Knockout Kings 2001 for the PlayStation 2 is everything that real boxing wants to be. The judges can't be bought; there are no ethically challenged promoters; no exclusive contracts with cable channels preventing certain matches; there's only one universal ranking system with no alphabet soup federations; there are only three weight classes; fighters don't lose their sanity and do something unspeakable like bite someones ear off; and most importantly, there aren't any paper-weight champions losing to relative unknowns.
Yet even with all those advantages over the "real deal" and virtually no competition on the videogame market, the third incarnation of the renowned boxing simulation series, that now makes its way to the high-powered PlayStation 2 system, manages to underwhelm and disappoint.
Once again, EA Sports has pulled off a minor miracle by licensing a roster of boxers that reads like dream collection to any rabid fan. Notorious icons like Roy Jones Jr., Prince Naseem, George Foreman and Mike Tyson are still missing, but barely anyone is going to notice when you consider who EA Sports managed to snag in their absence. The long list of fighters (too long to list in full here) includes contemporaries like Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield as well as legends of the ring like Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammed Ali. Most interesting to note is that this years roster includes four female boxers, Regina Halmich, Christy Martin, Mia St. John and Lucia Rijker, as well.
As usual with the deep pockets of EA Sports, the licensing doesnt stop there. Along with boxers, Knockout Kings 2001 also includes actual referees, announcers, and vocal stylings of several unknown rappers who fill out the game's hip-hop soundtrack.
So it's obviously not a lack of licensing that hurt Knockout Kings 2001. Where the developers drop the ball on the game is in the graphics and gameplay.
Graphically, the game at a glance looks like a stunning next-generation title with rendered 3D models that frighteningly recreate the boxers and arenas with life-like authenticity. However, upon closer inspection, I became painfully aware of several things. A zombie-like vacant look plagues all the boxers faces. Outside of several trademark punches and gestures for only a few select boxers, all the rest of the boxers move identically to one another to the point where it looks ridiculous when boxers appear to mime one another. And lastly, animation frames between punches and falls don't always appear to gel properly together, making for akward-looking boxing action at times.
Where the gameplay suffers is that it feels too tactical and statistical to the point where the boxers appear almost robotic. I appreciated that there was a strong emphasis on strategy, but somehow more organic things like the fury and power of a knockout punch seem absent. It's possible to "catch" an opponent with an unsuspecting hook, but it doesn't seem natural or even controllable—it's practically random. Most matches play out more like a test of endurance and patience in which one opponent slowly wears down another rather than a well-timed surprise punch putting a boxer down for the count. That's not to say that Knockout Kings 2001 is unrealistic. I think it manages to capture the strategy part of the "sweet science" beautifully. Where the game falters is that it only captures the technical part of the sport and little else. Style, personality, and brutality just don't seem to be factored into the equation. If Mike Tyson were in the game, I don't think they would have been able to capture his devastating uppercut that retired many fighters in the first round.
Despite the negatives, Knockout Kings 2001 is still playable and mildly enjoyable. There's a decent Career mode, a passable arcade-style Slugfest mode, and an interesting Fantasy Fight mode, which proposes historical recreations and wish-fights between legendary fighters. However, without a more organic feel in the gameplay; it all seems a bit wasted. The game just doesn't feel right in the end, and that makes it hard to recommend. Sadly, boxing videogame fans already know, there aren't many options, and the Knockout Kings series once again becomes the champ by default. Much like Roy Jones Jr., the series desperately needs a competitor to push its progression and authenticate its greatness. Till then, the series is still largely untested and unproven.