My father passed away when I was nine years old, but I still remember fondly watching Friday afternoon boxing matches with him on TSN (Canada’s only Sports dedicated network at the time). He was a huge boxing fan and I strongly believe that he would have loved for me to pursue the sport in some regard. While I didn’t ever actively seek out to learn/play the sport, I do still enjoy watching boxing fights whenever I can and have a strong fondness for boxing games.
Which is surprising since I initially skipped on Fight Night Champion when it was released back in early 2011. Although I played the basic fighting aspect of the game, which still feels a lot like previous Fight Night releases albeit with a simpler right analog punching system, I never got around to playing the game’s Champion Mode. I regret that decision after having already gone through half the campaign.
People, especially those who don’t play sports games generally complain about two things regarding the genre: 1) each subsequent edition only marginally improves upon the previous game (eg. “roster updates”) and 2) they don’t take chances and/or innovate.
The improvement/change in the way the right analog stick is used could fall into the category that very little has changed. On the other hand, Fight Night Champion does offers something different. The game’s Champion mode is unlikely anything most people have experienced in a traditional sports game: include an engaging storyline.
Technically this isn’t the first sports title to offer a story mode. Back when Midway resurrected the Blitz franchise, they included a story mode to the game’s single-player campaign. It wasn’t anything spectacular; it prolonged the game’s experience but it was quickly forgotten. That isn’t the case in Fight Night Champion.
Here, you play as Andre Bishop, an up-and-coming boxer and go through his up-and-down path to boxing glory. You begin the campaign having just been knocked down while taking part in a prison sanctioned boxing match. It isn’t explained why you’re there in the first place but your goal at the moment is to finish the fight.
This first fight is pretty easy, especially if you are already familiar with the nuances of the Fight Night franchise. On the other hand, newcomers might be a bit put off since the notifications that appear on the bottom right of the screen don’t give you a great idea on what you’re expected to do. While serviceable, those who are playing for the first time will want to avoid continuing the campaign and head over to the tutorial mode in order to learn what is needed to win fights.
After the fight, there is a brief and fairly graphic cut-scene in the prison showers and then you travel back in time four years to your breakthrough fight, the finals of an amateur boxing tournament. Here, you fight off against the 9-time defending champion in a points based match. Unlike professional boxing which is scored by three judges, amateur boxing matches are based solely on points earned on punches landed. Your goal here is either to knock your opponent out or land the most punches in the four rounds.
Like the initial fight, this one is not much of a challenge if you fight smart. Additionally, knowing that it is a point based fight has you using a different strategy in comparison to professionally-sanctioned fights. Your victory leads you to go pro and fighting against a series of other fighters in the hopes of eventually earning a title fight.
Of course, simply taking part in fight after fight wouldn’t be the reason why the story mode is so interesting. We did start the game in prison, so something had to have happened to lead us there. All while making your move up the boxing ranks, a shady promoter and manager, D.L. McQueen has been actively trying to get you to sign with him. He is currently the man behind the leading Heavyweight contender but feels that you could also benefit from his services.
But your trainer, Gus won’t have any part of what McQueen has to offer. Although only briefly touched upon, McQueen had previously tried to help Bishop’s father, also an aspiring boxer, earn himself a title fight. Although he never got the chance, having died along with his wife in an unexplained accident, it leads us to believe that perhaps McQueen may have had something to do it.
There are few characters in the story. Outside of Andre Bishop, D.L. McQueen and Gus Carisi, we also have McQueen’s daughter Megan, Andre’s younger brother Raymond and the future heavyweight champion Isaac Frost. Megan is introduced as McQueen’s first choice to be Andre’s manager. She’s new to the business and he thinks that she could use Andre has a solid stepping stone in becoming a successful manager. While you can see there is some chemistry between her and Andre, Gus’ absolute dislike of her father prevents her from getting the job. As for Raymond, he too is an aspiring boxer. While Andre is making his way up the middleweight ranks, Raymond has the potential to be a contender in the heavyweight division.
With Andre’s quick rise, which includes him being showcased on a few segments of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights, the tension between him and McQueen eventually lead to his incarceration. At about the halfway point of the story mode, we return to current day and see Andre have to first off survive in prison and then try to potentially make a comeback, this time as a heavyweight fighter like his brother and Isaac Frost.
At the half-way point of the story, EA has done a great job at keeping you engaged. Fights and cut-scenes work at a great pace and keep you going. Although having reached this stage at the mode in just under 90 minutes, the way we have experienced different types of matches from the amateur points-based fights to no-rules prison fights has been really enjoyable. Sports fans have complained in the past that fighting career modes are too vanilla and this is far from that. Now as we enter the second half of the story, moving into a different weight class and having to crawl your way back through the ranks should be quite the thrill.
On top of commending EA Canada’s decision to feature a career mode with a strong narrative, I like that they didn’t hold anything back. Almost everything goes; there is a lot of swearing, even some racist talk (although the n-word isn’t uttered, they do call the white supremacists in prison “crackers”) and there is a lot of graphic violence, including some really brutal moments while in prison. While I don’t expect the same brutality, there should still be plenty of situations that will keep us wanting to push the story further to its conclusion.