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The contender
Fight Night Round 2 brings it

I've seen a lot of gruesome sights in my gaming career face-hugging aliens, ninjas ripping out people's spines, even an arcade light-gun game set in a torture chamber but I have never seen anything as disgusting as the inter-round "Cutman" scenes in EA Sports' new boxing sim, Fight Night Round 2. As your fighter collapses onto the stool in his corner, the game camera offers a close-up of his bloody, swollen face with a level of anatomical accuracy appropriate for a medical textbook. You then have the option of either grinding away at the swelling with what looks like a toenail brush, or dabbing the boxer's blood out of his eyes with a cotton swab. Thank goodness the Cutman segments last a maximum of 30 seconds.

Fight Night does a lot of things well, none more so than capturing the bone-crunching hits of professional boxing. This isn't a gleeful, Punch-Out-style interpretation of pugilism it's a gritty and mimetic experience that emphasizes aerosolized blood and spit as much as ducking and weaving. Punches land with wince-inducing thuds (the sound design is superb), and harder hits rock the entire screen, appearing to knock the game world slightly off its axis. And when one combatant is on the verge of being knocked down, the camera swoops in woozily and follows him to the mat like something out of Raging Bull.

"Total Punch Control" is what EA still calls its impressive control scheme. Flicking the right analog stick forward and diagonally to the right or left results in a jab from that side; moving the stick 90 degrees to the side and then forward throws a hook; and rolling it from the down position to the up position sends an uppercut. In this way, the more powerful punches take longer to throw, and are therefore easier to dodge. The only difficulty comes from the triggers. The L trigger toggles punches to the body and to the face, and also allows you to duck and dodge. The R trigger, combined with the right-hand analog stick, is used to block. It takes a good deal of practice to be able to use all these tools effectively, but after a couple hours it's hard to imagine playing a boxing game any other way.

A new addition to the Total Punch Control system (do the hip kids call it "TPC"?) is the Haymaker, which is a still more devastating blow. Throwing haymakers (which come in two flavors: hook and uppercut) is accomplished by a joystick motion very close to the Dragon Uppercut in Street Fighter II. Although missing with a haymaker opens up a fighter to all sorts of retribution, connecting with one can mark the end of a match. Early in your fighter's career, it's actually easy enough to win almost exclusively with haymakers, but developing bad habits early will hurt later.

Fight Night's career mode is solid. You can create a custom fighter (with an almost ridiculous amount of physical customization options), or you can pick a real fighter and re-imagine his career. Yes! This is what I've been talking about playing as a real person. Create-a-player is always a nice feature, but I'm a staunch believer that it's more fun to put oneself in the shoes of an established persona than to vainly attempt to integrate oneself into a fantasy world. In career mode, you can improve your boxer's attributes by training on a heavy bag, a light-up dummy, and in the weight room, which helps you climb the ladder in several weight classes. Beating better opponents not only increases your ranking, but nets you more cash that you can put toward better trainers, cutmen, entrance music and pyro, and you'd better believe it hotter chicks in your entourage.

In addition to Fight Night Round 2 cover boy Bernard Hopkins (who I believe was on some kind of collision course with Oscar de la Hoya last summer), there are plenty of real-life playable boxers. Only contemporary pugilists can be used in career mode, but one-off fights feature many legends of the sport, and the opportunity to re-enact Ali-Frazier III (the Thrilla in Manila) is reason enough to at least give this game a whirl.

I've spent enough time with the Street franchise lately that it comes as a breath of fresh air to play a no-frills sports simulation. Sure, Fight Night offers a plethora of useless sartorial options, and the announcer does say "Haymaker" in every sentence like it's a nervous tic, but at least he merely comments on the action without editorializing. Fight Night Round 2 is a knockout.

Score: 8.5 (out of 10)

Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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