With the release of EA Sports' heir apparent to the wildly successful Knockout Kings series, it looks like we've entered into videogame history's first golden age of boxing titles. What started out as ripples with underdog titles like Victorious Boxers and Rocky, now looks like a full on tidal wave with EA Sports Fight Night 2004 entering into the fray. However, what separates Fight Night from the pack is the backing of the largest third-party publisher in the world, EA Sports and its vast network of resources. The former mentioned titles lacked flashy production values, added value content, licenses with real-life boxers and marketing hype. Fight Night far outclasses its peers in these areas. Whether the final results sink or swim, this is unmistakably a triple "A" production at heart.
Fight Night follows the recent trend of Electronic Arts titles having equal substance in its gameplay to match its glitzy style. Building on the analog sensitive controls of Victorious Boxers, Fight Night makes its own bold contribution to the genre by using the right analog thumb sticks on controllers to launch a majority of its punches (buttons are used for signature punches, taunts and illegal moves). Making upward one-quarter or one-third circle motions to the left or right will throw respective left and right hooks and uppercuts. Pushing the stick in straight upward motions will throw jabs and cross punches. Defensive bobbing and weaving is accomplished similarly by moving the left analog stick while holding down the left shoulder trigger. Blocks are achieved by moving the right analog stick while holding the right shoulder trigger. This control setup may sound awkward, but in application, is a thing of beauty. It's nearly impossible to imagine a better control setup once becoming accustomed to it.
Just about every feature in Fight Night lives up to the hype and feels right, if not outstanding. The computer opponents box with challenging styles and distinct personalities. Matches produce dynamic in-ring drama and KOs look soul-cleansing and gut wrenchingly painful at the same time. The career modes and custom create-a-boxer modes are light-years behind the top WWE wrestling games, but still far above average. The option to earn fight purses and purchase addition things like trunks, gloves, shoes, signature punches, entrance pyrotechnics and even groupies, also help to make the game more engaging.
If I had to pick holes in what is otherwise a fine title, there are two. One is its surprisingly weaker-than-expected roster of boxers. While containing 32 licensed boxers—many legends and current stars across all the weight classes (kudos for getting Roy Jones Jr., Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward), the game is still missing many key figures. At this point, you don't expect to see the likes of George Foreman (despite his face being on every As-Seen-On-TV product) and Mike Tyson (who's in the will-do-anything-for-cash phase of his boxing career), but where's Oscar De La Hoya, the Klitschko Brothers, Riddick Bowe, Marvin Hagler, Julio Cesar Chavez and Tommy Hearns? Without some of the key figures in boxing's recent history, Fight Night takes a shot in credibility department.
The second hole is its lack of international flair. Distilled through EA Sports unparalleled content licensing philosophy, Fight Night presents only an urban American Hip Hop interpretation of the sweet science and fails to capture the true nationalistic spirit and honor of the competition. Forget about the racial overtones of Cooney versus Holmes or the nationalistic fervor over De La Hoya versus Trinidad. Instead of acting with dignified pride, fighters taunt and pose like egomaniacal NFL rejects, which feels grossly out of place in the sport of boxing with the exception of Mayorga.
These complaints are relatively minor compared to its rich accomplishments in presentation and boxing gameplay, but they do keep Fight Night from achieving legendary status. To be a legend, you have to beat a legend. Fight Night takes the best-boxing title simply because there aren't any challengers. Fight Night isn't quite the undisputed champion of the world, but it is the start of a promising new era.