Rocky Balboa is something of an oddity. A boxing game on the PSP isn't anything too extraordinary, but a movie licensed game available only for the Sony handheld isn't something you see every day. The general rule for licensed video games is that they must appear on every platform that's currently available, generally resulting in an average game on all fronts. While the movie surprised everyone and turned out to be entertaining against the odds, has Rocky's video game comeback been helped or hindered by only appearing on the PSP?
Before jumping into the gameplay mechanics, a few words on the structure of the game are needed. There is nothing that resembles a career mode in Rocky Balboa; there's no stat building, character training or storyline to work through. Even on the PSP and in a movie licensed title, some kind of main career to work through is expected, and its absence is more than a little baffling. Thankfully, there are numerous other modes to pick up the slack, but they don't help cover what is so obviously missing.
The game's main mode simply puts you in the ring to take part in classic fights from the entire Rocky series. Even though the name on the box cover suggests this is a game made for the recent movie, it's more of a homage to the complete series, which is great for long-time fans, but less so for players wanting to simply relive Rocky's comeback movie. You unlock new fights as you win, and all the classics are included - whether your favourite is Rocky versus Apollo Creed or the fight against cocky youngster Tommy Gun from Rocky V, you won't be disappointed.
The second main mode of play has been designed with handheld play specifically in mind. Fast Lane offers 90 challenges that can be played in a set amount of time, with challenges coming in at 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 5 minutes and 10 minutes. Lots of these are simple 'knock out your opponent within the time limit' challenges, but others require you to stay on your feet for the remainder of the fight and meet other objectives. Again, this mode isn't really a valid replacement for a career mode, but it offers a lot of content and will keep you playing for quite some time.
And that's your lot really. An Exhibition mode is available for setting up individual fights, either against the AI or against another player wirelessly, and a tutorial mode details all the game's controls. And that tutorial mode is absolutely vital, as Rocky Balboa is far from a simple game to play. At the most basic level the Square and Triangle buttons perform straight left and right punches and the 'X' and Circle buttons perform left and right hooks. These can be modified to hit the body by holding the analogue stick down, holding left performs a quick hook and holding right performs a big hook.
This is complicated enough, but that's just the beginning. More punches can be performed by holding a certain direction in combination with two face buttons, and further shots can be performed when weaving using the 'R' button. If you want to get a little rough in the ring you can even push your opponent around by using the d-pad, and while all these punch options make for plenty of depth, it's not entirely suited to the PSP.
On top of mastering the rather complex move set, the mood of your boxer also plays a big part in the outcome of each fight. Basic moods reflect the current state of the boxer, but power moods can be can be triggered by putting together a string of successful punches or by triggering it when your health bar flashes white. In the first case it'll often lead to a knockout and when in trouble the power mood can get you out of a dangerous situation.
For a PSP title the visuals are sharp, with impressive character models and decent use of archive movie footage and music, giving the game an authentic feel. There's a slight plastic look to boxers due to the sweat effects, but, seeing as this is a handheld title and not a next-gen game, it's more than forgivable. Much harder to forgive are the lengthy load times, which become more than bothersome when playing in the Fast Lane, where you're taking part in short challenges. Restarting a challenge is instant, but exiting back to the menu and then loading a new challenge often takes longer than the challenge itself.
Rocky Balboa offers PSP owners a solid boxing experience, but without a career mode to work through it doesn't quite feel like a complete game. The historical matches and PSP friendly quick challenges offer plenty to do, but neither mode is engaging beyond that of extras usually found in addition to a core gameplay mode. Presentation is solid, bar some rather horrendous load times, and Rocky fans will appreciate the roster that covers the entire movie series, but it's hard not to think it's a slightly missed opportunity.