Boxers and prisons have been tied together for a century. The most famous boxing promoter, Don King, spent four years in jail for manslaughter.Sonny Liston was jailed for armed robbery. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape. Andre Bishop is just another name in this long tradition. There's one difference -- Andre Bishop is a fictional boxer in Fight Night Champion.
For years, EA's Fight Night series has been hailed as the true king of the ring. But in each of the four previous games, something was missing. Sure, it had cool punching controls, awesome fantasy matches (Ali vs. Tyson!), and the most realistic-looking boxers around, but it had no soul. If you watch boxing, even just occasionally, you know that there's a lot of emotion expended before, during, and after two men step into the ring.
Champion Mode finally captures some of this with a Hollywood story that could have been a script from a lost Rocky sequel. The story mode starts with Andre Bishop fighting bare-knuckle in a prison boxing ring. Obviously, Andre did something bad and cost himself a chance at greatness. No sooner has your first opponent been dropped to the mat and Champion Mode flashes back to Andre's gold medal match at the World Amateur Championships.
Amateur boxing is kind of like having sex with your clothes on -- safe, uninteresting, and not worth a smoke afterwards. You box with head gear on, earning points for each successful clean hit against your opponent. Score the most points, you're going to win a gold medal. Everyone has to start somewhere and for Andre, that's his start.
What follows is a five-hour journey highlighting the rise and fall (and rebirth) of Andre Bishop. Like most boxers of any interest in a piece of entertainment, Andre had a rough childhood and it was always tough to make ends meet. But the ring gave him hope. His father was a boxer too, though he never had his great moment. Now Andre and his brother, who's also a boxer, hope to do what the old man couldn't -- win that belt and become the greatest fighter in the world.
Andre's story is heavy-handed melodrama, from the love interest to the sinister promoter to the lurking heavyweight menace, Isaac Frost. Yet boxing is at its best when it feels like something personal is at stake. Is it cheesy at times? Sure. Is the story obvious? Yes. But matches don't feel like hollow technical exhibitions. Andre always has something to lose and that makes the fights personal. They matter. There's a reason to succeed outside of earning an extra victory notch on your belt.
Winning in Champion Mode isn't always about being the last man standing when the bell rings. There are times when the story collides with what's happening in the ring. You might break your hand on someone's head and have to fight with your off hand the entire match. Or you may need to score an early knockdown to earn the attention of the media and get folks to take you seriously. Whatever the conditions, they continually reinforce the story's relevance. This isn't just Fight Night, it's Andre Bishop's Fight Night.
This could easily have felt artificial, but the cutscenes and matches are smartly interwoven. A lengthy story scene might include an exchange about how to approach your next match. Sure, you might be told to work the body of an opponent because the game wants to teach you the benefits of attacking someone's midsection, but it feels like a natural conversation in a five-hour boxing movie.
Champion Mode isn't all Gold Gloves boxing. There are a few blips, like rushed pacing, some slow-loading cutscenes that disrupt the gameplay, and a few match conditions that turn tedious. Those issues aside, the story mode offers something totally new to the series and something completely necessary.
Champion Mode feels a bit like an experiment, like dipping a toe in the water to see if story-driven gameplay can work for Fight Night. It does. The next Fight Night should be built completely around story. Jettison the rest and put the focus in the one area where there's a connection to real boxing, where the emotion of a person's personal journey is properly expressed when they drive their fist into someone else's face.