Retro Rated: Fight Night 2004

Factfile
Developed by: EA Canada and NuFX, Inc
Published by: EA Sports
Released: 2004
Format played: Playstation 2

Ruminations

Right from the early days of gaming, boxing has been a staple feature. At its core it is a gloriously simple concept, ripe for videogame adaptation; two combatants going head to head. One must stand, one must fall. Early arcade efforts included the likes of King of Boxer. The Spectrum years saw the likes of Barry McGuigan and Frank Bruno, the latter very much aping the success of Nintendo’s Punch Out. The Amiga would see arcade conversions of Final Blow and our old favourite Final Round whilst the CD era would maintain the streak with the likes of Ready to Rumble, Rocky and Mike Tyson.

Across the spectrum of titles and systems, each of these games would offer a different take on the genre. Some Рlike Knockout Kings and Barry McGuigan Рwould offer something approaching a simulation. Others Рlike Ready 2 Rumble Рwould exploit a more comical take on the pugilistic science. But all revolved around the same core mechanic. Whether you operated with a single fire button on the Speccy and Amiga or a multi button arcade cabinet, the result was broadly the same Рbutton presses to represent head shots, body shots, blocks and taunts. EA themselves would enter the ring with their Knockout Kings series. Commencing in 1999 on the PS1, the series would spawn annual incarnations across the PS1, PS2, Xbox and Gamecube until it was put down for the count in 2003

Fight Night 2004 would launch a new boxing franchise for EA. Two PS2 sequels would follow with Rounds 2 and 3 in 2005 and 2006 respectively before the series went next-gen, debuting on PS3 with Round 3 in 2009 before culminating with Champion in 2011.

Second Impressions

Looking back on a PS2 game from 2018 it is impossible for it to hold the same visual flair that it may have held on release. Those polygons that once looked cutting edge now look distinctly blurry compared to the power of PS4 but for all that, Fight Night retains a certain flair.

The game sets its stall out with its roster of real world fighters. Cover star Roy Jones Jr features alongside the likes of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and more, with boxers across all the main weight divisions. Physical representations are pretty decent too, each fighter looking the part and, perhaps more importantly, feeling the part. Ali for instance holds his hands loose, ready to swing from angles whilst the likes of Holyfield or Lewis adopt a more orthodox stance. Whilst far from a bespoke coding, each fighter feels distinctive and captures the spirit of their real life counterpart, adding resonance to your selection from the menu.

Whether one of the recognisable names or a boxer of your own creation, fighters also feel distinctive within their own class. Heavyweights carry real heft, a swinging hook or uppercut landing with a satisfying thud whilst lighter weight classes lack such punch power but make up for it with speed and agility. Within the create a boxer mode, you have various options to define your fighters style, which adds further opportunity for distinction, or indeed allows you to try and replicate other real world fighters.

As well as feeling hefty, punches also show a visual flair on landing. Tuck one in the ribs just right and your opponent will stagger backwards. Crack in an uppercut in the later rounds and you might open up a cut, a spray of blood painting the canvas as your foe’s head arcs upwards, whilst a knockout blow sees him collapse to the canvas like a puppet with its strings cut. Knockdowns are accompanied by frame by frame replays and it is to the game’s credit that these remain satisfying to watch, the combination of spot on sound and collision detection combining to make your shots look spectacular.

Talking of sound, the game carries a distinct hip hop theme. Puff Daddy’s ‘Victory’ is the title track, and the default entrance theme in career mode, with other tracks unlockable as you progress. Meanwhile ring announcements and commentary are handled in the form of a voiceover from DJ, rapper and TV personality Big Tigger. It is an interesting choice. The hip hop flavour fits with the vibe of sweaty boxing gym and as a fan of the genre was, for me, well received. Tigger on the other hand is something of an acquired taste. For a game that makes such an effort to offer realism, it seems a shame in some respects to go down the route of celebrity attraction rather than a traditional commentary team, although it is arguably a better fit with the grittier, street edge the game seems to strive for. Tigger’s lines soon become repetitive though, perhaps heightened due to the nature of his distinctive style. Regardless of who man’s the mic though, it can become a little clumsy when bouts are contested between two created boxers. Lacking real names, Tigger will refer to fighters by their nickname. Fine in theory but a little confusing in practise when both boxers have the same moniker, making it somewhat difficult to determine who has the upper hand in the heat of an intense slug fest.

Gameplay

For those looking to leap straight in, bouts can be played either single player or local co-op, a straight up, old fashioned arcade style bout of fiticuffs. But for a more in depth experience, the career mode offers the chance to create a boxer of your own (or use one of the stars) and work your way up from the bottom to the top of your chosen weight class. The fighter creation tool is a flexible design system that allows you to mould a boxer to your individual taste. Beyond the obvious things like hair colour, skin tone et al, the key part of the create mode is the allocation of skill points. Spread across a number of attributes, these allow you to define your fighter’s style. Do you load up on power at the expense of speed? Do you go for stamina and cuts resistance and forgo heavy hands? Or do you aim for an even spread, looking to balance out the various options at the risk of making your gladiator the proverbial Jack of all trades?

You start out in the grubbiest of grubby gyms, the audience consisting of one man, his dog and the ring announcer. Starting out at rank 50, you need to chart your way to the top of the rankings to get a shot at the gold, along the way you unlocking new venues, new ring gear, new music, entourage, tattoos and more. Charting your path takes a little bit of strategy though. Sure, the fundamentals involve lots of punches to the face but there are ways of making your route easier. You get to pick your next opponent, usually from a choice of half a dozen potential fighters. These can be a few places higher up the card, offering the potential for quick progression or perhaps even a couple of notches down. It is up to you to negotiate the best path; aim big, try to take down the guy 5 places up but run the risk of being out matched, or play it safe, fighting lower ranked fighters to build experience and play the long game. The choice is very much yours.

To help in your quest, in between bouts are some training mini games. These include things like sparring, heavy bag and mitts and offer you the chance to earn new skill points to allocate to your fighter. Each training category covers two of the attribute sets with the choice down to you how they are spread. Performing better in training gives you more points to allocate and so, certainly early in the game, it makes sense to give training your full attention. With only a handful of different training sets though, they soon become repetitive, aiding in your ability to master them of course but at the same time, becoming something of a chore. As you progress, and as your stats either max out or your interest wanes, you have the option to ‘auto-train’ which lets you skip sessions but at the expense of less points to allocate.

But these are just the warm up act to the main event of actually stepping in the ring and fighting and here is where Fight Night comes alive through its Total Punch Control system. It is a gloriously simple evolution of the genre which makes use of the twin analogue sticks. The left one moves your fighter around the ring as normal but, instead of using the face buttons to punch, control is mapped to the right stick. A swipe diagonal left fires off a jab, a curl round to the right swings in a hook whilst a big turn down and up unleashes a brutal uppercut. After just a few rounds to get to grips with the system, it becomes intuitive and allows you to start stringing together punches and combinations with ease. For additional punching range, holding the L1 button plants your fighter’s feet and acts as a modifier, switching your punching range to the body whilst at the same time, a swivel of the left stick now controls upper body movement. This in turn gives you the ability to lean in and out of range, picking your openings, working the body, then coming up to the head before releasing L1 and moving back out of range. Should you feel the need, R1 will bring up your block, reducing potential damage and giving the opportunity to parry. It is a powerful and flexible system that lends fights a dynamic feel and gives you a real sense of control over your fighter. For that added flourish, each boxer also has a signature punch that can be utilised, with new moves unlockable as you beat top ranked fighters. And for you scoundrels out there, you even have the option of a cheeky headbutt that scores high in the damage stakes but could cost you the bout if used recklessly.

The flexibility of the mechanics allow for some genuine variety in play, each of your opponents presenting a unique proposition. It’s not the same as facing a human opponent to be sure but rival fighters have their own style and moveset, some coming in swinging and leaving themselves open, others fighting defensively or on the counter, success achieved through a measure of real world tactics. In career mode, the first few opponents can be virtually walked through but it’s not long before just running in swinging sees you eating the canvas. Long term progression comes from understanding when to stand and trade and when to back off.

Each fighter has both a health bar and a punch power bar. Health is obviously reduced as you take punches but stay away from danger long enough and it will start to build back up. This is important as it means that when you knock an opponent to the mat, it may serve to jump straight on them when they get up, not allowing them the chance to recover whilst all the while wary of taking a counter punch which will inherently cause more damage. At the same time, swinging recklessly will reduce your punch effectiveness, that clean shot you worked hard for ending up lacking the power you craved due to an excessive volume of shots. Again, strategy is key to identify openings, working your way inside and unleashing fury at opportune moments. If you end up taking one yourself, a trip to the canvas sees the first appearance of the referee, your bid to beat the count played out by trying to bring three images of the ref’s shirt into line with each other to represent your vision clearing.

For all its many positives the career mode can be something of a grind. Working your way from 50 to a top 10 position requires battling your way through a number of fights of identikit, generic opponents. To avoid frustration, it may be better to take your time and build up your stats rather than reaching for the glory of moving up 10 spots in one go, higher ranked fighters inevitably having much greater power and punch resistance.

Bottom Line

High quality presentation combines with a richly satisfying and natural feeling control scheme that marks this as the definitive boxing series.

8/10

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