As improbable as the setup for MGM's Rocky Balboa is, it's still a decent license for a video game. After all, who wouldn't want to step into the ring as The Italian Stallion to fight against all of the memorable characters from the six Rocky movies? In the Rocky Balboa game for the PlayStation Portable, you'll spend more time playing as the younger version of Rocky than the aging fighter from the recent film. There's plenty of source material to work with here, with plenty of clips and characters from the films. The problem is that all that great material hangs on a poorly designed fighting system, which makes the time spent in the ring much less engaging than the time spent out of it.
In addition to a great haircut and a cool name, Clubber Lang has a mean right hook.
In Rocky Balboa, you can reenact several memorable fights from the movies. The closest thing the game has to a career mode is the historical fights mode, which lets you fight as Rocky in 20 fights spanning all six movies. Each of these fights is precluded by a short film clip to introduce the respective fight, but beyond that there's little context for each bout. Unless you've memorized the movies and know the setup and outcome of each fight beforehand, all of these matches will feel disconnected and meaningless. On the plus side, if you are a Rocky fan, you'll see the familiar faces of fighters like Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago, and you'll get to beat the tar out of them.
In addition to the historical fights, you can engage in an exhibition match and play as any of the more than two dozen characters in the game. However, many of those characters are just different versions of the same person, so for instance, you can pit the 30-year-old Rocky from Rocky against the retirement-aged Rocky from Rocky Balboa. There's also a fast lane mode, which is a series of timed challenges with specific objectives to be met. There are 90 of these in all, and the objectives range from knocking down an opponent in less than one minute to winning a full fight in less than 10 minutes.
There are plenty of fights to be found in Rocky Balboa, but unfortunately the fighting system fails to capture the excitement or satisfaction of a hard-fought bout. The problem is the fighting controls, which are needlessly complex and often unresponsive. You can throw jabs and hooks by pressing the four face buttons on the PSP, but if you want to throw uppercuts or special punches, you have to hold the analog stick in a certain direction and then hit a combination of buttons. These combos aren't always responsive, and often you'll try to throw a punch three or four times before your fighter actually takes the right swing.
Of course, there's more to boxing than punching, but you wouldn't know that by playing Rocky Balboa. Fundamentals like footwork and defense are completely lost here. For one, you have to move around to regain stamina, but you can't move and fight at the same time, so if you do try to move, you'll often end up with a face full of leather. Another problem is that there's no block button. Instead, you have to hold the analog stick up or down to raise or lower your guard, or leave it in the neutral position for a basic block. The system isn't very responsive, and it's often difficult to tell if you're blocking at all. You can lean by holding the R button and moving the analog stick, which works fairly well but still results in you standing there with your feet planted just waiting for your opportunity to attack, making for a boring fight.