Violent competition is an inherent part of boxing, but the Fight Night games have been without a serious rival for some time now. It stands alone in the ring, posing and punching the air before a crowd of cheering fans, content in the knowledge that it only has its own past form to beat. Thankfully there's no sign that the franchise is about to start slacking off its training in favour of doing adverts for HP sauce, or something equally silly. If anything, EA Canada seems keen to eclipse its achievements with Fight Night Round 4, which was arguably the best-received entry in the series to date.
Many of the improvements in Fight Night Champion are quite technical, with blocking being a major focus for the development team. There are now two options when it comes to defending against punches: simply holding down the block button will result in your fighter doing their best to deflect incoming blows, with their success being determined by their raw stats and fatigue level, as well as the properties of the punch itself. If you're feeling a bit braver, however, you can opt to manually block individual attacks; to pull this off you'll need good reflexes and an ability to anticipate your adversary, but if you're good you'll achieve a cleaner, more powerful block.
These refinements open up new tactical approaches to your efforts in the ring. It's now possible to punch from a defensive position, so clamming up and keeping your guard tight at all times is a viable strategy. The downside is that your footwork will be a good degree slower while you've got your fists up, so your opponent may be able to out-manoeuvre you, circling to get at an opening.
On the more aggressive side of proceedings, the lauded Total Punch Control system has now evolved into Full Spectrum Punch Control. It's a self-aggrandising name, for sure, but the accompanying changes sound perfectly sensible. According to the rep at EA's showcase event, there's a whole load of research that shows people were finding it hard to perform quarter circles to the right on the right analogue stick; movements to the left were a cinch, by all accounts, but arcs to the right were giving people major grief. As a result, the 2011 game will only use single-direction flicks for dishing out all your attacks. The left and right side of the stick are still used to govern your two fists, but now it's simply the angle of the flick that determines the punch. Imagine that the right stick is a clock, and that each hour corresponds with a different flavour of violence. And now imagine that the clock's hands are wildly spazzing time all over your opponent's face.
Elsewhere you'll find that the Haymaker button has been handed its P45, only to be replaced by the Heavy Punch Modifier. Like a shiny can of Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain, this does exactly what it says on the tin - giving your thumps a bit more heft in exchange for a bigger drop in stamina. The more cartoonish, arcing haymakers of Round 4 are gone, and you're now able to beef up your jabs and straights, as well as flashier moves like hooks and uppercuts. Again, this should open up the player's options when it comes to how they approach a match.
Given the right combination of situation, punch and player movement, you'll now be able to knock out your opponent with a single hit - an important addition, since the "knock-'em-down-three-times-to-win" setup has always long been one of the most unrealistic aspects of the series. Even when one fighter is dominating a match, you'll never be able to completely rule the other party out of a comeback. It's not all about headshots, either: it's quite possible to rock or knock your opponents down with a hard hit to the torso. While there's still only one bar on the game's HUD, each boxer has a separately-tracked stamina for their body, legs and each arm. As a result, you'll still be able to run away even if you're flinging your limbs about like a Parkinson's sufferer at a taxi-hailing convention.
As worthy as these technical tweaks no doubt are, they're ultimately less exciting than a five minute glimpse of the game in action. Fight Night has long been held in high regard for its graceful and detail-rich depiction of boxing, and Champion already looks like a worthy successor to its glamorous predecessors. New additions like entrance sequences and in-the-ring referees help to sell the overall atmosphere, but it's fighters and punches that remain the star of the show. The build I was shown this month needs a bit of fine-tuning - you could occasionally see that punches weren't connecting with as much vim as they should - but even at this stage, the game's balletic aggression is something to behold. Fight Night hits its audience with a one-two combo of authenticity and sheer finesse; when a game impresses this much at the preview stage, it's no mystery why EA Canada has no direct rival.
At the moment, there are only two real questions hanging over Fight Night Champion. The first concerns the true nature of Champion mode itself, which is this year's new alternative to career mode (Legacy mode will also be making a return). We know that it's going to be much more personal and a good deal darker than what the series has given us in the past - this is the first EA Sports title to get an M-rating in the US - but the overall structure remains something of a mystery. The second issue is, I admit, more a matter of personal preference: we know that Teddy Atlas has returned to provide commentary, but I want to know whether EA have gotten the best out of him this time. As much as I love Teddy's New York drawl (and I really do) his efforts in Round 4 were a little distracting - often wandering off on strange anecdotes that bore little relation to what was happening in the ring.
On the basis of the first trailer, we can at least expect Champion mode to be a bloodier and grittier affair than the careers of the previous games; as for the commentary, well, we'll just have to wait and see. For now, there's every sign that Fight Night Champion will walk the walk, so let's hope Teddy talks the talk.
Fight Night Champion is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 in March 2011.