Over the years, the Fight Night games have moved further and further into niche territory, and when Fight Night Round 4 focused even more on the simulation aspects of boxing, it started to alienate many players. At this point, EA could have done two things – one, reboot the franchise and dumb it down, or two, stick to its guns and risk further erosion of its fan base. But EA have instead invented option three. For the first time in the series, Fight Night Champion introduces a story mode, and throughout the ten-odd hours it took me to complete it, one question kept popping into my head – Why didn’t they do this sooner?
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The Champion Mode is quite simply the best single-player campaign I’ve played this year, and the beauty of it is that you don’t need the slightest knowledge of the sport to enjoy it. If you’ve stayed away from the past games because of the simulation aspects, the grueling training routines, or all the stats and technicalities; if you just wanted a game that let you feel like Rocky, the Champion Mode is it. It strips away almost everything that happens outside the squared circle. What is there is a story that is conveyed through slick cutscenes, believable characters, and great voice acting. There’s a noticeable lack of statistics. You won’t even get to see the judges’ scorecard after a fight because all that matters is whether you won or lost. If you win, the story continues, if you lose, you try again.
You’ll probably never see a menu throughout the Champion Mode, which also makes it far more immersive. Story cutscenes and fights flow into each other smoothly and the presentation is remarkably slick. You play as Andre Bishop, who starts out as a promising amateur middleweight. Your career takes a turn for the worse, and after a prison term, you make your return as a heavyweight set to conquer the boxing world. It’s cliched and it’s been done to death in movies, but it’s the way the game presents this turn of events and uses it to create new gameplay experiences that makes it great. As a middleweight, Bishop is lightning fast and can easily outmaneuver his opponents. His prison term is one of the more interesting portions of the game. Fights here are bare-knuckled affairs and seriously brutal. The sound of fist on cranium in these no-rules, last-man-standing scraps is in stark contrast to the closely regulated rules of professional boxing, which goes to make this brief segment all the more memorable.
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Bishop emerges from prison a heavyweight. He’s now stronger and even though he’s quick by heavyweight standards, you will feel him move considerably slower than before. Fights in the Champion Mode aren’t your run of the mill grinds to X number of rounds either. Each fight has an objective or an obstacle set for of you. For example, a broken right arm will have you fighting the entire fight with the left, you’ll be required to protect a cut over the eye as your opponent goes after it, or you’ll have to knock an opponent out so you don’t leave the decision to corrupt judges. As you approach objectives or come close to failing them, the music will suddenly kick in, drowning out the commentary and the crowd, adding to the tension further. Another reason these fights are so much fun and such tense affairs is that they highlight a part of boxing we often tend to neglect – contrary to what many people think, boxing isn’t all about knocking the other guy out. It’s often about pacing yourself and just wearing down your opponent, and FNC makes you want to be good at that aspect of boxing.
There’s very little that I can find fault with in the Champion Mode. The story is nothing new, but it’s been told exceedingly well. The quality of the cutscenes is something you wouldn’t expect from an EA Sports title, and it will even give some action games a run for their money. The fight situations are genius, and they always give you something new to think about. It builds up to a grand final showdown that will put everything you’ve learned throughout the game to the test against a seriously scary and intimidating opponent. The Champion Mode is a game-changing addition to the Fight Night series, and one that I hope will keep improving with each new game.
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The story mode is actually so good that I’m able to forgive some of the gameplay changes, which didn’t sit with me too well. The analog controls have now been simplified, so now, rather than performing a half circle to pull off an uppercut, all you have to do is push the stick in a particular direction. This means that regardless of how complex or physically taxing a punch, the action to perform it is just a simple push of the stick. So you can now throw punches a lot quicker than before, but there’s a catch; the punch animations for elaborate punches are still long, and while you can quickly throw five punches in a second, they’ll take 2-3 seconds to play out on screen, and you’re a sitting duck while that happens. Of course, you can also use the face buttons to throw punches, or a combination of analog stick and buttons. The gameplay speed is also significantly faster, with a more lenient stamina system and a more punishing counter-punch mechanic; all changes that work towards making bouts far more eventful and action-packed.
Champion Mode isn’t all there is to FNC though. FNR4 players will feel right at home with the Legacy Mode, mostly because it’s almost unchanged since the last game. It’s the deeper of two single-player modes, allowing you to create and customize a boxer and embark on a thorough career simulation that culminates with you as the greatest of all time. The game now implements leaderboards within Legacy Mode similar to Auolog in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, so you’ll constantly be updated with where you stack up on your friends list for stats like most wins. Since Champion Mode mostly comprises of cutscenes and fights, Legacy Mode is also where you’ll first get to listen to the game’s soundtrack. Hip-hop may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Fight Night games have always been known for their soundtracks, and FNC doesn’t disappoint either. The online World Championship leaderboards also return, and you’ll now get a notification when the top players in the world are online playing the game.
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Fight Night Champion has made a fading franchise relevant again with its cinematic Champion Mode, which has elements that will appeal to everyone, whether or not you like boxing, fighting or sports games. It brings enough gameplay changes to make fights more action-packed, but also keeps enough intact so fans don’t feel like they’re playing a completely different game. It manages to make every three-minute round of a grueling 12-round fight feel like a new challenge, and that more than anything else makes this the best Fight Night game.