Like any form of entertainment, there are games and genres that have mass audience appeal and other genres that have a smaller, though often rabidly enthusiastic, following. It's rare to find a game that can successfully transcend its niche and potentially find wider acceptance, but thanks to a well-produced story mode and some tweaks to an old formula, EA's Fight Night Champion should be able to score with many types of gamers.
The "Legacy" mode is pretty much the Fight Night the hardcore faithful have come to expect. There's a roll-your-own fighter career mode, quick bouts featuring a stable of great pugilists past and present, and of course training modes, online match-ups, leaderboards, and all of the accoutrement that the series has added through its iterations. The most significant change to this part of the game—and a welcome one—is the control scheme. Punches and combos with the thumbstick or button presses, and dodging and counter punching are more fluid, and scoring those devastating power punches seem to come a little more naturally. But, if all there was to this new edition of Fight Night was the prettier Legacy mode and some revamped controls, it would be a hard sell; it's the brand new "Champion" mode that really seals the deal.
Sports games are often slow to innovate and risk alienating the faithful, but EA deserves major props for creating this hybrid between a well-told, cinematic boxing story and a series of expertly paced and varied matches, each of which is as fun and challenging to play as it is integral to the story.
You play as Andre Bishop, a struggling boxer with more than his share of career ups and downs. Between corrupt cops and power-hungry promoters, a sibling with a serious chip on his shoulder, a crusty-but-loveable trainer, and of course an evil-incarnate nemesis, no sports movie cliché is left unexploited. No matter. The story is so competently exposed, voiced, and rendered that even the most tepid boxing or sports fans will get sucked in.
The balance between cinematic and gameplay is perfect with each match amping up the challenge to simultaneously drive the story forward. Andre breaks his right hand at the start of a match, so you're forced to score a KO using only his left glove. In some fights you have to be defensive, in some you have to pummel the opponent's head because the corrupt judges score every body shot as illegal. The Champion mode isn't long—maybe 4-5 hours or less—but it's engaging and unexpected. I really wanted to spend more time with the characters and hope that some DLC brings them back.
This isn't just a great looking game only because of skin sliding over rippling muscle and jawbones being shattered in slow motion in fights, it's an all-incorporated package. The cutscenes are effective because of subtle emotional cues in the eyes and mouth are all there. The lip-synching isn't perfect but the voice work is top-shelf all the way around. The music, on the other hand, is a little bit disappointing, composed as a typical mash up of hip hop, testosterone-injected stadium rock, and some ersatz movie music that swells up in climactic moments of key bouts.
For fans of Fight Night, everything they know and love about the series is still here, looking and controlling even better. For everyone else, the Champion mode is the game-changer, and it's hard to imagine anyone who is a fan of good storytelling not getting pulled in deep. Clichés or not, Fight Night Champion scores a KO.
Forget K/D ratios for a minute, give us some W-L-D data. We're happy to broker some bouts amongst our community. Let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell and we'll get the word out.