Rating: ★★★★☆

Boxing is a hell of a sport. MMA has become ridiculously popular recently, but there really isn’t anything like professional boxing. For videogames, boxing is simpler. Just using the arms to punch requires much less button pressing and control than kicking, grappling, etc. Boxing also is also romanticized in a way. It’s a gentleman’s sport; two men get in a ring, wear gloves and fight with only their hands. As intense as it may be, it’s no brawl.

And that’s why Fight Night is on the iPhone.

Fight Night Champion, recently released across all major consoles, hit the iPhone last week with a left hook and an awful pun. Not only is Fight Night on the iPhone a complete boxing game with a single-player campaign and an instant-fight mode, it also includes local multiplayer (via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi) with all of the 22 characters across six different famous venues, from South Africa to Staples Center.

Right off the bat I wanted to see the fighters. The greats are there: Mohammad Ali, George Forman, Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis and more. 22 fighters for an iPhone game is impressive, each with his own fighting style, strengths, weaknesses, and signature moves and personalities. What’s most impressive is the level of detail on these fighters. Their faces are easily recognizable, and they don’t all look like lumpy figures. They are cut, athletic, and properly represented down to the tattoos with high precision.

The precision in graphics is incredible with the tattoos…but poor with blood splatter

Visually, these characters are stunning for an iPhone game. The venues are well built, each with a simple signature to call its own. Punches are fluid and solid, as are reactions to punches, both blocks, hits and stumbles. Occasionally the ragdoll physics will make a knocked down character hang on the ropes or not fall down completely, but that’s all. The only slight to this stunning imagery is the detail of cuts. In-game, they’re small but noticeable enough to take advantage of. On closer inspection, through replays, these patches of blood are just that, patches. They only match in color.

Considering the touchscreen-only controls, there’s a good reason we haven’t seen many fighting games on the iOS platform yet. Fighting games require lots of buttons and even more commands. Boxing is even more difficult because each arm has three punch types: jab/cross, hook and uppercut. There are also holds and blocks, and each of these must work for both arms and for head and body shots, as well as the strength of the punches thrown. Finally, there are illegal hits and signature moves, the best punch a fighter has.

The fine team at EA Sports has done a tremendous job at making all of these commands work on the handheld without being overwhelming. As you can see on the diagram above, the screen has four quadrants: left-head, left-body, right-head and right-body. Tapping any of these quadrants gives a jab/cross, swiping towards the screen from either side gives a hook, and sliding up or down on either side gives an uppercut. Blocks are done by holding down with two fingers on the screen, grabs by swiping from the top corners to the bottom center, and signature moves is a slide from the top left-bottom center-top right.

Sound’s complicated, I know, but because the actual movement– to some extent – mimic real punches, it only takes about one 3-round fight to get used to. Each fight begins with a loading screen and a simple list of all the moves, just in case. And the control scheme works excellently. Throw whatever type of punch you like in any combination, and so long as the other guy doesn’t knock you off course, that’s exactly what your fighter will do. Jab-cross-hook, jab-jab-uppercut, you name it.

What is a sad bit is that haymakers are all slow commands, literally requiring a charge to throw. Hold down until two rings glow under your thumb and the haymaker is ready. A more appropriate method would make sure haymakers could be done in conjunction with combinations. There is never an opportunity to get a few good shots in a row and finish it off with a good knock to the teeth.

The in-game recovery gives players a choice of how to spend their well-earned points

That, of course, is part of the “videogame” problem. As a game, both players have health and endurance bars, signifying how much damage has been taken (or how close they are to getting knocked down) and how strength they have left. An unshown damage bar is also in Fight Night, only visible between rounds when spending earned points to heal up any of the three bars. Damage of course shows on the face as cuts, so even during the fight you can see it. But unfortunately it all revolves around health and damage. Too much health taken and the fighter can get knocked down, and after enough times won’t get back up. Too much damage and the referee will end the fight and call it a TKO. There’s no wailing on a guy or getting a lucky hit to turn out the lights.

If there were however, gameplay would be very different. Most players will just trade blow for blow, move their characters back and forth by turning their iPhones or iPods (movement is controlled through the accelerometer), the more experienced fighters will block and counter occasionally and use combinations. I imagine a great deal of fun could be had with the chance to get a seven-hit combination, ending with a haymaker, that puts all but the hardest opponents down, but if the same could happen to you, it wouldn’t be as fun.

We can’t forget EA’s excessive attention to ring girls, and their very bouncy ways

The Legacy mode, Fight Night’s version of a boxing campaign, is smart but lacks fundamental growth. Players can build their own or select a real boxer and earn skills through fighting to the top, but “training” is nothing more than selecting what traits you’d like to improve and saying whether to do basic training, harder or aggressive training. The harder it is, the riskier it is and the higher the chance players will lose skill points instead of gaining them. Training is entirely disappointing. If there were an actual training ground, on a punching bag or completing some task in the gym to earn those points, that would be fine. But randomly handing out points is frustrating. My character lost more points in training than he’s earned. At a certain point, fights become too one-sided, no matter how good you are.

There’s a lot to be impressed with in Fight Night Champion. I am disappointed about the character classes. Only two light heavyweights and three middleweights, compared to seven welterweights and ten heavyweights. That should be more spread out, even if players enjoy fighting with the bigger guys. However, for 10-20 minutes at a time and perhaps longer, Fight Night Champion is one of the most intense and enjoyable game experiences to be had on the iPhone. Anyone serious about gaming should get it.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.