Jab. Duck. Uppercut. Repeat.
As a sport, boxing is pretty straightforward. Oh, sure, it has its rules and nuances, but in the end it’s really about two guys hitting each other ’til one is forced to stop. Maybe that’s why, culturally, it’s become more than just another sport. It’s become a metaphor. We talk about how we’re “on the ropes” or “down for the count.” We tell our kids how important it is to get back up when life knocks us down.
Hollywood, for its part, can’t get enough boxing, plumbing its gritty depths in everything from Requiem for a Heavyweight to Rocky to The Fighter. The sport’s themes are so resonant and, in a way, so universal that more folks watch boxing movies than boxing matches. You just can’t get that sort of narrative resonance out of, say, badminton.
Fight Night Champion, EA Sport’s newest ring contender—and its first M-rated release—tries to give gamers a taste of both the sport and the metaphor. For the first time in the Fight Night series, the game includes a storyline—and it sinks players into a corrupt, brutal underworld that (allegedly) lurks behind what we see on ESPN.
As its rating attests, the results are decidedly mixed.
Bob and Weave
In the game’s Champion mode, gamers step into the shoes of Andre Bishop, a talented fighter who falls afoul of a crooked promoter. The first time we meet the boxer he’s in prison for an unspecified crime, taking on tattooed skinheads for jailhouse pride. He wins his first fight in the big house (assuming you’re skilled enough to help him do it) but gets ambushed afterward and has his right hand broken. For most would-be ring-kings, the one-two punch of jail time and a crushed fist would spell a certain KO.
Not for Andre. As his manager tells him via foggy flashback, “That’s what champions do, Andre. They get back up.” And we begin to see better days for the fighter—both ahead and, courtesy of some flashback fights, behind.
Fight Night Champion has earned raves from many game critics, in large part because of its gritty, harrowing storyline. Though gamers can zip through the Champion mode in just a few hours, the narrative packs a wallop. Through it all, Andre tries to make (mostly) the right decisions—albeit while staying true to the game’s incredibly violent ethos.
Though he spends five years in the clink for a crime he didn’t commit, the boxer doesn’t wallow in bitterness; he moves on with his life and sets aside his own failed aspirations to help his brother (also a fighter). And when Andre’s given another shot inside the ring, he’s grateful—and determined to make the most of his second chance.
Andre’s most questionable decision comes near the end of the game when he takes a dive and loses to an opponent. But even then he has good intentions: He doesn’t throw the match to make a quick buck. Rather, Andre knew the fight meant far more to his opponent than it did to him.
It’s easy to get sucked into this virtual boxing world, whether playing as Andre, a top fighter from yesteryear or one of your own creation. And like the sport itself, Fight Night Champion is easy to grasp. punches can be thrown by flicking a joystick rather than fiddling with complicated button combos, and gameplay is largely instinctive. In Legend mode, gamers guide their fighter through bouts, training sessions and even sponsorship duties on his way to the title—a rewarding path that could culminate in him being dubbed the Greatest Of All Time. And if players just want to whittle away a little time with friends, they can face off against each other in the skin of true boxing legends. Ali/Frazier rematch, anyone?
Indeed, the entire game strives to feel realistic. And that, frankly, is a big part of its problem.
Whenever a fighter gets walloped with a knockout punch, gamers are treated to gratuitous, slow-motion replays (realistically rendered and viewable from several different angles). You see blood splash and hear bones crunch. Fighters’ clothes are sometimes stained with each other’s hemoglobin. It’s almost as if the “Sweet Science” has been distilled down to dissection day in biology class.
Well, maybe there’s a little anatomy sprinkled in there, too. The fights take place in real time, which means gamers are subjected to as much as a minute between rounds of “ring girls” (again, very realistically animated) prancing about in bikinis, tight leather dresses, etc.
Andre and his female manager sometimes swap ogles. Villainous opponents lie, cheat and treat each other with disdain. There a bit of bathroom “humor.” And prison is portrayed as a place rife with racial tensions (with loads of accompanying slurs). But perhaps the game’s biggest content issue is its unrelenting obscenity. Characters use the f-word and s-word with rigorous regularity. The soundtrack is peppered with profanity as well.
Fight Night Champion’s selling point is the very thing it prides itself in: authenticity that comes branded with an M rating. But that “realism” is a very real drawback for discerning gamers looking to just swap a pugilist’s punch or two with friends or digital opponents. This game isn’t just about jabs and haymakers, fancy footwork and rope-a-dopes. It’s about crooked promoters and skinheads, buxom ring girls and foul language.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.