Boxing is one of the most unusual sports to have ever come into existence. At once, it's brutal, vicious and uncompromising, while taking enormous amounts of skill and strategy to excel at. Few other sports or activities can lay claim to these things. However. Fight Night Champion is one of those things. To excel and be a true champion in this game, one must use not only the fist but the most powerful muscle of all - your brain.
Fight Night Champion plays out just as you would expect a boxing video game that touts it's realism as a selling point. The rules in place are reflective of an actual bout - your goal is to win by a knockout, TKO or points decision, over the course of several three-minute rounds. Headbutts and low blows against your opponent are illegal in most circumstances and will lead to a points deduction, but importantly you are still able to perform these actions. Were it not the case, the realism of the game would suffer.
For a game where your fists do most of the talking, the control setup and responsiveness is surprisingly smooth. For your punches, you can use the face buttons or the right control stick, with the latter being particularly useful for when you want to string together a stinging combination of blows against your adversary. To throw some body blows into the mix, you must hold the left trigger button. The left trigger is also used for all important ducking and weaving, which enables you to dodge your opponent's own punches of power and allows you to land an extremely satisfying counter punch, with successful efforts indicated by a brief white flash on the screen. Meanwhile, the right trigger button can be used to block. The right shoulder button can he held down to deliver a powerful punch, while combining it with the left shoulder will cause you to hold onto your opponent. Finally, the digital pad is used to perform headbutts, low blows, taunts and fighting stance changes. Should you get knocked down, the fight isn't quite over - an on-screen display will show you some prompts to flick and hold the control sticks in certain directions to get up off the mat. All of these things combined produce gameplay that sticks with realism and puts an emphasis on strategy. Because of this, there can be a steep learning curve to get the most out of fights and to successfully defeat other fighters with reasonable confidence. This may be a deterrent for some, but the investment of time is worth it for the determined player.
The story mode for Fight Night Champion offers up a tale of one Andre Bishop and his efforts to become champion. Initially, the story intersects between different parts of his career, from amateur champion and rough times to the pursuit of the heavyweight championship of the world. It's not simply a case of watching the cut-scenes unfold and having normal fights, however. During matches, circumstances can arise that will force you to adhere to certain conditions. One fight has you only using your left fist after your right becomes broken, while another has you refraining from body shots as a corrupt promoter has the referee on the payroll that will rule body shots as low blows. A lot of the time these changed conditions will be supported with cut-scenes which really help to build the drama of the fight and the circumstances that you will find yourself in, and weave the entire tale of the career mode together.
As mentioned in our earlier preview, there is also an exhibition mode that lets you duke it out with past and present boxers as well as fictional fighters found in the story mode. You will also be able to use your own creations in the fight. The create-a-fighter mode of Fight Night Champion doesn't give you the same level of freedom and detail as other similar games like the Smackdown series, so you will have to work a bit harder to get the kind of look you're after. It does pay off, however, as a glimpse at the online user creations section shows. There are the expected multitudes of creations from the Rocky film series, but there's also room for fighters not in the game like Floyd Mayweather and bizarrely even Carl Winslow from the TV show Family Matters.
Fight Night Champion is wrapped in some great visuals. The opening cinematics of the career mode are incredibly accurate and detailed, and the rest of the graphical efforts are also of a high standard. Special mention has to go to the blood and sweat effects that occur when you give your opponent a punch that sends them hurtling towards the mat as it encases the brutality in detail. Between rounds, you will also see the progressive battering on a fighter's face that can range from some bruising to serious cuts that have blood streaming out of them. Given that this is the first game of the series to receive an MA rating, it's no surprise that this kind of gore is emphasised to fit the game's grittiness. Some of the fights in the story mode in particular will look very ugly and unvarnished, but in a good way that highlights the realism of the situation. There is also a multitude of sweat to be had throughout the match and all of the boxer bodies have an amazing level of muscle definition, with no two fighters looking the same in terms of musculature.
The sounds of Fight Night Champion are a solid effort for the most part and are appropriate for the game. Music for the menus and for fighter entrances is a mix of rock and rap which is functional enough without being spectacular, but it's the sound effects that steal the show. The huffing and puffing as your fighters punch and the sound of your fists colliding with your opponent's body are very meaty and satisfying, particularly the sickening noise produced upon replays when a punch that floors your opponent is successfully unleashed, complete with groans of pain.
The lasting appeal of Fight Night Champion is mainly tied to the multiplayer modes, both on and off-line. The story mode itself is a compelling experience, but it can sometimes seem a bit short and it remains linear. Online revelry, however, is a different tale. Boxing clans can be set up and there are also tournaments held and even regional champions to fight and aspire to, the current titleholders of which are occasionally interspersed in the corner of menu screens.
Fight Night Champion is a well-rounded game as a boxing game and for sports games in general. It aspires to emphasis the realism, brutality and skill of the sport and manages to meet its own expectations and those of players. The visuals, sound and strategic elements blend together, like a flurry of punches delivered by the great Sugar Ray Robinson himself. Story-wise, the game is short but it turns out to be quite fulfilling and engaging. This is a game that doesn't really compromise on realism, so if that's not something that appeals to you then you'd probably best look elsewhere. Otherwise, it's time to lace up your gloves and step through the ropes once again and prepare to fight.