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by EA Sports

kop2_a13_a-01.jpg (4271 bytes)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 won’t get Knockout Kings 2001 out of my PS2.

kop2_a13_b-01.jpg (4574 bytes)Knockout 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 couldn’t 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.

kop2_a13_c-01.jpg (4323 bytes)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 boxer’s stamina, and it is important. If you want to go twelve rounds with the champ, it takes everything you’ve 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 time.

kop2_a13_d-01.jpg (3959 bytes)This is not to say that there aren’t 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 yourself out.

kop2_a13_e-01.jpg (4132 bytes)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.

kop2_a13_f-01.jpg (4244 bytes)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 won’t 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 rules—you are a fighter of infinite strength, and everything is legal. Now that’s 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 TKO’s 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."

kop2_a13_g-01.jpg (4279 bytes)All of this and I haven’t 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 Holyfield’s ear. Size, skin texture, muscle tone, footwork and movement, even inflicted damage such as swelling and cuts—this is the best there has ever been. Sure, you will still find the occasional unnatural angle, and we still don’t 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, Caesar’s 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. It’s just them, alone in their shorts, walking to the ring—not much of a show.

kop2_a13_h-01.jpg (4093 bytes)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’ "It’s On." There are also rock and disco scores, among others, so unless you were hoping to use the banjo solo from Deliverance as your boxer’s theme, you should be happy. The commentary and coaching tracks aren’t 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 isn’t 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 don’t want to take a sword through the chest. Tekken it ain’t. But it is fun, comprehensive, addictive, and it is about time.

Jeremy Kauffman


Ups: Great graphics; good balance sim and arcade; lots of customization; good control.

Downs: Some finishing touches could be added; control is a bit tricky at first; a bit slow-paced for most fighting game fans.

System Reqs:
Sony PlayStation 2


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