I am going to start by
saying that I was unimpressed with the previous incarnations of Knockout Kings. Sure, they
brought boxing back onto the gaming front, but they were cumbersome and disenchanting.
They left me missing my little wire frame buddy from Punch Out. It seemed the fun,
charming, and frustratingly shallow Ready To Rumble series would reign as console champ.
Not so. All the charm in the world wont get Knockout Kings 2001 out of my PS2.
Kings 2001 is a boxing sim at heart, with a few arcade touches here and there. For
instance, despite obvious attempts at realism such as licensing real fighters (male and,
graciously, female as well), referees, and commentators, the programmers couldnt
help but throw in some over the top knockdowns that send your boxer off of his or her
feet, or spinning in the air like a top. Also, you are able to set up your own fantasy
bout between boxers that span the decades, like Muhammad Ali vs. Evander Holyfield, and
others. This is one of the few games that has tried to walk the thin line between sim and
arcade and actually managed to succeed. The secret of its success in both areas is its
fighting system. On the surface it is simple enough that anyone with a decent sense of
video game control and good reflexes can have fun. But underneath that surface is a
finesse that that can only be discovered with experience. Let me explain.
The controller set up is simple enough to be illustrated on EA Sports
signature reference load screens. You use the directional buttons or right analog joystick
to move around the ring, or, in combination with the block buttons (L1 high, L2 low), to
lean, bob, weave, and duck. You use the button pad to jab, hook, cross, and uppercut, or,
in combination with the R1 and R2 buttons to throw automatic combos or powerful haymakers.
By holding down both R1 and R2, you can use illegal moves like head-butts, elbows, kidney
punches, or even hit below the belt. Ouch. Other button combinations allow you to taunt
and clinch and shove, etc. These will get you by in the beginning, but if you want to make
a real go of it you will have to fight smart. This means, above all, fighting defensively
and conserving your strength. A bar located directly under the health bar represents your
boxers stamina, and it is important. If you want to go twelve rounds with the champ,
it takes everything youve got. Those big hit combos and haymakers are fun to land,
but they will tire you out. Consistently using the jab to set up a hook or a good one-two
combo over the rounds will save your energy and wear the other guy down. Shots to the body
will take the wind out of your opponent fast. You can block all day long, but a well-timed
lean and counter is more effective. And, in a pinch, a hook to the shorts may cost you a
point, but may save you for the round. So, despite the simple control system, there is a
lot of room for strategy and refinement, and this will win over button pounding every
This is not to say that there arent problems, however. Combos are
achieved by pressing one button to punch and pressing the next before the first punch
lands, which can create an unintentional sense of lagging response time and sometimes
leads to overcompensation, i.e. throwing five punches when you intended to throw three.
This can be especially frustrating if you are low on stamina and are accidentally wearing
The game is divided into four modes: Career, Slugfest, Exhibition, and Fantasy
Fights. Career and Slugfest will likely occupy most of your time. In Career Mode you
create a player from scratch and vie for the title. You start by choosing a gym, a
trainer, and a cutman. Each city and trainer have their own characteristics that aid the
creation of your boxer. Choosing LA as your hometown, for example, will give you a bonus
in speed and stamina. You must choose a weight class and a fighting style. Each of the
three fighting styles (Boxer, Slugger, and Freestyle) is unique, and will take getting
used to. You also set the attribute levels for your boxer, consisting of Power, Speed,
Stamina, Chin, Heart, and Cuts. Each aids your boxer in a certain way, and when one is
lacking, you feel it. The look of your character is created from a choice of skins. Beyond
that you can pick tattoos, boxing colors, taunts, stance, etc. There are more options for
customization, but you get the point.
Once you have your character, you can train or get into the ring. Training
throughout the game will allow you to raise your attribute levels. The training here is
much better than in other games in that you actually work your way through moves, combos,
and defenses using a heavy bag or a computer opponent, rather than pounding buttons to
make your boxer jump rope. Yes, this is the sim of all sims, but it is not as intimidating
as it may sound. The menus are clear and intuitive, and it wont be long before you
are able to set goals to improve your personal strengths and weaknesses. Slugfest Mode,
then, is the instant gratification mode. Pick your boxers and go. But it is more than that
because they have taken out the stamina bar and all of the rulesyou are a fighter of
infinite strength, and everything is legal. Now thats fun. Exhibition is another
quick fight mode, but has the stamina bar and rules intact. Fantasy Fights allows you a to
choose from some prearranged favorites, such as Jack Dempsey vs. Joe Frasier, or Oscar de
la Hoya vs. Fernando Vargas. There are then options for adjusting gameplay, like whether
or not you want to include three knockdown TKOs or flash knockdowns. The latter are
knockdowns from key punches that have nothing to do with health or stamina, and are costly
and unpredictable. I had a lot more fun with this option set to "no."
All of this and I havent even gotten to game presentation yet. The
graphics in Knockout Kings 2001 are phenomenal. Using 3D face/body mapping technology, EA
Sports has created some damn fine recreations of real boxers. These guys and gals are
completely recognizable, down to chunk missing from Holyfields ear. Size, skin
texture, muscle tone, footwork and movement, even inflicted damage such as swelling and
cutsthis is the best there has ever been. Sure, you will still find the occasional
unnatural angle, and we still dont have working surface anatomy that allows muscles
to flex in tune with movement. But hey, this is all very nit-picky. This game goes all
out. The domed and open-air arenas are imaginative and contain every possible detail. You
can fight at Madison Square Garden, Caesars Palace, even in a Roman Coliseum, among
others. There are grand opening scenes to each fight and between-rounds you there are
replays, corner scenes, and the occasional model strutting the round cards for the
audience. In fact, the only complaints that I have are with the introduction sequences.
First, the crowd, which is fine as background, is not rendered any differently during
these scenes, so that what you have is a highly articulated fighter in all of his or her
graphical splendor standing next to a mass of garbled, ugly, 2D seat holders. Also, the
fighters have no entourage, robes or anything. Its just them, alone in their shorts,
walking to the ringnot much of a show.
The sound is impeccable as well. The effects of the punches are jarring, the
crowd chants and taunts, the commentators, well, commentate. As is EA Sports
tradition, the soundtrack consists of licensed songs from recognizable groups such as The
Black Eyed Peas "Its On." There are also rock and disco scores,
among others, so unless you were hoping to use the banjo solo from Deliverance as your
boxers theme, you should be happy. The commentary and coaching tracks arent
half bad, going so far as to include some boxing trivia. The only real problem comes when
each of the commentators and the referee has something to say and have to speak in
succession. This can cause very untimely comments, like the referee telling you to break
from a clinch long after the fact due to the commentators preprogrammed nonsense.
Knockout Kings 2001 will KO any other boxing game on the market right now. No, it
isnt perfect, and some will certainly think it slow and a little too sim-heavy.
These will probably be the fans of turbo-paced arcade fighters like Street Fighter or
Tekken. Hey, I love Tekken. But think about a real boxing match. These guys get tired, and
they certainly dont want to take a sword through the chest. Tekken it aint.
But it is fun, comprehensive, addictive, and it is about time.