Fight Night Champion – forget the M-rating, has the fighting engine evolved?

Edwin gets slapped around by EA’s bloodied boxer.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, November 24, 2010

Brian Hayes wants to tell the world about Fight Night Champion, but “Boxer of the 1990s” Roy Jones Junior won’t let him. Jones is being a right old pain in the arse, actually, a real party pooper. Hayes, Gameplay Producer for the predictably gloss-intensive boxing sim, is treating us to a dummy match, holding a trigger to auto-block as he rattles through bullet points.

In the new Fight Night, auto-blocking defaults to the base stats of the boxer you play, and Jones has the edge on British challenger David Haye (no relation) in this respect, darting jabs and uppercuts inside his opposite’s guard, punch-tuating the developer’s spiel. Champion’s AI isn’t quite fighting fit yet, we’re told: the increasingly tuckered-out American pugilist should be keeping his distance. The collision physics need work too. Excuses, excuses, Brian.

Jones is only kidding himself, mind, because ponderous as he is, Haye appears to have an adamantium jaw, and all the standing around is doing wonders for his stamina reserves. The second Brian runs out of things to say he’s going to step up his defensive game, not holding to block but tapping for a snappy counter, and Jones should drop like an incredibly sweaty sack of potatoes.

There’s plenty left to talk about, though. The new Fight Night isn’t just a change-up at the modular level, with a tantalisingly undivulged Champions mode, new online tracking features and a tooled-over career path: EA has gone to town on the excellent boxing engine too.

Unlike in Round 4, counter-punches won’t sock the other guy into procedural slowdown, but stagger him a little and break his combo. It takes some of the show-boating out of those skin-of-the-teeth reversals, granted, but it also means that well-timed parries won’t artificially carry a match. You can punch out of a guard now too, making for less of an oil-on-water division between offence and defence.

The famed analog striking controls have been simplified, perhaps not entirely with good reason. Bigger blows are no longer performed with arching inputs, just flicks of the stick, which should make the move set easier to master but also, I fear, easier to spam. More sensibly, a new heavy modifier dispenses with the need for goofy arcade haymakers on the bumpers.

In a word: bosh.

Best of all, stamina now operates on a regional basis. There are four gauges – one for each arm, one for the core and one for the legs – ebbing and flowing independently within the bounds of a boxer’s overall vitality, which gradually shrinks over the course of a match. Throw too many right-hand straights, as this writer was often disposed to in Round 4, and lactic acid will accumulate in your bicep, turning the muscle to lead; spend a lot of time slipping and sliding under punches, and you won’t be quite as nimble by the end of the round.

The corner game is now automated, though we suspect having the right team on hand will increase the benefits, and match strategy is thus 100% a question of what you do in the ring – whether you set a little stamina aside for the final reckoning, for instance, and avoid cuts that might prompt your trainer to throw in the towel.

Haye could certainly use a bit of TLC right now. Having held his ground for five rounds, the Limey’s face resembles one of Cooking Mama’s pizzas. Brian finally decides to cut the cackle and drives the exhausted Jones back with punishing body shots, but the computer boxer escapes knock-out by clinching and the match goes to the scorecards. It’s a narrow victory for the Old Country. Yippee.

The game is as handsome as ever, its character models detail-heavy dynamos of brawn and gumshield, and as before that prettiness has utility value. The fortunes of each bout can be read in sagging shoulders and wobbling knees, a brazenly out-thrust chin here, a backward stagger there.

Blood-spattered canvases betray the M-rating slapped on the North American release, but Fight Night has always been brutal; thankfully, the gore is no more than the varnish on some smart mechanical nips and tucks. In terms of the blow-for-blow at least, Champion is on course to do its predecessors justice next March.

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