While I consider myself to be a pretty big fan of sports games, but boxing games have never really caught my attention. Sure, I loved playing Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! on the NES, but that's pretty much been my experience with games of this ilk. I will admit that there is a definite appeal to pounding your opponent into submission and send him down to the canvas after a particularly crushing blow or combination. That feeling is magnified almost exponentially in EA Sports' latest boxing game, Fight Night Round 2, and the overall experience made a sport that I'm not very interested in, fun to play.
The play controls, which are primarily mapped to the two analog sticks and a few buttons, quickly become both easy and fun to use. On offense jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and even punishing haymakers are at your command by simply maneuvering the right analog stick in certain directions. On defense, the left analog stick and the shoulder buttons allow you to move your fighter, weave, block, and even parry incoming punches. As you become more comfortable with the controls, you'll learn that counterpunching and punch combinations are the keys to success—especially on the more challenging difficulty levels. It's especially satisfying to land a haymaker punch, as it will tend to stagger an opponent pretty often and also open up the chance for follow-up blows. Along with these controls, there's a button to initiate a clinch (it looks like a hug) with your opponent if you're low on energy, as well as a button for signature punches. There's even a button for illegal punches, which are effective, but can get you penalized or even disqualified if the ref sees it.
As the fight flows along, each fighter takes noticeable damage. Eyes become swollen shut, trickles of blood run from facial cuts or from the mouth, and bruising can be seen. In-between rounds, players can assume the role of a cutman in the corner and apply treatment to close cuts and reduce swelling. This is important as swelling can affect a fighter's agility, vision, and severe swelling can lead to cuts, which in turn can lead to a TKO if cuts become too numerous or severe. If a fighter's stamina bar fully empties during a round, this triggers a "KO moment" in which the fighter becomes susceptible to a knockdown if he absorbs many more punches (unless a clinch is initiated). During this "KO moment", the action slows down and the commentary fades, making for quite a dramatic effect. Eventually, too many knockdowns for one fighter will ultimately lead to a knockout, a technical knockout (TKO), or a judges' decision in one fighter's favor when the scheduled number of rounds ends.
The "KO moment"—and the knockdown that follows—are depicted with beautiful force in Fight Night Round 2. The replays of the punch(es) that floored the fighter in trouble are quite literally painful to watch. Sweat, saliva, and blood can fly as the bass-energized thuds of a fighter's punches hit home, all while Joe Tessitore's commentary conveys the excitement of the sequence. What's even cooler about this sequence is that it's sometimes possible to keep punching your opponent as he falls. Sure, it's not necessarily fair, but there's no denying that there's a little bit of satisfaction and even a "Take that!" exclamation while you pound away on the falling body. Quite literally, it's these moments that make Fight Night Round 2 the awesome experience that it is. I can almost guarantee that you'll wince or gasp when you see the replays of the carnage that you (or your opponent) cause.
Fight Night Round 2 has a pretty meaty career mode that takes players through the amateur and professional ranks with either a created fighter or one of a plethora of real-life fighters as you try to win multiple titles and trophies. As you play, you'll learn the basic controls while sparring against amateur opponents and go for the amateur championship; then, you'll progress to the pro ranks, where a ton of different opponents and challenges await you. As a professional, you'll start ranked 50th and work your way up through the ranks until you become the #1 contender. Along the way, you'll earn money which will be used to hire staff, such as specialized cornermen and ring girls (which increase your stamina). The money can also be used to buy new gear for your fighter, which can also improve his attributes. Before each fight, players also have the option of taking part in training sequences which can affect their fighter's attributes. The sequences are fun, although I eventually just let the computer auto-train my fighter and took my chances that way since I just wanted to get to the next bout. The career mode also offers side challenges, such as changing weight classes or fighting in a "Hard Hits" rules bout, where knockdowns—not points—decide the winner and can unlock some extra gear for purchase.
Visually, Fight Night Round 2 is impressive. Aside from the awesome knockdown replays that I mentioned earlier, there are some truly sweet graphics here. It's amazing to see the damage that your punches can cause. If you look close enough, you can even see sweat dripping down a fighter's body… that's detail for you. The animations are all there, from every punch to the obvious results of each punch. Knockdowns don't happen the same way twice. Sometimes the fighter will collapse into a corner, or get caught in the ropes, or just fall to his knees. The arenas that the bouts take place in are pretty realistic, including inside the famed Staples Center. The frame rate is steady, with no slowdown to speak of. One area of special note is the "Create a Champ" mode, which is almost as thorough as Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2005's GameFace II. Players can shape their created fighter's bodies and heads via the left and right analog sticks, plus there's a variety of tattoos, facial features, and other options to personalize your fighter however you wish.
Fight Night Round 2's aural presentation is mostly excellent. Joe Tessitore's commentary is exciting to listen to and can be pretty timely. After a while, you'll notice some repetition, but what's been recorded is very well done. The sound effects are spot on, as punches that find their mark come with a lot of bass and the grunts of the fighters are very believable. Listening to your cornermen between rounds may also give you strategy ideas. The music is licensed EA TRAX stuff, heavy with urban influence with edited lyrics galore. Rap goes with boxing, I guess, so that's what you get. If you don't like rap, tough. The game has Dolby Pro-Logic II encoding, for all you audiophiles out there to take advantage of. At the very least, even if you're using a standard stereo setup, you simply must turn the sound up at least once to hear the hits during the knockdown sequence. Trust me on this.
Fight Night Round 2 also has online play, although it's not exactly airtight. In a game where strategic and timely controller input is key to success, latency and a noticeable delay between making controller motions or pressing buttons and seeing the results on-screen can make for a somewhat disappointing online experience. Still, it is free to play online via the PS2, so there's no harm in trying it for yourself and it certainly extends the game's already commendable replay value.
Fight Night Round 2 isn't without its flaws. There seems to be too much of a leap in difficulty in the Career Mode when you reach the Top 20. It's sometimes a little tough to execute that haymaker when you really need it. There are some bouts where you might not need to block at all to win. Despite these issues, Fight Night Round 2 succeeds at delivering an overall fun boxing experience that can even attract people like me, who generally wouldn't give games like this the time of day in my spare time. At the very least, I encourage you to try this game. It really is that good, and once you score your first knockdown, chances are that you'll get as hooked as I have.