Fight Night Champion Review

By Mitch Dyer - Posted Feb 23, 2011

The Fight Night franchise brings high expectations with every release, and Champion exemplifies how sports sequels should be done. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, it rounds out its edges -- it changes without changing. Its additions and improvements are precisely why it's the best boxing game we've played yet.

The Pros
  • Champion Mode's clever match variables
  • Simplified controls mean faster fights
  • Easy to pull off crushing, satisfying combos
The Cons
  • Champion Mode's atrocious final boss
  • Disappointing multiplayer suite

Fight Night Champion Review:

Sports series rarely require anything as outlandish as a story mode to keep it from stagnating. Fight Night Champion’s rise-and-fall boxing tale is a refreshing and welcome addition to the franchise. The story in Champion Mode, typical though it may be, is a serviceable one that hits all the necessary highlights: fixed fights, mobsters, rivalries, etc. What’s here isn’t exactly breaking new narrative ground, but it’s a top-notch excuse to set up what are easily the most entertaining matches you’ll play in EA’s most accomplished boxing game to date.

Rise and Fall of a Champion

On top of duking it out with other fiction fighters standard style, Champion’s main man Andre is subject to a lot of grief that frequently changes how he’s allowed to fight. These match variables serve as subtle tutorials for rookie players without insulting the skills of seasoned pros. Regardless of your familiarity with Fight Night, mid-match curveballs lend Champion Mode a welcome bit of originality.

Breaking your hand in a fight’s first round, for instance, requires you to fight one-handed without blatantly exposing your handicap. Later, a paid-off ref docks points for body shots, forcing you to redirect all your energies to clobberin’ the guy’s melon. Our favorite twist, though, is our charismatic protagonist’s stint in prison after he’s setup and arrested: Brutal bare-knuckle brawls personify the primal satisfaction that comes with breaking faces in Fight Night Champion – sickeningly hard hits lead to especially gnarly gashes. The blood splattering and staining the floor a nice touch, if a little unsettling.

After all these wonderful twists and turns, Champion’s story finishes off with one of the cheesiest final fights I can remember. The smack-talking big bad is a cartoonishly large and powerful boss archetype. He is also quite literally least for a time. Before you can even consider knocking out Frost, the reigning champ, you’re forced to meet numerous conditions. First, you’ll have to land a few dozen body shots. From here, it’s a frustrating, seemingly endless dance around the ring as you evade for a few rounds. Only after all this can you start dishing out the damage.

The tiered structure of the Frost fight is antithetical to the rest of Champion Mode’s excellent structure. It’s infuriating because it’s difficult. It’s only difficult because it falls back on traditional game design and because it relies on archaic conventions, it winds up as an anticlimactic waiting game with a quick finish whose scripted feel unfairly takes away the satisfaction of skillfully making your way to the top.

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Champion Mode is where FNC is at its strongest, but Legacy is where it’s at its most familiar -- for better or worse. Five games into the franchise, we’re starting to see the consequences of building a game based on an unchanging sport. This explains why EA ends up with something like a story mode. Much as Fight Night Champion’s traditional career mode is exactly what we want, it’s also precisely what we expect. Training mini-games, climbing league ladders and unlocking custom character upgrades slowly are the same as they ever were, but Legacy doesn’t feel stale by any stretch of the imagination.

You’ll see the ripple effect from EA Sports MMA in your career, most notably in how you go about getting ready for fights. Stamina depletes as you work to improve how hard you hit and how long you can stay standing, while rest restores the lost resource. Walking into a fight low on stamina but high on stat boosts is a risky proposition that rarely paid off for us, but better boxers will certainly be able to take advantage of the handicap. Camps, too, make their way over from MMA. Accumulated cash goes toward specialty gyms that give you the extra oomph when building your boxer’s speed or strength before a fight. It’s a slight but welcome shift that adds an extra little layer, and it’s little things like this that really make Champion such a stellar game.

Multiplayer is perhaps the only component that sticks out as poor. Again, this is not an instance of being bad; it’s just disappointingly limited, even with the addition of camps, Champion’s equivalent of clans. EA Sports MMA’s Live Broadcast multiplayer pushed online gaming forward, and while we don’t necessarily need to see that mode brought over, it’s a bummer to see such little innovation in EA’s flagship fighting series.

Throwing Bombs

As a result of tiny tweaks, Fight Night Champion is fundamentally faster and easier to play. Don’t take that to mean it’s an easy game. You and your opponents -- AI or human -- have equal access to the same clock-cleaning abilities.

Perhaps the most notable change to combat here is the outright removal of haymakers, the often too-tough, go-to attack many fans disapproved of. Instead, the R1/RB button modifies your attack and turns it into a “heavy” hit. It’s slower, and it isn’t as substantially overpowered as the haymaker, but it makes a world of difference when you’re trying to rip someone’s face to pieces on the counterattack. It’s a well-balanced advantage, too, since abusing it depletes your stamina, often remaining permanent for the remainder of the match.

Another addition fans have been rallying for finally makes its appearance in Champion. Flicking your stick while defending to punch from the block just makes sense – its omission in earlier games didn’t. This is a smaller component of the greater thesis for Fight Night Champion:  You’re always moving and you’re always on the attack. Even when you’re hiding behind your hands, you’re a threat.

Champion’s simplification of the stick-based scheme we’re used to in Fight Night -- among numerous other EA Sports games -- eliminated the quarter- and half-circle gestures. What you’re left with is basic pushes and pulls forward, backward and to the side to execute jabs, uppercuts and hooks. If you’re focused and careful, you can string punches together as effective as you ever could with less effort. If you’re a maniacal fighter, the analog equivalent of button-mashing works fine, too. Just beware that flicking the stick like a fool is going to bite you in the rear if a thinker exploits your unsystematic approach.

Because throwing punches is faster from your thumbs, Champion is a naturally quicker fighting game. In retrospect, Fight Night Round 4 looks almost sluggish and stiff. Champion is the epitome of fluidity. Attacks flow together perfectly, and when they hit their mark you feel it. At points, we felt genuinely bad landing a crushing blow to our opponent’s nose. It was satisfying because the jostling camera and stumbling, hurt fighter drive it home: we orchestrated exactly what happened, and it hurt you. Similarly, when your foe weaves beneath a punch and counters and socks you in the stomach, you’ll know it’s your fault you fell down.

Just Get Me In The Ring

It’s built to look and feel like the Fight Night we’re all well acquainted with, there’s nothing about it that’s too familiar. The sum of EA’s minor adjustments is an overhaul that bolsters the strength of Fight Night Champion immensely. This reinforcement doesn’t change what we know -- this is an absurd expectation in the genre anyway -- but it’s exactly what we want.