, Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago, fighting through the 'stories' of their early careers, right up until their title fights. The mini-games used to build up your fighter's abilities in between fights are actually a lot of fun, with Athens 2004-like power bars and Frequency-style skipping challenges. The usual exhibiton and survival modes are thrown in for good measure.
A serious contender
The bottom line is that Rocky Legends doesn't pull any punches. Well, it does... of course... but you know what I mean. This game was made for people who love the movies, but also for people who, if they had their way, would be allowed to beat up people who make them angry. The gameplay is undoubtedly limited, and the graphics (aside from lovely damage-modelling - give them shiners!) are equally average, but there's something about this game that hits the mark. If you're looking for a real boxing sim, try the awkward Fight Night instead. If you're just looking to punch someone in the face, Rocky Legends might just be the therapy you need.
God knows I do.