Graveyard: Fight Night Champion

Watch your step, for you’ve just entered the Graveyard. Inside, we’ll be digging up games that have long been without a pulse. You’ll see both good and bad souls unearthed every month as we search through the more… forgotten…parts of history.

Since the earliest days of gaming, boxing has been a staple of the industry. Activision had a notable overhead camera-placed game called Boxing, but the technology just couldn’t do justice to the sport itself. The most highly-regarded early boxing game was Punch-Out! in arcades, which morphed into the NES classic that is held so near and dear to everyone’s hearts now. That game took a sport that was on the rise in pop culture and secured the most lucrative licensing deal at the time — Mike Tyson on the rise. Tyson being attached to Punch-out gave the NES incarnation a layer of credibility. But while the Punch-Out series gave fans a more arcade-friendly version of boxing, sim-seeking fans were left out in the cold.

The sweet science couldn’t quite be replicated on older hardware. Buster Douglas Knockout Boxing tried to cash in on Tyson’s loss and delivered a good-looking game, but it played fairly poorly. Games like Legendary Rings sought to cash in on legends, but couldn’t skate by on names alone. In 1998, EA released Knockout Kings on the original PlayStation and that was the best overall console sim that boxing fans had. That series didn’t gain traction until a rebranding to Fight Night. In 2011, EA released not only the greatest boxing simulation ever to that point in Fight Night Champion, but as it stands in 2019, it looks like it might be the last major one on the market.

If that’s the case, then boxing games went out with a bang as Fight Night Champion does justice to the sport in ways that hadn’t been done before. Most boxing games featured a traditional rise up the ranks in order to win. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that design as it fits a sporting competition and the goal being to be the best, but it didn’t do much to make you care about the fighters beyond the journey to the top. Champion opted to give you a journey to the top, but focus more on the fighter and their life outside of the ring.

The story mode follows a young fighter named Andre Bishop as he goes from being violently beaten in jail, where he was framed to get in there to begin with and assaulted before entering. Andre has nothing when his story begins and as time goes on, we see a complex tale play out with corrupt promoters, crooked cops and even Andre’s jealous brother. The game’s release around the time of The Fighter made the battling brother tale a bit more fitting then and it remains a classic tale in part because of sibling rivalries being a timeless problem.

Andre’s climb back to the top is compelling and one of the better attempts the industry has seen at going for a Hollywood movie-esque story in a game. The cutscenes feature realistic facial expressions and the detail in the character models is impressive to this day. Whether you’re looking at them in a cinematic or playing the core game, Fight Night Champion remains an impressive game to simply look at in 2019. EA’s attention to detail extends to things like textures on shorts and gloves, while small touches like clipping when the referee puts his fingers in front of your face after a knockdown, stand as a reminder that no game is truly perfect.

Fight Night Champion features two main control methods. Shoulder and trigger buttons act as modifiers for either stronger, but more tiring strikes or gut shots. You can also grab your foes to stall out the clock towards the end of a round or to simply take a breather after getting rocked from a hard shot that sends you reeling. Low blows and headbutts are possible, but come with point penalties and do offer strategic advantages. While one on its own only won’t do a ton of damage to either area, a headbutt can slice someone open and drain their stamina faster. If you find that you’re facing someone with a big gas tank, then this is a way to drain them a bit and open the door for a victory.

Fight Night Champion’s full spectrum punching control system is what truly sets it apart from most boxing games before. It gives you the ability to just use the right stick and the trigger/bumper setup for your punches. This gives you a more fluid control system and makes it easier to get into a rhythm. When things get heated, you know through muscle memory what stick motions lead to what kind of punches. This can help you turn the tide or just save your bacon during an intense fight. While this control scheme gives you more freedom and helps the overall flow of the fighting feel more organic, however, it does come at a price.

There’s a bit more time needed to use the stick-based punches than a traditional button setup. Fortunately, you can switch back and forth between them as you want. You never have to choose one over the other and you can mix and match as desired. If you feel more natural throwing jabs and hooks with buttons and then throwing uppercuts with a stick, you can do so. This gives you an unreal level of choice during a fight. If you want to fight a more strategic contest, you can do so a bit easier with face buttons as you know exactly when the press will result in a faster hit. If you want a better-flowing fight, however, then stick controls work best.

Fight Night Champion’s visuals are fantastic, but the post-knockdown replays remain something that many games could stand to learn from. EA’s own UFC games don’t allow for this level of camera control and only WWE’s highlight reel feature comes to mind as something that enables players to get so close to the action. Now, with this being an eight year old game, the newer WWE tech does trounce it in terms of camera positioning, but the ultra-close angles do bring you into the action and allow you to be dazzled at just how much work went into crafting things like a sudden liver shot shutting someone down quickly.

The sound effect work drives home the pain too, with resounding thuds combining with the wind to really make each massive punch feel that much more forceful. Play by play comes off as organic and far more realistic than what’s been featured in the more recent UFC and WWE games — especially the latter. Blows are accurately called alongside the round by round updates on who is leading the fight based on ring control and overall strikes landed.

Fight Night Champion is a must for anyone who ever enjoyed a match of boxing. The real-world roster is stacked with legends and this is the best core boxing game out there. The Xbox 360 version is backwards compatible on the Xbox One and is available to buy digitally for only $20. It goes on sale surprisingly often, making it the best overall way to play the game now. It’s a remarkable game for not only its time, but also now and given how quickly gaming graphics have evolved since 2011, it’s an incredible feat to see how well they’ve stood up to the test of time.