As improbable as the setup for MGM's Rocky Balboa is, it's still a decent license for a video game. After all, who wouldn't want to step into the ring as The Italian Stallion to fight against all of the memorable characters from the six Rocky movies? In the Rocky Balboa game for the PlayStation Portable, you'll spend more time playing as the younger version of Rocky than the aging fighter from the recent film. There's plenty of source material to work with here, with plenty of clips and characters from the films. The problem is that all that great material hangs on a poorly designed fighting system, which makes the time spent in the ring much less engaging than the time spent out of it.
In Rocky Balboa, you can reenact several memorable fights from the movies. The closest thing the game has to a career mode is the historical fights mode, which lets you fight as Rocky in 20 fights spanning all six movies. Each of these fights is precluded by a short film clip to introduce the respective fight, but beyond that there's little context for each bout. Unless you've memorized the movies and know the setup and outcome of each fight beforehand, all of these matches will feel disconnected and meaningless. On the plus side, if you are a Rocky fan, you'll see the familiar faces of fighters like Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago, and you'll get to beat the tar out of them.
In addition to the historical fights, you can engage in an exhibition match and play as any of the more than two dozen characters in the game. However, many of those characters are just different versions of the same person, so for instance, you can pit the 30-year-old Rocky from Rocky against the retirement-aged Rocky from Rocky Balboa. There's also a fast lane mode, which is a series of timed challenges with specific objectives to be met. There are 90 of these in all, and the objectives range from knocking down an opponent in less than one minute to winning a full fight in less than 10 minutes.
There are plenty of fights to be found in Rocky Balboa, but unfortunately the fighting system fails to capture the excitement or satisfaction of a hard-fought bout. The problem is the fighting controls, which are needlessly complex and often unresponsive. You can throw jabs and hooks by pressing the four face buttons on the PSP, but if you want to throw uppercuts or special punches, you have to hold the analog stick in a certain direction and then hit a combination of buttons. These combos aren't always responsive, and often you'll try to throw a punch three or four times before your fighter actually takes the right swing.
Of course, there's more to boxing than punching, but you wouldn't know that by playing Rocky Balboa. Fundamentals like footwork and defense are completely lost here. For one, you have to move around to regain stamina, but you can't move and fight at the same time, so if you do try to move, you'll often end up with a face full of leather. Another problem is that there's no block button. Instead, you have to hold the analog stick up or down to raise or lower your guard, or leave it in the neutral position for a basic block. The system isn't very responsive, and it's often difficult to tell if you're blocking at all. You can lean by holding the R button and moving the analog stick, which works fairly well but still results in you standing there with your feet planted just waiting for your opportunity to attack, making for a boring fight.
As you absorb and deliver punches, your health bar will occasionally start flashing, which indicates that your fighter is about to get moody. If you land a specific punch at this time (conveniently indicated onscreen), you'll go into a power-mood mode, where your punches hit harder and have a higher likelihood of landing than normal. While in a power mood, you can knock down an opponent with a full health bar by simply landing three or four punches. Enemies are also prone to these mood swings, and when you're on the other end of an unavoidable series of punches that knocks you down out of the blue, the entire power-mood system feels frustrating and cheap. You can put an end to an opponent's power mood by punching him, but it doesn't always work and is often difficult to pull off before taking a trip to the canvas. Thanks to these power moves, you'll see a lot of falls during the average fight, and it's not uncommon to see each fighter fall five or six times in a single bout.
If you're sick of cheap knockouts by the computer-controlled opponents, you can play the game via an ad hoc connection with a friend who also has a copy of the game. As you might expect, the only available mode is a single exhibition match, but you can set some basic rules such as the number and duration of rounds, as well as whether or not to use the three-knockdown rule. With such a clumsy fighting system, the multiplayer game isn't much of an improvement over the single-player.
The game does at least look good. The boxers are all accurately modeled and nicely detailed, and they move fairly well, although each one only has a few canned animations. The characters look accurate down to Ivan's creepy, expressionless stare and Clubber's hilariously dated haircut. There are 18 different venues in which to fight, and they look good and are about as varied as boxing rings could possibly be. The audio commentary that accompanies each fight is well delivered, if repetitive, and although there's no voice work from the actors, the famous Rocky theme song is included here.
As a game about the Rocky movies, Rocky Balboa does have its charm; as a boxing game, it leaves much to be desired. The fighting system is weak and lifeless, which makes the source material feel wasted. With its poor controls and lack of features, Rocky Balboa shouldn't be your first choice for a boxing game on the PSP.