Boxing games have been a source of intrigue since the dawn of gaming. While the art of pugilism seems like it would fit right in with the usual crowd of violent games, developers have more often than not turned out steaming heaps of dung, and slapped a boxer's name and likeness on the cover, or just made them over the top affairs. None of these games dove into the finer parts of the sport - there's more to boxing than just throwing punches. Hope came in 2002 in the form of Rocky, (based off the popular series of films) which offered an impressive and accessible digital form of boxing, even snagging a spot on PALGN's Top 5 Xbox Games. EA Sports decided to reboot their boxing series in 2004, dropping the Knockout Kings moniker and adopting the name Fight Night. Unfortunately, PALGN lacked the resources at the time of release to review Fight Night 2004, which we regret (well, until today). 2004 saw the release of Rocky Legends, which unfortunately blew a golden opportunity to further develop the finer points of the sport, with the developer instead opting to rehash the previous game with minimal new features. With EA Sport's dedication to yearly releases, we have been treated to a second Fight Night game - the aptly titled Round 2. Can EA deliver on their "If it's in the game, it's in the game" promise, and give boxing fans their much desired, high quality boxing title, or are we just going to have to stick with Rocky for another year?
The biggest downfall of almost every boxing title to date has been control, with every title to date relying on complex button combinations for punch combos, and offering very little or no flexibility in dodging and blocking, while rigid movement completed the triple threat (Rocky (2002) and the Punch-Out!! Series excluded). EA Sports have done their best to combat these problems with the 'Total Punch Control" system. The right stick now controls the type of punch you throw, with a diagonal left movement throwing the jab, diagonal right executing a right straight, quarter circles on each side for hooks, and thirds for the uppercut (opposite for the southpaws). Blocking and parrying (at last!) require the player to hold a trigger in, and then the right stick can be moved about to protect a particular area of the body. If out-boxing is more your style, holding in the left trigger will allow you to duck and weave until your heart is content. Movement around the ring is bound to the left stick, and the fighters move with a good degree of fluidity - not like greased lightning, but not like a sloth. The newest additions to the movement arsenal are the clinch (which seems to be a strange omission from the previous title), and the EA Sports haymaker punches.
Fights follow the Marquee of Queensbury rules, though the player can adjust them at will - such as turning off the three knock down rule, increasing round time and the number of rounds. The fights themselves can vary greatly depending on the boxers used and the fighting style of the players involved. Generally, most players will go straight for the toe-to-toe in fight, and exchange blows until one falls. Other players may go for more of a cat-and-mouse style match, with one fighter trying to get in close, while the other will be dancing around the ring. The control method mentioned above is the greatest factor in deciding how players can approach the game.
Boxing strategy becomes a major factor once a player has established his or her style in Fight Night: Round 2. It can take quite a few fights to nail the timing on some defensive manoeuvres, so we advise that players take a few rounds to nail parrying, weaving and blocking. Targeting your opponent's body throughout the match will greatly lower his health meter, while parrying and dodging will lower his stamina. Going for the knockout early can leave your boxer fatigued early on in a fight, making his blows slower and weaker (though strangely, this doesn't have any effect on the animation), but ducking and weaving can turn your boxer into a sandbag if your timing slips, so you have to way up your options. Punch selection is very important - leading with the jab won't necessarily cause much damage to your opponent, but it can help you set him up for a combo, as well as helping your fighter obtain crucial points with the judges. Going wild with haymakers is okay for earlier fights, but your boxer will quickly become fatigued if you don't land the majority of your blows. A limited number of special punches are available, but for some reason, they lack the impact of haymakers (though it is kinda cool to see the Dempsey Roll). In the later career mode fights, as your opponents get stronger and more intelligent, your strategies will have to change - for instance, this reviewer had to adopt a strategy of landing simultaneous blows once he was forced to go up against an opponent of equal strength and superior speed.
When your opponent is about to go down, the game will slow the pace and cut out all sound except the screaming of your opponent's seconds (or yours, if roles are reversed). A clinch can end this situation, but a powerful punch will send the fighter to the mat. This feature can be slightly annoying at times, but can be turned off. When a knockdown does occur, an instant replay will pop up, showing the knockout punch in all of its painstakingly powerful glory. If you're a nasty fighter, you can even land a few extra hits in while the other guy is going down. Flash knockdowns can also happen from time to time, usually triggered by a parry or dodge followed by a powerful punch. Thankfully, these are usually infrequent, which is a much needed nod to realism.
For the first time in boxing game history, cuts are a factor in determining the outcome of a bout. Physical damage such as swelling and cuts will need to be attended to by your cut man in between round mini games (which last for 30 seconds, rather than the minute seen in the real sport). As swelling and cuts get worse throughout the match, you'll have to change your strategy to protect that particular area of your fighter's face. If things get really bad, the referee will stop the fight. Unfortunately, stopping the fight for cuts hasn't been as well implemented as we'd have liked. The commentator may make mention of the cuts, and the seconds will most certainly bring it up between rounds, but the fight can seemingly end on a dime due to cuts, with no warning from the referee during the round.
Like many other boxing games before it, Fight Night: Round 2 offers up a career mode, as well as exhibition matches. Exhibition matches feature a decent degree of customisation, though you can throw some other stipulations in there for effect, such as the round ending whenever a player goes down. Career mode is where much of your time will be spent. You can take any one of the game's illustrious roster of legends and current boxers through a career mode, or you can opt to create one of your own. The boxer creation template is insanely detailed in certain parts, only topped by the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, while other parts (such as hair and beard selection) are strangely sparse. Some parts of your player's appearance can cause clipping issues once swelling and cuts begin to occur, which is a bit of a nuisance. Once your fighter is created, you start out in the amateur ranks at age 17. You can fight up to 10 fights at the amateur level (head gear, four rounds, two knockdowns, no cut man), and you will be treated to tutorials on various manoeuvres between matches for the first five of these fights. The amateur system is good, though we'd have preferred it if you could start a little younger, and get a few more fights under your belt before turning pro. The amateur leagues are quite easy, however - most players should breeze through them, with some bouts being reminiscent of the Drago-Creed fight in Rocky IV (brutal, and over quite quickly, though you can't kill your opponent).
Once you turn pro, you'll be ranked 50th in your chosen weight class, and have access to bouts with about 15 fighters ahead of you. You'll start out fighting in rather strange places, like a construction site, which is really quite silly and takes away from the game's realism, as low ranked fighters still tend to fight in gymnasiums. Between fights you will be able to customise your entourage - pick a trainer, a cut man, entrance music, entrance effects and a ring girl. These have an effect on your performance - buying decent entrance effects will let you get up from a guaranteed knockout. Money can also be used to buy equipment for your fighter, which will boost your attributes. You can also pick one of three different training mini-games; heavy bag, combo dummy and weight training, each of which will work different attributes. It'd have been better if there were a greater number of training modes that worked different areas (no road work or speed bag?), as these mini-games are rather general, and working certain attributes are a pain. Automatic training is there, but trying to get the results you would out of manual training requires you to take a big risk by intensifying your training, which usually results in your boxer getting injured in training, and losing ground on his attributes. It would also have been nice if the number of weeks required for preparation for the fight had an effect on the attribute increase received from training.
Picking fights can be a nuisance in the career mode as you climb the ranks. It's advised that you try and rack up as many fights as you can early in your career to get the attribute increases and prize money, as once you progress into the 30's and 20's, your opponents will request even longer preparation times, sometimes spanning 25-30 weeks of a year, with the champion demanding 52 weeks preparation time. This is a real pain in the ass, as fighting much higher ranked opponents tends to only move you up a maximum of 5 ranks, not to mention the fact that as you pass 30, your attributes begin to drop with age. This reviewer's fighter was 29 before he even got a title shot. To mix things up a little, various challenges are also thrown in, but these also have excruciatingly long preparation times, but yield good money. Once you have captured the championship belt in your weight class, you can challenge the champion in the weight class directly above and below your own class, and unify the titles.
While Fight Night: Round 2 manages to set the bar for all other boxing titles on the market, it still falls short in a number of areas. The game needs a referee in the ring to dictate the action - as it stands, the referee only appears in the real time cutscenes that occur after a knock down. Secondly, the corner and the ropes need to be a bigger factor in fights, both to the advantage and detriment of the fighters. If a fighter is still conscious when getting knocked about, he should be able to reach out to grab the ropes to prevent a down, or use the ropes for leverage when getting up. Finally, injuries that occur in a match should have affect your fighter outside of a fight - for example, if you are beaten to near death in a fight, there should be the possibility that your fighter could carry a permanent injury away from the fight. This would cause the seconds to play a bigger role in the game, throwing in the towel at some point to prevent their fighter's career from being ended. It could also affect your fighter's strategy in later matches - for example, having to protect a badly damaged eye for a few matches to prevent it from being permanent.
Other improvements we'd like to see in the future for the Fight Night series are more dependent on EA's ability to get licenses. As it stands, Fight Night: Round 2 has no backing from the WBC, WBA, IBF or one of the other dozen or so boxing authorities from around the world. The career mode could also stand to gain regional titles as a side to pursuing the world title - boxers don't just jump straight from amateur leagues into the world rankings, they usually have to progress through local rankings before being placed in the world rankings. The number of stadiums in the game could stand to be boosted - by real locations, not silly areas like construction sites and so on. Finally, the game's roster of boxing talent is already quite good, but could stand to gain a few more modern day fighters.
Fight Night: Round 2 has very solid presentation, with amazing looking fighter models which distort after taking damage during the fight, as well as conveying emotion during the fights. Other models in the game don't look so good, with a distinct lack of variety in the number of cut men and trainers available, not to mention the relatively low polygon crowd. The fight arenas themselves are quite detailed, though the ones based on real locations are much better than the fictional locations. ESPN fight analyst Joe Tessitore does an adequate job of providing commentary, though it would be nice if EA could use the word recognition technology employed in its other sports names, rather than requiring the player to choose predetermined names like "Dude" for their boxer. Tessitore's commentary often contradicts itself, too. Sound effects are quite good, with the impact of punches sounding quite brutal. EA Trax makes a return (yet again), offering a very slim number of hip hop based songs - mix it up in the future! Fight Night: Round 2 features widescreen, 60Hz and Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation options.
It'd be fair to say that with all that Fight Night: Round 2 provides, boxing fans have a new champion as far as games go. That said, there is still a bit of ground to cover and a few niggles to fix before Fight Night becomes a realistic simulation of the sport. The groundwork has all been laid out - EA just need to continually improve on the title year after year, and soon Fight Night will be one of the greatest sports titles available.
This review is brought to you courtesy of Infinite Gameplay, with unlimited game rentals starting from $19.95 a month.