Everybody loves an underdog. Society is enraptured by these heroes, with their diligent struggles, unwavering perseverance and faultless commitment to success; these David and Goliath stories have been kept within easy grabbing distance of our storytellers for thousands of years now, and contemporary creations like the peppy, zeitgeist-riding phenomenon Glee remind us there's no chance of these little guy tales subsiding anytime soon.
In 1977, underdog movie extraordinaire Rocky won three Oscars: Best Director; Best Film, for which it was up against Taxi Driver - seriously, Taxi Driver; and Best Film Editing. The movie was nominated in seven other categories, including a Best Actor nod for Sylvester Stallone, and has remained in contemporary pop culture for over three decades despite a glut of largely inferior sequels. It has an incredible training montage.
Fight Night Champion, bafflingly, does not. For what is an almost shameless riff on the same notes which made Rocky so successful, it is bizarre that the game's headlining Champion mode opts to go without the quintessential moment of hitting the gym and then running up the steps and then "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" and so forth.
Judged as a narrative, told through a procession of ham-fisted cutscenes, Fight Night Champion is about as delicate as being hit in the face by Tyson. All of your favourite clichés make an expected appearance. Tick them off the boxing movie register as you go along: the up-and-coming amateur hero who believes in truth, justice and a good face-smashing; his unremittingly evil rival; a carbon copy of steadfast trainer Mickey Goldmill who never gives up; the villainous tycoon promoter who uses the sport for evil; the wayward brother; the father who never quite made it; and the virtuous love interest.
Andre Bishop is your lead man, rising up the ranks of the amateur league and on the cusp of turning pro. Wedged in the middle of cutscenes where Bishop's resolve never wavers are the boxing matches, most of which take on the form of themed brawls where you're either not allowed to perform a particular move, such as body blows, or where you're encouraged to focus on a particular attack. Long-term fans of boxing games will notice how it's like the distilled essence of Punch-Out!! has been squeezed through a blood-stained canvas.
A brief jaunt in the middle of the game has you thrown in prison for seven years - because the game is dark and gritty now, and this is conveniently the best way to show off the new blood effects - where you engage in a few rounds of bare-knuckle boxing against some Aryan bruisers, and then it's back out to walk the long path to redemption and a whopping great title belt. Despite it only taking about twenty minutes in real life terms, you know Andre's been in prison for a while because he puts on 60lbs of muscle and grows a beard.
While Champion mode is the game's headline feature, there's simply not that much substance in it. The campaign barely pushes two hours of fights, although you probably spend a fair chunk of additional time watching its cutscenes. The mode functions as a rather brief distraction, although beginners will find the disguised bits of advice helpful to understanding some of the finer aspects of the game.
Series veterans will probably skip straight to the other modes, though not until they've weighed in on the undying buttons-versus-sticks debate. After their notable absence at Fight Night Round 4's launch, button controls sheepishly find themselves returning to the mix by default, though EA still clearly favours the analogue-stick batterings dished out by their spangly new analogue input method - dubbed Full Spectrum Punch Control by the suits in marketing.
In a bid to satisfy everyone at once, EA now accommodates both the stick and face buttons on the same controller mapping, shifting Round 4's button commands to the d-pad. While the buttons will always win for precision, it's still easy to queue up devastating flurries of blows when fighting with the stick, though the age-old problem of imprecision often rears its head when you find yourself swinging three or four times accidentally.
Whereas Rounds 3 and 4 had more demanding punches mapped to increasingly complicated analogue movements, Champion gives each type of swing a particular direction - diagonally upwards to throw a jab, straight across the middle for a hook, and diagonally downwards to bust out the heavy uppercuts.
Buttons also give you access to left and right jabs, hooks and uppercuts, with the latter executed by hitting jab and hook together. Sticks, however, get a few extra moves; push it in a half-way direction between a hook and an uppercut and you'll get the ridiculously titled hookercut, known as a shovel hook in actual boxing. Meanwhile, go between a jab and a hook and you'll get a straight flare.
While making combination punching far more accessible, Full Spectrum controls rob the more advanced blows of some of their complexity and satisfaction, and in doing so ensure the legions of online big-hitters will have an even easier time spamming their constant uppercuts. Other changes include a dialling back on Round 4's heavy emphasis on counter punching (although these blows remain devastating), and automatic switching between blocks for head and body shots. The fighting feels faster as a result, and you're left to focus squarely on the punching, as opposed to the rock-paper-scissors mentality of previous games.
Elsewhere there's the returning Legacy mode, where you either create a boxer from scratch or pick from a stable of boxing legends and then juggle your personal calendar until you've gone toe-to-toe with enough rivals to be declared the Greatest of All Time. Progression here is handled by a new XP system, with you snapping up experience from the myriad of training games and then doling it out into your boxer's various attributes. Every now and then you'll unlock a perk which confers additional bonuses, such as a greater chance of stunning your opponent when you lamp them in the chops.
Most returning players will simply choose to focus their attention to local versus and online modes, with the netcode performance appearing identical to Round 4. XP also carries over to online play, which should suitably compel everyone to put down Call of Duty for half an hour and instead focus on grinding some more levels in this.
Mirroring the communal tendencies of boxers in training, online gangs can now also form their own boxing gyms and compete with each other over the course of a season - the top candidates squaring off in an elimination match to decide the overall champion. Rival gyms can also go toe-to-toe and compete for status, leaderboard honour, and juicy wads of XP. Note that while these features are clearly in place, they were unavailable for testing at time of review.
Round 4's silky smooth 60fps has been chopped in half here, yet in spite of this the game plays faster and the expert application of post-processing effects takes off some of the former game's vacuum-packed look. The law of diminishing returns is starting to kick in, however. Champion would have been a more significant update if it had some more robust changes to its core engine, as matches still feel like they take a bit too long to load, commentary tracks repeat far too often, and punch animations still occasionally look slightly wonky.
There's just not quite enough meat on Fight Night Champion's bones to recommend it to owners of previous games, however, and Champion mode itself is little more than a brief diversion you can bash through in an afternoon. The core mechanics still do a good job of imitating the sweet science, but EA could have done with a longer rest before getting back in the ring.