A little under two years ago, Ubisoft published Rocky, a boxing game based on the famous film franchise that starred Sylvester Stallone as a Philadelphian boxer who rose up from the streets to become the unlikeliest of champions. While it certainly would have made for another good underdog story had this seemingly ill-fitting, film-licensed game turned out to be a champion among boxing titles, it sadly wasn't, thanks to a few blatant gameplay exploits and some rather shoddy graphics, which dragged the game down. In 2004, Ubisoft is giving the Rocky license another go with Rocky: Legends for the PS2 and Xbox. Legends manages to do pretty much what a sequel should do, correcting a lot of the first title's flaws and adding a number of new features. Unfortunately, Legends is still not an especially noteworthy boxing game, but for serious fans of the Rocky films, the game does have its worthwhile moments.
Rocky: Legends is an arcade boxer through and through. If you're expecting anything like Fight Night 2004, taper your expectations immediately, because this game offers nowhere near that game's level of depth. As far as the mechanics go, the four face buttons on the controller are used for your basic right and left high jabs and low jabs. By pressing up or down on the analog stick while pressing one of the face buttons, you'll perform a hook punch. And depending on what version of the game you're playing, by holding down the R1 button or the right trigger button while pressing one of the face buttons, you'll perform an uppercut. You can also use the L1 or left trigger buttons in conjunction with the left analog stick to perform blocks and dodges to counter your opponent's punches. The game's combo system is simplistic, in that it simply relies on orderings of button presses, and not much else. If you can memorize the proper button-tap sequences, Rocky: Legends quickly becomes a breeze on the default difficulty. That is not to say that this game is a simple button masher, as you will have to keep your punch and combo variety up throughout a match to be successful, but once you get the actual combos down, causing large amounts of damage quickly becomes a basic exercise.
Rocky: Legends isn't too far off from the previous game in terms of gameplay mechanics, but a big difference comes in the way of artificial intelligence. In the original Rocky, it was possible to win every single match by taking advantage of the dopey opponent boxers and some unfortunate glitches, which allowed you to simply jab your way to victory. The good news is that these really blatant exploits are gone. Each computer-controlled boxer behaves somewhat differently depending on his skills and personality, but nearly all of them manage to act at least fairly intelligently during a match. They back off at the right times and attempt to circle around you to work the proper angles, and they adapt to your style of boxing as rounds progress, forcing you to change up your methodology as you play. The issue with animation glitches seems to be almost totally gone, although, in a couple of matches we did notice that we were able to get opponents into a few jab-based punch loops, and we got in a good five or six shots simply because our opponent couldn't recover quickly enough. It doesn't happen often and it can't be abused as much as it could be before, because eventually the CPU will find a way to get out of it. So, ultimately, this issue is not a deal breaker.
Legends features a significantly higher number of playable boxers than its predecessor, each and every one of which was either featured, or at least mentioned in one of the Rocky films. Everybody from Ivan Drago to Tommy Gunn is here, and they're fully playable (though many of them must be unlocked). There are a few modes of play in Legends, including a quick exhibition match, a championship tournament mode, a basic survival mode, and a career mode, which is definitely the most interesting mode in the game. The first Rocky game only let you play as the Italian Stallion himself, and it spanned all five of the Rocky movies. In this mode you can pick from four of the main feature boxers in the game, including Rocky himself, Carl Weathers' Apollo Creed, Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago, and Mr. T's Clubber Lang.
Each storyline gives you some brief insight into how each fighter got his start. You'll get to see Clubber work his way from incarceration to championship contender and you'll learn of Ivan Drago's military beginnings. The cool thing about the storylines for the non-Rocky characters is that the endings provide sort of an alternate history to each movie in which the boxers were featured. What would happen if Clubber Lang beat Rocky once and for all? Well, now you'll know. However, the unfortunate downside to the career mode is that there isn't a whole lot of story outside of a few cutscenes that show up from time to time. You still get a decent sense of plot from these scenes, but the stories would have been a lot more effective had they been expounded upon a bit more.
The other neat thing about the career mode is that it progresses a lot more like a realistic boxing ladder, with boxer rankings ranging from the champion level to the 25th ranked. You obviously start at the bottom, and from there, you can pick your opponents from within a few ladder ranks above you. You're also given a certain number of months to train for a fight. Training comes in the form of minigames, which you can play to upgrade your boxer's attributes. Want to increase your boxer's speed? There's a speedbag minigame to do it. Want to increase his stamina? There's a jump rope game for that. There's even the chicken-chasing exercise from Rocky II to take part in. The minigames typically involve rhythm game mechanics or some timing-based button mashing, and all of them are simple, yet fun little distractions. Better still, all of them can be played in a separate mode outside of the career mode.
If there's any serious criticism to be mounted against Rocky Legends' gameplay and game modes, it's that the game just doesn't necessarily hold up well over time. Once you've played through all four career modes, unlocked the assorted boxers, arenas, and other random doodads, and played through the various minigames a few times (all this can be done in a day or two worth of play), there's not much here worth coming back to, as playing against the computer over and over again just gets dull soon enough. Legends does stand up better from a multiplayer angle, but the game lacks any online component, so unless you're able to get friends to come over and play, you're kind of out of luck.
The original Rocky's graphics left quite a lot to be desired, and while Legends' graphics are an improvement, they aren't that much better. On the plus side, Legends does feature some pretty impressive damage modeling. Repeated blows to the face and body will reveal progressive bruising and bloodying that, while perhaps a bit over the top, still look pretty cool. You'll also see some nice particle effects flying off of opponents, especially when you knock them down, as the game will go into slow-motion during this point and you will get some nice angles on the crippling blows. The animation in the game is mostly decent, if a bit stiff at times. Character models are a little better than in the previous game, with a little more detail and polish all around. However, they still look disproportionately built, with larger than normal heads and slightly smallish bodies. It's unclear whether this is a stylistic choice or just poor modeling, but either way, it looks weird.
Though not unexpected, Legends disappointingly does not feature any of the original actors from the films voicing their characters. No one would necessarily expect the developers to go out and get Sly Stallone, and hey, Burgess Meredith has been dead for years, but seriously, was Mr. T really too busy? What's Dolph Lundgren doing right now to prevent him from spending a few hours in a recording booth? Fortunately, the voice actors who fill in for the originals are largely competent, with only a couple of bad spots here and there. Most of the original Rocky music is in the game--except for the notable omission of "Eye of the Tiger." Furthermore, the game makes nice use of its music, especially during fights. If you get worn down, or wear an opponent down to a low health level, the dramatic score will fade in, adding an air of importance to the fight. Unfortunately, the in-game sound effects are not nearly as impressive. Some of the punch effects sound downright cheap, and the crowd effects tend to loop to an extremely obvious degree.
There's no doubt that Rocky: Legends is a better game than its predecessor, but it's still a tough game to recommend to anyone but the biggest fans of the Rocky film franchise. The boxing mechanics, while occasionally enjoyable, become practically automatic after a couple of trips through the career mode. And while the career mode itself is cool, it could have benefited from more in the way of story. Plus, when you factor in the still generally unimpressive graphics and sound and lack of online, it all adds up to a game that's decent, but unremarkable. At any rate, if you're big on Rocky or you are desperate for a new arcade boxing game, Legends is worth a rental.