Regardless of how much time you've spent with the Fight Night Champion demo, or with previous Fight Night games, your first act in EA Sports' latest boxing sim is to pick yourself up off the floor after getting knocked down. You are fictional boxer Andre Bishop, and you're fighting against a heavily tattooed skinhead in front of your fellow prison inmates in the new story-driven Champion mode. Make it through that fight, which also serves as a decent tutorial, and you then have the option to either continue Bishop's story or check out other modes reminiscent of those in Fight Night Round 4. Wherever you go you'll find that Fight Night Champion improves upon its already-great predecessor in mostly minor but meaningful ways.
Upon entering the ring for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fight Night Champion is a mindless slugfest. That's not only because it's easy to throw an unrealistically high number of punches simply by flicking the right analog stick (or pressing the face buttons, if you prefer), but also because you might not yet realize the importance of defending, countering, and conserving your stamina. You might enjoy some success spamming punches on the easiest of the four difficulty levels or against inexperienced opponents online, but you need to master both the offensive and defensive controls to make it through Champion mode or to make a name for yourself elsewhere. Fortunately there's nothing complicated about the controls, and even if you've been reluctant to throw your punches using the right analog stick in previous games you might want to give it a try this year. Previous Fight Night games have required you to rotate the stick with some precision to throw different types of punches, but here those same straights, overhands, hooks, and uppercuts are simply mapped to different directions, so you're far less likely to throw the wrong punch. It's an intuitive system, and when used in conjunction with shoulder button modifiers for body punches and more powerful shots, it affords you easy access to a formidable repertoire.
The defensive controls used for blocking, leaning, and clinching are similarly uncomplicated, though it's only through practice that you can get a feel for the timing that's needed to open your opponent up for powerful counterpunching opportunities. You might have no intention of playing Fight Night Champion as a counterpuncher, but after being on the receiving end of a few counters (AI opponents are quick to punish you if you leave yourself exposed), you'll be compelled to add them to your own arsenal. You need to use every move at your disposal to succeed in Fight Night Champion, and that's especially true in Champion mode, where story events often force you to adapt your fighting style to different rules or situations. For example, early on your fights in prison don't end until only one of you is left standing, while the flashback fights at the amateur world championships are points-based. And once you turn pro, all manner of obstacles are thrown your way to keep the action from becoming repetitive. In one fight you hurt yourself anytime you use a broken hand, and in the next you have to knock out your opponent with the same hand to prove to everyone that it's healed, for example. Other memorable fights include one in which a crooked referee has been paid off to rule all of your body shots as low blows, and another that you spend protecting a cut near your eye.
There's no shortage of drama in Champion mode, and while Bishop's story is riddled with Rocky-esque cliches, it's still entertaining for as long as it takes you to reach the requisite final fight against a dangerous rival. How long that takes can vary a great deal depending on how quickly you're able to win fights, but it should be at least five or six hours before you step into the ring as Andre Bishop for the last time if you're playing at an appropriate difficulty level. Most of the storytelling is done via well-voiced dialogue in great-looking cutscenes, with extra flavor during fights coming courtesy of ESPN's ringside announcers Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas as well as your trainer. The former are occasionally amusing and mostly accurate with their observations, and they even go so far as to comment on your performances in previous fights. The latter, whom you sadly don't always get to hear from between rounds, often has sound advice for you and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to letting you know how he feels the fight is progressing. Impressively, the announcers and trainer do their jobs just as well outside of the scripted Champion mode, though in Legacy mode the former are accurate only a little more often than a stopped clock when it comes to detailing the result of your previous fight.
If you played Fight Night Round 4's Legacy mode, then you already have a good idea of what to expect from it in Fight Night Champion. You schedule fight after fight for your created boxer, and juggle training, rest periods, and obligations to sponsors and the like between fights. Some improvements have been made, but the career structure is unchanged, and training minigames--though less frustrating than their counterparts in Round 4--are still a necessary evil. Tedious training minigames aside, there's a lot of fun to be had creating a custom boxer (you can use one of more than 70 licensed and Champion mode boxers if you prefer) and then developing him into a champion, a Hall of Famer, or even the greatest of all time. Creation tools are every bit as powerful as those in other EA Sports games and afford you the freedom to customize your boxer's appearance using photos taken with your console's camera, digital photos uploaded to the EA Sports website, as well as dozens of different sliders. It's still not easy to put a realistic likeness of yourself into the game, but with a little patience you can certainly come up with a boxer that's recognizable as you--at least from the neck up. And once you're done perfecting your pretty boy, you have an opportunity to tailor his skill set so that the face you just spent so much time getting right doesn't become a showpiece for Fight Night Champion's excellent damage and blood effects. (Blood even sprays out of cuts and shows up on the fighters, on their shorts, and on the mat.)
It's probably a good idea to play at least a handful of fights before creating a boxer for Legacy mode because that way you'll have some idea of your preferred style. Choosing the correct style from the seven available for your boxer during the creation process doesn't lock you into fighting that way for your entire career, but it has an impact both on your starting skills and on how many experience points it costs to upgrade different skills as you progress. For example, if you make an "inside fighter," you already have some good hooks and uppercuts at your disposal as your career gets under way, but your straights aren't nearly as powerful and cost a lot to upgrade. Create a "counterpuncher" on the other hand, and you start with a good selection of head shots in your arsenal as well as good blocking, head movement, chin, and heart attributes, but your shots to the body are weak. It's a great system that encourages you to choose a fighting style and stick with it but also gives you the freedom to experiment with different approaches if opponents are making it difficult for you to stick to your game plan.
The experience points used to level up your boxer's skills are earned not only in the various training minigames that you take part in between fights, but also by winning fights and fulfilling challenge criteria while doing so. Fight challenges are an excellent addition to Legacy mode; they award you bonus experience points for taking little damage during fights, scoring a knockdown before a specific round, and even for causing a cut on your opponent. It's not always possible for you to actively pursue these bonuses because just making sure that you win has to take priority, but there's no better feeling in Legacy mode than knocking out an opponent and then realizing that you completed all of the fight challenges before doing so. That way you have even more experience points to spend on skills, which itself is pretty interesting in this year's game.
For the most part, the skills that you level up in Fight Night Champion are specific punches (jab head, right hook head, left uppercut body), and when you spend points on them you can see that you're improving their speed, power, and/or accuracy. What makes the boxer growth screen so compelling is that as you level up your skills and they move closer to the level cap of 20, you hit milestones that unlock significant bonuses and even new abilities for your fighter. For example, at level six many punches gain a chance to stun opponents for a short time, and at level 15 they can score flash knockdowns. If you manage to get one of your punches to level 20--which isn't difficult if you forgo spending your experience in other areas--it becomes possible for you to score a one-punch knockout. It all sounds very artificial, but it doesn't feel that way at all when you climb into the ring because you can rarely get away with throwing the same punch that you've leveled up over and over again, and even if you do, there's no guarantee that you're going to score any kind of stun or knockdown. The action is believable for the most part, and what's most impressive about the fights is that even without the scripted events that add drama in Champion mode, you're never quite sure how they're going to play out.
Even if you always carefully select your next Legacy mode opponent by studying the skill ratings, recent fight histories, and physical attributes of all the guys who are available to fight you, they can still surprise you in the ring. In Fight Night Champion, as in real life, it can take only one punch to turn a fight around, so you can never get too comfortable, and you should never give up. Every fight has the potential to turn into a memorable one, so even if you spend nine rounds getting beaten up pretty badly, there's no reason you can't knock your opponent out in the 10th to claim the win. Similarly, if you score a lucky punch against a superior opponent and manage to cut him early in the fight or maybe cause so much swelling that his eye closes, there's a decent chance that--if you keep targeting the damaged area--the referee will stop the fight and award a technical knockout in your favor.
Referees rarely have much to do in Fight Night Champion, unless you resort to using the head-butts and low blows that are mapped onto the D pad. Regardless, referees now appear in the ring alongside fighters and, for the most part, appear to move around realistically, staying out of the fighters' way and trying to get a good view of what's going on. What's unfortunate is that, at least on the default camera setting, referees have a terrible habit of positioning themselves between the camera and the action, thus obscuring your view. Unhelpful refs aside, the camera does a great job of framing the action and of showing off the impressively detailed fighter models when they sit down in their respective corners. Without exception, the 50-plus licensed boxers are instantly recognizable and look superb, and while created boxers (which can again be shared with other players online) rarely look quite as good, they certainly don't look out of place alongside the likes of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, Jake LaMotta, Marvin Hagler, Ricky Hatton, and Manny Pacquiao, to name but a few. There are, of course, plenty of big names missing from the roster, but players are already creating and sharing likenesses of their favorite fighters complete with customized fighting styles, so even though they're not on the official roster, it's already possible to re-create famous matchups between British middleweights Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, for example. You can even pit Rocky IV's Ivan Drago against Marilyn Manson if you really want to.
Once added to your roster, custom fighters appear alongside both licensed fighters and characters from Champion mode for use in one-off fights locally and online. Fight Night Champion's online offering is similar to that in last year's Round 4. Regular ranked or unranked fights can be found either through an automatic matching system that searches for players of comparable experience, or in lobbies that sort players by skill level and geography. Online gyms serve much the same purpose that clans and guilds do in non-sports games and afford you an opportunity to fight with customized rule sets and gameplay settings while using one of your created fighters. If you're more interested in individual leaderboards than in gym rivalries, you're sure to enjoy the Online World Championship mode. Here, you can compete for belts and titles in light-, middle-, and heavyweight classes secure in the knowledge that, because fighters are all given comparable stats, it's your skill that determines the result rather than the fighters' stats and skills. Should you manage to claim a title, know that there will be no shortage of challenges coming your way because a message pops up on the screen of every other player to let them know when you come online.
Online fights are smooth for the most part, but lag can be an issue on occasion. The lag is never so bad that it's seriously detrimental to the gameplay, but it's unfortunate that lag is present at all because, upon entering a laggy ranked fight, you have only three choices: continue playing, add a loss to your record by not getting up the first time you're knocked down (no thanks), or quit prematurely and gain a "did not finish" (DNF) rating. A DNF might cause other players to avoid you and that makes it harder for you to search for opponents, because you can't search for fights with players who have DNF ratings lower than yours.
Even if online competition doesn't interest you, Fight Night Champion is a great game that has a lot to offer. The story-driven Champion mode is an entertaining addition to the series, and once you get into the Legacy mode you might find that it's hard to put down your controller even after you've spent dozens of hours using the same fighter. And beyond those single-player modes there's a great deal of fun to be had with friends, re-creating memorable matchups and pitting great boxers from different eras against each other in fights that would no doubt have been fascinating in real life. The latest Fight Night might never be remembered as the greatest boxing game of all time, but for right now it's definitely the champion.