Drama is an indelible aspect of popular sports, and boxing is no exception. Whether a fight serves as a metaphor for the world around us or the confident boasts of legends like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson grab our hearts and minds, what happens outside the ring can often seem as important as a knockout punch.
Fight Night Champion represents gaming's first attempt to enter that particular ring. Granted, the Champion narrative mode is just a small part of the total fighting experience, but it's a turning point for the series as a whole. It's also the first thing you'll experience, as the game immediately throws you into the corner of Andre Bishop, a prison boxer looking to survive a grimy battle against a tattooed, faux Neo Nazi goon.
When your grizzled trainer commands you to "Knock the f**ker on his ass," it's clear that Champion isn't courting the fresh-faced kids of the world. No, Fight Night Champion takes advantage of its higher age rating with extensive swearing, more realistic injuries, and dripping wounds that stain shorts and ring floors.
Bishop's savage beating in the showers following the bout only confirms this darker direction for the series, but you'll quickly find out that he was a good kid - a promising fighter near the top of his game who was framed after pissing off the wrong shady promoter.
You relive Bishop’s glory days through a series of flashback fights, and once you're in the familiar gyms and venues it’s evident that Fight Night's in-ring action has seen some serious tweaks since we last traded blows in 2009's Round 4. Enhanced animations and a helpful dose of motion blur help the game pop like never before, and the dynamic camera brings a greater sense of speed and momentum to the proceedings.
But Champion more notably tinkers with the way you experience the fight, thanks to the newly branded “Full Spectrum Punch Control” analog scheme. Rather than cranking out elaborate stick motions, you can simply flick the right stick in one of twelve directions to trigger six punches from either arm. It's simplified, no doubt, and may result in tossing unintended punches, but at least you'll always be throwing something.
But it's the other notable tweaks that really improve the feel and flow of the game. Exaggerated haymakers are out, replaced by a heavy punch modifier button, plus one-punch knockouts and varied stun states bring a bit more unpredictability to the action. And being able to finally punch out of the block without delay is an absolute godsend.
All of these enhancements on top of Fight Night's already rock-solid fighting engine makes it far and away the best simulation of the sport I've ever experienced, and an absolute joy to play in the ring.
Andre Bishop's initial rise and fall expectedly gives way to a tale of redemption, and while the beats are familiar throughout the storytelling is surprisingly sound. Beyond the sharp production values, what keeps the Champion mode running strong throughout the five-hour tale are entertaining gameplay twists, such as needing to win by knockout to overcome bribed judges, or favoring your left hand when you bust the right.
But it nearly unravels with a climactic boss fight that is both heavily structured and egregiously difficult. The 30 minute showdown inundates you with round-specific challenges, such as simply surviving, attacking the body, or protecting a cut, but the inability to directly impact the course of the fight until the game throws the thumbs-up is incredibly frustrating. Should EA attempt another Champion mode in the next Fight Night or MMA entry, I implore them to consider that user choice and interaction need to hold greater weight than scripted shenanigans.
Standard exhibition and online matches between all-time legends and recent favorites are still thoroughly entertaining, especially with the numerous new gameplay tweaks. But compared to the pomp of Champion mode, the Legacy career option is starting to show its age. New training options and an XP-based system give you more control over your fighter, but additions like sponsorship deals and alternate training gyms lack significant purpose.
Champion's online options are thankfully improved for the better here, though, with the ability to win varying belts and awards, as well as join online gyms with pals and take part in seasons and tournaments. However, there’s no feature to rival EA Sports MMA's brilliant Live Broadcast mode, which spotlighted the best fighters in weekly bouts with real-life commentators calling the action. A Fight Night version would have been a perfect fit for boxing's boastful machismo, but Champion is still the absolute best way to experience pretend pugilism, online or not.
And that's what it boils down to: Minor niggles aside, Champion stands alone as the most polished and playable boxing simulation ever released, with the new adjustments and additions easily prolonging Fight Night's relatively uncontested reign over the genre.
Next page: Our expert verdict