Well, it only took a decade or so, but it seems that EA has been - like every other sports franchise under their greedy moniker - slowly creeping ever-so-closer to making Fight Night a yearly release. With Round 4 being met with positive reviews and commercial success, EA Canada comes out swinging with their latest in the long running series, Fight Night Champion. While improving on the best boxing sim out there is a difficult task, EA Canada manages to uppercut the non-existent competition to lift Champion to become one of the greatest installments in the critically acclaimed franchise.
Unlike previous iterations, Fight Night Champion features a fleshed out story mode that creates a thrilling experience to fill the narrative gap that boxing is historically know for. Following the rise, fall, and eventual redemption of top middleweight prospect Andre Bishop, you'll live his life through a series of fights and flashbacks, detailing Bishop's rise to prominence, and his eventual fall from grace and sentence to prison. While much of the beginning involves Bishop's backstory, the majority of Champion Mode will have you climbing the ranks for a second shot at boxing immorality. Though many of the characters feel as though they've been generically lifted from anyone of the six Rockys, and the progression feels very much like an Xbox version of Punch Out!, Champion Mode still provides a welcomed addition to the already well-established Legacy and online modes.
Taking on Bishop's role - though clearly not as customizable as a boxer in Legacy mode - proves to be a unique, enjoyable experience, albeit with some liberal use of other boxing franchises. Although it's not a necessary addition, Champion Mode spins a sufficient narrative, and it'll be interesting to see what twists and turns Bishop's tale will take, or if the mode even survives to the "next round."
If you've played either Round 3 or Round 4, you'll be familiar with the newly renamed and revamped "Full-Spectrum Punch Control" that utilizes the right control stick to throw all sorts of punches with flicks of the stick rather than the "Total Punch Control's" hadoken-like style. Face buttons are also utilized for quick input of hooks and uppercuts, but they don't offer the same control as the FSPC does. Replacing haymakers is the power modifier, allowing you to throw any of your punches (instead of just one single blow), that'll have your opponents seeing angry birds (da-da-ch!). Whether you choose to use FSPC or the less complex, button-mashing-friendly face buttons, Champion controls with a brutal precision that is a perfect fit for the viciousness of the refined sport, especially so now with the improved, streamlined combat.
Though reliving a mock Punch Out! through the scope of Rocky has its highpoints, the real contender is the deep, innovative Legacy mode. Slowly evolving from the beginning of the series, Legacy has become a viable beast of content where the majority of your time will be spent, progressing the career of either a custom or pre-existing character in RPG fashion. Abandoning the previous skill progression for an experience system, you now have full control over the effectiveness of hooks, uppercuts and straights both to the head and body, as well as a slew of other skills to improve your fighter. As certain punches and other skills reach higher levels, punches will become faster and more powerful, and will eventually gain the ability to instantly put your opponent on the mat. Other skills will give boosts to stamina and health, as well as how fast you can throw combinations. The RPG system, a tremendous improvement over previous iterations, gives you much more control over your boxer and removes the constricting skill progression that hindered your fighter.
Although this still may occur to a very small extent, training minigames have taken a step in the right direction, but they still prove frustrating, mainly due to them being left relatively unaltered besides the addition of EXP. Achieving top marks takes a giant difficulty leap as you progress the rankings in Legacy, which negatively impacts your boxer, causing further aggravation, and creates the only real downside of an otherwise fantastic career mode.
Counter-punching that downfall is the overabundance of fantastic online modes. Besides the normal "Fight Now" and "World Championship" modes from Round 4, FNC now features "Prize Fighting," a superb mode sponsored by Virgin Gaming where cash, points and other prizes can be won through tournaments and individual fights, and clans in the form of online "Gyms." In Gyms, players can battle it out over the course of a season, with the top boxers entering a tournament to crown the top fighter, which is a great way to prove among your friends that you can totally beat their asses. Gyms can also compete against others, each member going toe-to-toe with the winners, receiving XP boosts to fortify their fighter. Many, many gratifying hours can be spent online if you plan to prove your Gym's ability, and much more if you want to claim one of the World Championship belts.
Receiving the same innovative overhaul as the Online modes did, the physics engine has become a thing of beauty. Sweet, bloody gratifying beauty. Utilized to fuel the "darker" look that EA Canada has enhanced the already graphically stellar franchise with, the physics truly capture the fierce intensity of the sport. Fighters stick and move with a natural grace, with an equal flow expressed through each crippling, blood-gushing knockout. Like its visuals, Champion's sound-work is top notch. Whether it is genuinely interesting and entertaining commentary by series veterans Joe Tessitore and his quirky color commentating partner Teddy Atlas, the groovin' soundtrack highlighted by The Black Keys and The Roots, or the booming hooks and straights that resonate in the depths of your ear drums, the Fight Night series continues to greatly impress audibly, and FNC is no exception.
Like any other sports franchise, Fight Night Champion's length will depend on how much you're willing to put into it. While Champion mode can be completed in a night of binge drinking (that's 4-5 hours for all you minors), your Legacy will take considerably more hours to finish, especially if you plan to cross multiple weight classes and become the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the sport's history. If dozens of hours doesn't sound like quite enough for you, the online versus is vast and robust, allowing for online ranking, title fights, online Gyms and daily cash tournaments. Due to a refined physics engine highlighting real-time bruising and flexing muscles, the streamlined yet involving Full-Spectrum Punch control, and the deep, though challenging Legacy mode that sports a detailed create-a-boxer, Fight Night Champion is the pinnacle of the franchise. If you plan on jumping in the ring for the first time or are coming back for your fifth rematch with over 50 licensed boxers including Ali, Tyson, Pacquiao, and the infamous "Butterbean," Champion is the best the sport has to offer, making it a worthy contender for your $60.