“It’s all about heart, kid. It’s all about heart… and a good left jab.”
EA have finally put into sports games what they have been severely lacking: an emotion-conjuring, blood-pumping heart. Fight Night Champion marks the first in the series to give us a protagonist with an intricate story through which we play as it beautifully unfolds. This will no doubt push the genre into its next chapter, which quite simply, is a benefit to both gamers and gaming.
The Champion mode drops you into the boots of Andre Bishop, an up-and-coming amateur star bound for big things in the gritty world of boxing. Early on, due to some unfortunate events, you end up in prison and start your steep climb back up. This mode is (unfortunately) a featherweight 3 hours in length, including the cutscenes which fill in the story between fights and, to be honest, I could have devoured hours more. It is expertly presented with Ali-like pacing and marvellous cutscene direction, including some fantastic faux ESPN news spots, that I dove right back in after I had completed it. It’s that good.
Apart from Champion mode, FNR4’s Legacy mode is back, allowing you to start from scratch and fight your way up to claim that shiny belt. Fights are scheduled on a calendar and in the weeks before the big night you need to train diligently and rest. Training involves, once again, those love-them-or-hate-them mini games. Some are skipped, focusing only on the exercises you can use to your advantage in the ring, which is a good compromise between none and some. This mode is really the meat of FNC, boasting more than 50 licensed boxers and offering hours upon hours of challenge. Each punch, block and parry in each bout earns you XP, which you can then assign to various attributes like left hook, speed, stamina etc, to really shape your muscle bound beast to your style of fighting.
Fight Now mode pits you against an opponent online or off. There is nothing like taking someone on the other side of the world out with a well timed left hook to the temple. EA even have online awards titles such as KO King and Fighter of the Month.
Online Champion Mode returns and shoves you through bouts set up in weight brackets, allowing you to climb the ranks from a New Comer to claim the much coveted title of Greatest of All Time. This mode levels player stats and so only your skill comes to play, rather than pitting you against someone who might instantly crush your skull with nothing more than a taunt. In addition to this there are Prize Fights, in which you can partake for real life rewards such as cash, points and prizes, sponsored by the likes of Virgin Games.
EA have also added the interesting idea of online gyms. You can create a gym (or join a friend’s) and train with your buddies, forming the boxing equivalent of an FPS clan and rival gyms can be challenged for respect, prestige and bragging rights.
The control scheme is almost identical to FNR4 but for the re-inclusion of button-mapped punches as default but the tweaked analogue system works so beautifully that there is little reason to return. I found punches, blocking and weaving to be entirely intuitive and in my control, making winning tough fights incredibly rewarding and defeats definitely avoidable. Get lazy and you will pay, but be smart and you will send your opponent into a puddle of their own blood and sweat on the canvas. Opponent difficulty increases as you climb the ladder and the Champion mode does a great job of forcing you to play differently, in what can only be described as boss fights. Here, your standard methods will not work and you will need to think up new strategies, which I found to be incredibly compelling, adding to the trick library up my sleeve for future scraps.
FNC is a phenomenal looking game. Muscles heave and contract, sweat beads form, subsurface bruising appears which eventually break the skin, leading to blood flying about the place. The details and animations are incredible, with subtle flashes letting you know that a punch has truly connected and (apart from the excessively shiny clothing) everything is a visual treat. This extends to the Champion mode cut scenes, which have some excellent facial animations, subtle eye movements and stellar voice acting effortlessly bringing the characters to life, allowing you to form that ever important relationship with Bishop.
My only visual gripe is that the referee, who is now in the ring, makes an unbreakable habit of getting between you and the camera, forcing you to change from the default camera to the wide option, easing the painful frustration. Patch EA? Please.
Punches deafeningly fire at your opponent’s bones while the crowd floods your ears with chants. Beautiful aural cues let you know what is happening during rounds as music builds to an epic crescendo as you are about to floor your opponent, and these moments, especially during the more emotional bouts in Champion mode, gave me goosebumps. Several times I could not help but lift my arms with Bishop when I won, holding my controller high, blinking green as the crowd went wild.
EA have given us a glimpse into the future of sports games with FNC and I pray that they explore the possibilities of Champion mode even further in the inevitable sequel. There is so much potential here that we could have an epic story unravel, embracing the already existing XP reward system to give us a something truly special. Everything you have come to love about the series remains in all its sweaty, pixelated glory. There is so much meat to devour that you will be chewing for months, until you claim your beautiful spot at the top.