Over the years, the boxing genre has been trying to get more and more realistic, but most attempts to date have fallen flat in one category or another. Electronic Arts has made several good attempts with its Knockout Kings series, but even here some aspects of the games weren't as real as they could have been--and perhaps should have been. This year, EA Sports did to its boxing game what it did last year to its baseball games--it started over. The end result is Fight Night 2004, an all-new game with an all-new name. And much how MVP Baseball made improvements to EA's then-stagnant baseball series, Fight Night 2004 reinvigorates the boxing genre. It also offers the most realistic control, gameplay, and graphics that the genre has ever seen.
Fight Night 2004 is the most realistic boxing game to come out in years.
Fight Night 2004 comes in three different flavors: exhibition, career, and (exclusively on the PlayStation 2) online. Exhibition allows you to quickly pick a fighter to go up against a computer-controlled opponent or a second player. Career mode starts you out with a fighter at the beginning of his career. Therefore, he has no wins, no losses, and no talent. Your fighter's physical attributes in career mode are set to zero, whether he's a boxer you created by using the game's create-a-boxer utility or he's one of the licensed boxers included in the game. To get started, you're given a set amount of physical attribute points to distribute across eight categories, such as punching power and agility. As you might expect, each of the attribute categories directly corresponds to your boxer's performance in the ring. To increase your fighter's ability, you're given an opportunity before every bout to train your fighter.
The training sessions are represented by four different minigames that are based on actual boxing exercises, like punching hand mitts, working the heavy bag, punching a combo dummy, and sparring with a computer-controlled opponent. The minigames test your memory, timing, and reflexes, but more importantly, they teach you how to play the game. Doing well in the minigames earns you 15 attribute points, while doing poorly results in fewer attribute points. Whatever you earn can be applied to two specific performance categories. Since each training session is tied to two specific categories, the game forces you to become proficient at each one to build a fighter who has good ratings in each performance category. While forcing you to do anything doesn't necessarily sound like a good way to design a game, in this case, the repetition brought on by constantly training ensures that you're making the most of the opportunity. Furthermore, it teaches you how to play the game properly, thus making the actual boxing more enjoyable.
Aside from training and fighting, the career mode also includes other duties, like picking your next opponent, checking out the awards your fighter has earned, and purchasing goods, like new trunks. While picking your next opponent may sound like a trivial menu selection, there is a bit of strategy involved. First, you'll want to figure out who you have to choose from, which typically ranges from two to six fighters. Second, you'll want to check out their stats to see what they're ranked and how their attributes stack up against your fighter's attributes. Once you've scouted your options, the decision usually comes down to whether you're willing to risk a loss against a more skilled fighter for a shot at his higher rank versus whether or not you're willing to fight an easier opponent to build up your fighter's attribute points before trying to climb the ranks any further. Making the right choice when choosing an opponent can honestly mean the difference between a win and a loss.
The only real negative aspect of Fight Night 2004's career mode is that it forces you to retire at the age of 40, which is really quite anticlimactic. This, along with the fact that the training becomes a moot point once you've maxed out you're fighter's abilities, seems to be a bit of a waste, since it would have been interesting to see how long you could remain a contender with a fighter whose abilities faltered with time. While the career mode has some nice touches to it, the abrupt ending robs it of attaining the level of strategy that, say, a great franchise mode in a football game might have. Ultimately, it's only a little bit more than just a string of fights with a running total of your wins and losses.
On the PlayStation 2, you also have the ability to play online to box against others to see who the real world champion is. The game's online mode is straightforward and offers you the ability to choose from different divisions based on weight classes. The online play works well, supports USB headsets for voice chat, and gives the game the replay value you'd expect from a competitive online offering. It'll keep you busy long after you've grown bored of fighting the game's computer-controlled opponents.
The roster of 32 licensed boxers included in the game spans six weight divisions that range from featherweight to heavyweight. The impressive lineup of fighters mostly consists of recent champions, such as Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and Arturo Gatti. While the majority of the licensed boxers included come from today's era, the game also features a handful of fighters from the past, such as legends Roberto Duran, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ray Robinson, Ray Leonard, and Rocky Marciano. While you'll notice some holes in the lineup--for instance, big names like Mike Tyson and George Foreman are nowhere to be found--Fight Night 2004 includes a very easy-to-use and in-depth create-a-fighter mode that can turn out very accurate creations for just about any boxer you could want to put in the game.
The career mode unceremoniously kicks you to the curb when you hit 40 years of age.
While the various modes and options are all well and good, boxing games live and die by their gameplay mechanics. In this respect, Fight Night 2004 has an entirely unique setup. If you want to throw a straight left jab, you press the right analog stick up and slightly to the left. If you want to throw a straight right, you push the right analog stick forward and just to the right. For hooks, you mimic the motion of your fighter's arms with the right analog stick, which is the equivalent of a quarter-circle rotation, left or right. You can also throw uppercuts by moving the right analog stick in a half-circle motion, starting from down to up in either direction for a left- or a right-handed punch. Depressing the right shoulder button (or right trigger) modifies the action on the right analog stick so that you can block or parry incoming punches, but you have to have your arms in the right position for this to be effective.