Although the App Store has been host to a handful of boxing games (and I’ve tried most of them if not all), until now I haven’t seen a title which translates the “sweet science” to the iOS platform in a satisfying way. And even though EA Sports’ “Fight Night Champion” isn’t quite perfect, it still manages to be a very enjoyable game, and one that proves that this genre is entirely possible within the unique set of challenges and development parameters which iOS gaming provides.
Previous boxing titles for iPhone have usually been Punchout-style, cartoony types of games whose gameplay revolved more on memorizing enemy patterns than on dynamic, real-time responses to the opponent’s attacks, and on executing well-timed combos and power shots. When the emphasis has been placed on realism with other previous iOS boxing titles (which has been fairly rare), the controls and enemy AI have been lackluster at best. And obviously, you can’t have a good fighting game without adequate controls and with computer opponents who possess all the cunning and savagery of a sock puppet. However, Fight Night rises far above the rest of the pack, by translating the robust control system of the console titles to iOS, allowing for a wide range of movement, blocking, and attacks. This transition, from a dual-stick controller to the confines of a small touch-screen, presents its own set of challenges which the control system must compensate for; however the developers have done an admirable job in porting the Fight Night experience to the touch-screen. Players who have spent some time with a Fight Night title on a home console system will undoubtedly have an easier time picking up this game’s controls than will the uninitiated, but despite a moderate learning curve, these are controls which any user can master in a few sessions.
Basically, the controls work like this: The left and right half of your screen control each respective fist of your boxer. A tap will make your fighter throw a jab or a cross, either low or high depending on if you tap the top or bottom half of the screen. Hooks are initiated by swiping horizontally in the quadrant of the screen which corresponds to where you are trying to attack, whereas uppercuts are accomplished with a vertical swipe. Moving your fighter around the ring is done by tilting your iDevice in the corresponding direction. You block by holding both thumbs on either the upper or lower half of the screen, and lean into your blocks by sliding both thumbs in the direction you wish to lean. The leaning is a little awkward, and definitely takes some getting used to. It also makes it a little unnecessarily hard to successfully parry your opponent’s attack, meaning that a superior offense will usually be your best defense. On the whole though, the controls work remarkably well, and accommodate a variety of possible boxing styles which you may wish to employ. Just don’t count on being able to reliably pull off parry/counterattack moves without a lot of practice (but don’t worry, you can still inflict some punishment.)
Controls That Work: This is really the number one requirement on this platform, especially for a fighting game. Although I wouldn’t call the controls exactly seamless, I believe the developers have done the best job possible in making the control scheme work on this platform. It takes a bit to get used to, but with just a little perseverance I was able to get into the swing of things and hold my own. After two or three fights I was putting combos together and sucker-punching my opponents with haymakers quite satisfyingly.
Dynamic Brawling: To me, the fun of Fight Night titles has always been that they entail concentration and endurance, along with the ability to react to your opponent in the moment. Although it’s possible to come out of the gates swinging and achieve quick knockouts in some matches, for the most part you’re going to have to withstand a few rounds toe-to-toe with another fighter. The constant back and forth of trying to avoid your enemy’s attacks while looking for their openings with varied attacks is simultaneously exhilarating and hypnotically relaxing. In my best, most intense fights, I find myself slipping into a sort of Zen state. This isn’t to say the game is any cake walk. Even on easy difficulty the enemy AI is nicely engaging, and the level of skill required ramps up appropriately on medium and hard.
Satisfyingly Visceral: Although Fight Night Champion is probably not going to end up being that one game you show off to all your friends because its graphics are so amazing, they’re still pretty good. Fighters get bruised and banged up progressively over the course of the fight, and the character models look adequately realistic but not awesomely beautiful in their level of detail. There are twenty boxers in all, along with the ability to create your own customized fighter. The eighteen fighters based on real-life boxers look enough like their actual counterparts that it shouldn’t upset any purists, and there are enough options on the character creation menu that you can… sort of get your boxer to look how you want. The sound is satisfying, with your harder shots producing a nice hearty thud on your opponent. The prerecorded fight commentary (voiced by the venerable Joe Tessitore) is a little bland, but there’s a good bit of variety to the commentator’s script, and you can always turn him off in the audio options if the play-by-play gets irksome after a while.
Janky Training Mode: Even as hard-hitting a game as this one (get it?) is not without its occasional missteps and sloppy shots. And the slipshod training mode, which the game puts you through before each and every fight in career mode, is probably the most egregious of the small handful of blemishes on an otherwise great boxing game. Rather than on the console versions of Fight Night, where your performance in rhythm-based mini-games dictates the stat boosts which your boxer receives for training, the training in Fight Night Champion on iOS is entirely menu-based. Essentially, you choose whether to focus on increasing your fighter’s power, speed, or a balanced mixture of the two attributes. Then you select whether to train normally, confidently, or aggressively. Essentially, if you train normally you will have a 100% success rate, but you will only gain small stat boosts from each session. Confident training gives greater bonuses, but with more risk of failure (which will lower your fighter’s stats in the areas you were trying to improve). Aggressive training brings the greatest risks as well as the highest rewards.
So, what’s the problem with all this? Well, essentially all you have to do in order to always gain the highest boost possible is reboot the Fight Night app, without advancing to the next screen after you fail a training. Just rinse and repeat until you succeed. This makes it so there is essentially no reason to use the confident or normal training modes, as long as you’re willing to waste some time fiddling around with rebooting the app and going through the menus to return to your training session. I don’t know if I just have an amoral streak, wherein I’m compelled to juke the stats of any game which presents me the opportunity to do so… But I found this aspect of the game really annoying (since it wasted time I could have spent playing), and simultaneously unavoidable (since I’d be damned if I was going to accept subpar performances from my boxers). It’s a relatively small nitpick, if you look at the larger picture and how enjoyable the game is despite this. But it seems to me that the developers should have either eschewed the training sessions altogether, or found a way to provide them with greater depth and not make them so easy to cheat on.
Limited Compatibility for Older Devices: Here’s another bummer: The game will not run, period, on first-generation devices. And on second-generation devices, like my iPod Touch, the game runs smoothly… But does not support head-to-head multiplayer. Like, at all. Frankly, I can understand why this was possible, since I’m pretty sure the processors of the older devices in question simply aren’t up to these tasks. I’m a little amazed that the game runs beautifully on my iPod Touch 2G, but I still wish I could take on my friends for some Bluetooth or Wifi matches. This, to me, is a significant gripe, but all things considered the game is still worth the asking price if you are looking for a technical, in-depth fighting game on your iOS device.
All things considered, Fight Night Champion is well worth your time and money, provided that you’re willing to adjust to the learning curve and you’re looking for a fighting game that rewards persistence and technique over lightning-fast blitzkrieg victories and ridiculous special moves. Personally, between this title and “Street Fighter IV,” my iOS fighting game itch is good and scratched for the time being.