"After the initial documentary sequence, players are taken to an office setting where they can read/hear messages (greetings, praise for winning, offers to improve your media image, etc.), play training games, and enter the ring for fame and fortune. Donít be fooled by the variety Ė most of these options are a hands-off experience. When given the chance to, say, train with a specialist, you wonít actually get to work with the best of the best. Instead, the game shows your boxer walking away from his usual gym, followed by the image of a newspaper being spun onto the screen. Thatís it."
I am fierce. I am unforgiving. I am not a star but I look like one, with bones of steel and fists of adamantium. I never battle more than one adversary at a time but could hold my own in a massive brawl. It kind of makes me wonder why I wasnít asked to hang with Mario and the gang back in March, or the Power Stone crew before that. But Iím not a famous plumber, elf or hedgehog, and Iím certainly not a legend. At the end of the day, though, I will be remembered. Because I am a prizefighter.
As the star of 2K Sportsí first major entry into the boxing/fighting genre Ė Don King Presents Prizefighter Ė itís easy to get carried away. This game is all about whoeverís clenching the controller. And with my hands wrapped firmly around my Xbox 360 game pad and with my eyes fixated on the screen, Iíve become the subject of a sports documentary.
But before a dozen people sit in front of a camera, talk awkwardly and avoid mentioning me by name (Iím known to them as ďThe KidĒ Ė the all-purpose title for user-generated characters, since given names could be anything and are therefore impossible to specifically include in voiced dialogue), I have to create an in-game persona. Using an extensive number of face and body-tweaking features, players can perform a wide range of plastic surgeries and craft almost any boxer they desire.
Once the aspiring champion is ready to go, Prizefighter throws you into the controversial world of sports entertainment. During the first few phases of "Boxing Legends" (the in-game documentary series), youíll be introduced to guys like Randall Hooper, a former cutman; Larry Easton; Mario Van Peebles; a couple of well-dressed agents; and the title man himself, Don King Ė all in full-motion video. Heather Vandeven makes an appearance along with several other hotties youíll remember for their aesthetics, not for their acting skills.
This hoopla stems from the assumption that by making the player the star of the game, he will be drawn deeper into the experience. But while the full-motion video quality is nearly on par with DVD, the real-time sequences are not well produced. Character animations are particularly standout, and not for any of the right reasons. In the ring, boxers are fluid but repetitive, featuring 2K Sportsí trademark skin textures and sweat that drips from each boxerís chest. But it doesnít matter which boxer you choose Ė whether youíre in the shoes of a pro with an enduring legacy or in control of a neophyte youíve created from scratch, youíll find that these pugilists fight exactly the same.
Out of the ring, signs of life are all but nonexistent. Characters walk, gesture and perform other human-like actions, but they canít seem to get their lips to separate. Instead, their mouths jerk up and down to simulate the act of talking. All the while, voice-overs play to create a picture thatís supposed to be more modern and more next-gen than the previous way of implementing a storyline: mounds of text boxes. Just donít mistake Prizefighter for one of those Sega CD video discs. Underneath the scripted monotony is an actual game of boxing, one with famous faces, a curious physics engine, and gameplay that dares to be the anti-Fight Night.
Larry Holmes, Kelly Pavlik and Ken Norton are part of the 40-man team of athletes, instantly providing a reason for boxing fans to investigate. After the initial documentary sequence, players are taken to an office setting where they can read/hear messages (greetings, praise for winning, offers to improve your media image, etc.), play training games, and enter the ring for fame and fortune. Donít be fooled by the variety Ė most of these options are a hands-off experience. When given the chance to, say, train with a specialist, you wonít actually get to work with the best of the best. Instead, the game shows your boxer walking away from his usual gym, followed by the image of a newspaper being spun onto the screen. Thatís it. No interactivity, not even an ounce of visual depth Ė just a walk and a paper. Or as it is more commonly known, the morning festivities of senior citizens everywhere.
Given the hit-or-miss nature of mini-games, it shouldnít surprise anyone that Prizefighterís training mode is completely devoid of entertainment. The heavybag and shuttle run are nothing more than an exercise in button-mashing; focus mitts, speed bag and jump rope are games of press the right button at the right moment (think Guitar Hero without the fun and without great music). Surprisingly, you donít have to endure these mini-games to reap the benefits Ė simply press the ĎXí button to automate the whole thing. As punishment for your lack of involvement, fewer points will be rewarded for each training session. Trust me: you wonít care.
All of this is necessary to reach the point in which the gameís genre finally becomes apparent: by watching or skipping FMVs, playing or skipping mini-games, and by sitting for 10 Ė 20 seconds while each loads, youíll gain access to a plethora of in-the-ring battles.
As a game that hates the thought of being anything like those other boxing titles, Prizefighter is built more like a traditional fighting game. The X, Y, A and B buttons are dedicated to the head jab, head straight, left head hook and right head hook, respectively. Left and right uppercuts are executed by tapping two buttons (X+A and Y+B) simultaneously. Body punches, leaning punches, techniques, and stepping punches are also available, performed not with a combo but by holding down multiple buttons while pressing the left analog stick. Itís not an unnecessarily complex system. For almost the entire game, you can get by with just the basic head punches. When thatís not good enough, there are a half-dozen signature shots to unleash and those are strong enough to take out 1/3 of an opponentís full life meter.
Disappointingly, combos are not part of the Prizefighter experience. They were supposed to be, and may be there in spirit. But with a stamina system in place that dictates the number of punches you can unleash at one time, the game quickly shifts from user-friendly to user-offensive. The word ďsluggishĒ doesnít quite cut it. That implies a kind of gameplay thatís slow and hard to control. In Prizefighter, the gameplay is rarely quick but never hard to control. The fighters move so slowly and get tired so quickly that even when the player feels sluggish, the game itself is not.
This is only the beginning of your ringside quarrels. Whether your stamina is low or at full capacity, you will find it impossible to punch in-synch with your athlete. Ex: if you tap B, B, B, B (not a wise choice in the real world but works well in this game), your boxer will throw four right hooks. The hooks are performed very slowly. By the time the final punch is thrown, your thumb will have moved onto something else. But now youíre ahead of the next move, and soon youíll be ahead of two moves. There are only two ways your boxer will ever catch up to your thumb: (1) by not pressing anything for a few seconds or (2) by getting attacked, finally halting your reign of button incontinence.
Itís not uncommon for a punch to fly over an opponentís head, almost as if the boxer didnít want to inflict any damage. And itís very common for punches to miss entirely because youíre not standing close enough to your opponent, or for an attack to be botched by unlucky timing. If both fighters make a move at the same time, the one that came first is the one that wins out. In reality, both punches would collide, causing damage to each side. But this game isnít about reality. Not the one I grew up in, at least.
If Prizefighter had focused more on providing a killer gameplay experience and less on presenting an interactive documentary experience (a goal that wasnít achieved anyway), it might have been a real contender. But with lackluster combat and a cornucopia of side elements youíll gladly skip, this fighter is no prize.
Freelance review by Louis Bedigian (June 25, 2008)
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