Though staunch boxing fans would argue otherwise, it’s difficult to ascertain where combat-sports simulations start and more frenzied fighting games end. And while I cannot purport to be at all sagacious on the technical ins and outs of “The Sweet Science” (a self-styled moniker that attempts to distance the sport of boxing from any masochistic, hyper-violent stereotypes), Fight Night: Champion must be considered pound-for-pound the definitive boxing simulation bar none. Granted, its own prequels are probably the only noteworthy competition, but EA Sports’s latest instalment captures the essence of the sport with spellbinding accuracy. Question marks may still linger as to why this game shouldn’t be judged alongside Marvel vs. Capcom 3 as well as the latest UFC console offering, though, because they all share one uniform objective. The name of the game, regardless of how you dress it, is to batter seven bells out of your opponent.
With Fight Night: Champion, this objective becomes more brutal and graphic than ever before. EA Canada have catered the game towards more mature audiences (rather than Round 4’s Teen rating), which allows them to recreate the sport’s gritty authenticity with immense attention to detail. There are instances, invariably when your bruised and bloodied fighter ends up looking like the sorry lovechild of Joan Rivers and Sloth from The Goonies, where this warts-and-all approach can feel excessive: The cuts below the fighters’ eyes are often too deep and too bloody, their noses too disfigured, and their stained faces become too excessively swollen, which makes the game seem a little too enamoured with the barbarism of the sport. It’s still difficult to outright discredit the astounding levels of detail, though, and one cannot naïvely expect to pick up a boxing simulation without seeing some blood mixed in with all the sweat and tears.
Moreover, this allows the developers to explore more adult themes in its new Champion Mode, capturing the magic of boxing’s underdog stories with a story campaign that takes its cues from practically any Hollywood boxing movie you care to imagine. Our protagonist is the surprisingly likeable Andre Bishop, a fledgling middleweight contender with the world at his feet. His bumpy road to success is derailed by corrupt promoter and suitably detestable antagonist DL McQueen, who frames Andre for a crime he did not commit (a la The Hurricane). After serving his time in prison, indulging in some fierce bare-knuckle fights along the way, Andre puts on a few pounds to set his sights on toppling the reigning heavyweight champion and McQueen’s poster boy in merciless bruiser Isaac Frost (think Rocky III’s Clubber Lang, Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, or Rocky V’s Tommy Gunn). This single-player mode is kept interesting in that it isn’t a case of locking horns with increasingly difficult opponent, as each fight requires the player display unique ring-craft to develop their boxing nous. The Champion Mode is the colourful supplement to the beefier Legacy Mode, which boasts more longevity but is severely lacking in other areas. Here, your fighter climbs the ranks from amateur obscurity to his division’s upper echelons, gaining stat boosts through training mini-games and the like. Yes, you’ve seen it all before, but it’s only alongside the wonderfully realised Champion Mode that it feels so bland and limp.
The in-ring dynamics have been polished rather than rewritten, with Fight Night Champion embracing a dual analog control scheme with even more conviction than 2009’s Round 4. Button-bashing has been all but exiled here, such is the fluidity of this control scheme: Jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and all the punches in between are executed with flicks of the right analog stick, while astute use of the left analog will have your fighter bobbing and weaving out of harm’s way. Counter-punching (a much revered hallmark of “The Sweet Science”) is still the most enthusiastically encouraged route to victory, though openings are trickier to fashion than in Round 4. And in those extra-special instances, where you fluidly duck under a left hook before delivering your own haymaker, it also ranks among the most satisfying.
In recreating what one would imagine to be an authentic boxing experience, and also romanticising the sport’s fairy-tale aspect with its absorbing Champion Mode, Fight Night: Champion excels across the board. The astute tweaks to the gameplay mechanic buttress its reputation as the definitive boxing game, while the revolutionary developments to its single-player campaign suggest this could be the most important sports simulation of the last decade.