Last year, I proclaimed Fight Night 2004 to be the evolution of the sport of boxing. Easily the best looking boxing title to date, the combination of rag doll physics and the naturally intuitive Total Punch Control system established a standard that all other boxing games would be measured by. So it comes as no surprise that its successor, Fight Night Round 2, literally raises the bar on every facet of the sport, refining an already spectacular game into something that has to be experienced to be believed. What's more, Gamecube owners actually have a reason to rejoice thanks to an exclusive feature that almost makes up for the lack of online play.
First of all, let's take a look at last year's game before we go over the current improvements made to the control and gameplay to make Round 2 stand out. The largest addition made to the sport last year was the Total Punch Control system, which allowed players to throw punches in a realistic manner: hooks required moving the analog stick in a quarter circular motion, jabs required short diagonal strokes and so on. While it still included button controls for players who weren't comfortable with the analog stick, Total Punch Control gave gamers a much more accurate touch over their boxer's blows. This system also allowed players a wider sense of control over their pugilist's upper body. This way, boxers could bob and weave out of the way of incoming punches.
While this new system did revolutionize the format for boxing games, it did wind up creating a number of significant problems for the franchise. First of all, some players managed to still get around the incredible skill of the Total Punch Control system by pounding buttons faster than the analog stick could be slapped. This created a number of unfair matchups between button mashers and skilled players. Secondly, the level of speed that Fight Night 2004 operated at was relatively quick, making the game feel much more arcade-like at times than a strategic simulation. Thanks to the almost accelerated level of thrown punches and combos, some matches could quickly be resolved in one round or two regardless of the boxer's skill or power level. Finally, if a pugilist attempted to dodge out of the way of punches, his feet remained planted to the canvas, removing any chance of him dancing out of the way of wildly thrown punches or damaging blows. What's more, an astute gamer could rotate a boxer's upper body so much that his opponent could potentially tire themselves out by throwing punches that consistently missed.
Fortunately, all of these issues have been significantly addressed in Round 2, making the gameplay infinitely better and much more accurate to the sport itself. First of all, the pace of the game is not only slower, but it's suited more to strategic bursts of speed and demonstrations of power. Not only is this reminiscent of the actual sport, it forces you to think about when you want to go on the offensive and when you want to be defensive. Of course, you can still throw a large number of flurries and quick punches, but players have to pay more attention to their boxer's stamina, because constantly trying to land blows tires your fighter faster than waiting for the right shot. That can leave him open to more injury and a faster knockout.
Secondly, punches with the Total Punch Control system are now much more powerful than smacking buttons. Sure, using the buttons to throw punches remain, but they're not as effective as using the analog stick in the ring. In fact, there are a number of one-two timed punch combos that can only be used with the analog stick, so even the best button masher out there won't stand up to a seasoned stick veteran. Even better is the inclusion of Haymaker jabs, hooks and uppercuts, which allows players to unload powerful shots on fighters. Whether or not the fighter cocks their arm back in anticipation of bringing the pain or if they manage to land the unsuspected flash knockdown with one punch, the addition of Haymakers gives every single round a measure of power and unpredictability, just like the real thing.
Although you can truly destroy an opponent with a couple of well-placed shots, Round Two also features vast improvement on the defensive front to avoid these blows. First of all, fighters are no longer tied to one spot if they choose to bob and weave from incoming punches, allowing players to dance and slide away from sharp jabs or duck under hooks. Secondly, fighters can choose to block incoming blows outright or parry them, providing a split second or two to get in a quick counterpunch. "Caging up" or literally using your arms and elbows to deflect thrown punches can effectively reduce an opponent's attacks to mere love taps, tiring them while saving your strength. However, if you do find yourself in trouble, you can clinch up to regain your energy. While your fighter can be pushed away or even find himself open to attack during an attempted clinch, this can be a lifesaver to avoid getting sent to the canvas by a hard punch.
There are a number of modes included within Round Two, including the ubiquitous quick fight feature where you can choose any one of the 36 professional fighters like Bernard Hopkins, Winky Wright and Muhammad Ali. There's also the (now expected for any sports title) online mode for PS2 and Xbox. There's an interesting feature called Hard Hits, where time limits are removed and the objective to win each one of the 15 rounds is to knock your opponent down or out. However, the main thrust of the game lies in the Career mode, where you build a fighter from scratch and take him from the amateur ranks into the pros. The robust nature of the create-a-boxer returns, where you can tailor everything from the size and shape of your boxers head to how fit or flabby they are (keep this in mind, because we're going to return to these two points later).
After establishing the kind of boxer you want to play (Southpaw or Righty; Power, Speed or Finesse fighter) and allocating attribute points, you start off as an amateur boxer, complete with protective headgear and two-minute boxing rounds. While you can declare yourself ready for the pros at any time, spending a little extra time as an amateur helps unlock additional boxing gear, stadiums or other secrets. It also gives you additional money that you'll use to customize your fighter's entrance or entourage, as well as extra status points from training before a bout. Remember when I mentioned that you can pick how fat or buff your boxer is? Hitting the gym for training can easily help your fighter shed a couple of pounds or make a beefy fighter even more cut for his time in the ring. These changes actually occur with your boxer's character model, which is a great touch to improving the believability of exercise doing something for your character.
As you go along with your career, you'll have the option to employ different trainers or cutmen to help you out in the ring. You could choose to have a trainer that emphasizes power and stamina over speed and finesse, or a cutman who's better at reducing swelling on a boxer's face. This actually plays a larger role in Round Two, because players have the option to address any damage their fighters have taken in-between rounds. You'll definitely need to spend extra time worrying about this, because referees have no problem stopping fights if they think someone's suffered enough. By focusing on the areas of your boxer's face, you can eliminate any injuries such as swelling or cuts that your character has sustained in the past 2 minutes (or 3 minutes for pro fights). Gamers can choose to let the game automatically heal their fighters for them, although it will try to average the healing across the fighter's face.
In fact, the attention to facial and physical detail is one of the strongest facets of Round 2. In drawn out fights, you'll notice that carefully constructed face in the create-a-boxer mode deform under the bruises, swelling and profuse bleeding from massive hits. This is thanks to facial and character models that sport twice as many polygons as last year's game. Coupled with smooth animations, recoiling fighters from large impacts and exceedingly brutal punches that hurl blood and sweat into the air, Round 2 is jaw-dropping (no pun intended). It's also sweet to watch the slowed down perspective and close up zoom when a boxer finds himself in serious danger of a knock out. What's more, the impact and subsequent rag dolling of boxers actually makes the multiple camera angle replays worth watching. While the stadiums, entourage and the crowds included in the game give it a certain amount of ambience, they're definitely lacking in detail and importance (which makes sense to a certain point, since they're not the focus of the game).
If there was a weaker technical side to the game, it might pop up in the soundtrack area. With only a handful of rap tracks, you'll probably burn out on the songs quickly and not pay any attention to them. Fortunately, the rest of the sound effects make up for this deficiency. The hearty slap that echoes when a glove connects with someone's face, or the large reverberation that can be heard when a haymaker lands can make you recoil in pain. Even better, boxing analyst Joe Tessitore has replaced the exceedingly annoying Big Tigger, and while he might come off as generic every now and then, he calls the fight almost perfectly from round to round. Joe will even use your fighter's nickname to relate just how well or poorly they're doing in the match, adding a nice touch to the in-ring action.
Although Gamecube owners don't have online play, they do have one exclusive bonus: a near flawless port of Super Punch Out! from the Super Nintendo. Not only is Little Mac an unlockable character, but the game is available right from the get go, which is a great bit of nostalgic boxing for older Nintendo fans. Aside from this awesome extra, all versions do run into similar issues. For one, the game still doesn't take into account arm reach, which can be an equalizer for some bouts where fighters blatantly don't match up easily. Secondly, while you have many more options for equipment in this title than the previous game, the options for entourage are ridiculously slim. There should be more options for cutmen, trainers, dancers or other people, as well as more songs, entrances, or other facets. The game captures the flair of the professional boxers decently (even if it doesn't have their personal entrances), and it facially represents them eerily well, but the lack of attention to this piece of showmanship highlights how shoddily its inclusion actually is in the game.
Finally, while I do like the inclusion of the Haymaker as a feature, primarily for how it impacts the game, there is something odd about seeing fighters continually hold their arm cocked back, waiting for their opportunity to unload on other people. That concept is 1) blatantly unrealistic, because that leaves the boxer wide open for attack, 2) should be relatively tiresome to the fighter to continually leave himself coiled up as the round goes on, and 3) turns the tactic of firing off a Haymaker into a simplistic attack instead of a potentially risky maneuver.
However, all that aside, I personally was thrilled to see many of the issues that I brought up from my review last year addressed in Fight Night Round 2. The inclusion of the cutman mini-game between rounds is a great addition, and the Haymaker provides a phenomenal sense of drama with punches that can knock boxers out at any time. I personally can’t wait to see next year’s version, and I think fight fans will agree that EA’s scored another knockout with this title.