The Fight Night series has been known for many things since it burst onto the scene back in 2004. It began with innovative controls then later expanded to become a true graphical powerhouse with Fight Night Round 3 and Round 4. Now, with Fight Night Champion, EA Sports is once again shifting the series into uncharted territory, and I couldn't be happier about it.
While I got the chance to play Fight Night Champion at a San Francisco event, the gameplay wasn't the significant departure that I was just talking about (though there are plenty of changes that we'll get into later). Instead, EA Sports seems to be making a huge push to bring the story of a boxer into the game with the new Champion Mode. The small piece of gameplay that we got to see from Champion Mode showed our fighter in a boxing match in prison. Yes, you read that right. Your introduction to the mode is a bare-knuckle brawl and it's just as bloody as you'd expect. It's more of a tutorial than anything, but given the fact that your corner man mentions your dad's death and that you need to "knock this ****er on his ass" to win makes it clear that the mode takes this game in a very different direction.
But before we got to see more the evil EA PR hounds swooped in and switched the game off. Yes, what we got was only a tease of much bigger things to come. I, for one, can't wait to see what EA has in store for Champion Mode. It's clear that they're going to deliver an ESPN 30-for-30 (a series of documentary films that runs on the network) style presentation, but in order to sell us on the story that they're trying to present, they're going to need to bring in some scriptwriting talent that knows what they're doing. They didn't announce who was penning the tale of Andre (your character in the mode), but here's hoping they can land someone with the ability to bring the story to life in a convincing way.
If Champion Mode doesn't sound like your thing, never fear, Legacy (career) Mode has seen plenty of attention as well. While I didn't get to venture into the development aspects (training, creation, etc…) for myself, I was told that training would take place all over the world and the attributes you'll be developing will be determined by the city in which you're training. For instance, if you're training in Philadelphia, you'll be improving your toughness and chin rating. If you train at Big Bear in California, you'll be improving your stamina and endurance since you'd be training at a higher altitude than normal. The amount of training that you'll be able to complete is determined by the cost of traveling from your hometown to the location of the training event.
Outside of progressing attributes like your chin, heart and stamina, you'll also be able to grow each individual punch up to level 20. There's straight to the head, right uppercut to the head, hook to the body and pretty much everything else you could want. As you increase each punch it'll get quicker and more precise and it'll have a better chance of sending your opponent into the new stun state called getting your "bell rung" or "bell ringers." Essentially this new stun state weakens the boxer considerably, but unlike in the past you'll no longer recover after a round ends or when you get up from being knocked down. Instead you'll have to change your strategy to survive until your boxer has time to get his wits back.
Once you've decided how you'd like to progress your fighter's skills, it's time to actually get into the ring. Easily the largest change that EA Sports has made to gameplay is with the controls. You'll no longer be using the right analog stick in the same manner for punches. Rather than rotating the stick in a quarter-circle for hooks, now you simply flick to either side. For uppercuts, flick to the five o'clock position for a right uppercut and the seven o'clock position for a left uppercut. Gone are the days of haymakers and they've been replaced by a power modifier that resides on the right shoulder button. Pressing it will make punches harder, but they'll also take a bit longer to launch as your boxer noticeably puts more weight behind the blow.
Punches aren't all that's seen refinement in Fight Night's time away. Blocking is also much different. Dubbed Reflexive Blocking, you'll now have to time your blocks to be truly effective, but you'll no longer need to worry about blocking to a specific part of your body. If you simply hold the block button and "turtle" you'll guard punches well enough, but if your opponent mixes up his attacks you won't be able to keep up with the variety unless your boxer has a very high reflex rating.
If you keep your guard down and time the block as the punch is thrown, you'll get a small counter opportunity. Thankfully that counter opportunity does not artificially slow down the boxer as it did in the past, now you'll have to take advantage of the small counter window on your own. Oh, and if you land a punch right on the money, there is the chance of a one-punch KO. No count from the ref, no opportunity to get back up. You're just out cold.
Once I got the chance to get my hands on the controller for myself, the first thing that I noticed wasn't the controls or the blocking; it was the visuals. There's clearly been a lot of work done to the fighter models and they look even better than they did in Fight Night Round 4. They move wonderfully, they look great and they can be bloodied more than ever before with hemoglobin that falls to the mat, gets on the opponent and will spread to your clothes. Not to mention the fact that there's a ref in the ring with you for the first time and the crowd has quite a bit more detail and personality than in the past.
Being a huge fan of single-player story experiences myself, the new direction for Fight Night Champion's Champion Mode is fantastic provided that they can get the right talent to steer the plot away from being cheesy. As it stands, I couldn't be happier with the gritty direction that Champion Mode is taking. The game also looks fantastic and plays quite well even in its early state. The new controls will definitely take some getting used to if you're a Fight Night vet, but the team is including button punching in the default control scheme, so you'll have the option as soon as you pop in the disc.
Fight Night Champion is scheduled to launch in 2011 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Until then, be sure to check out the debut trailer and fresh screenshots.
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