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HBO Boxing (PSX) Review

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If I weren't such a cheapskate, I would no doubt subscribe to HBO on my satellite dish. But why spend $10 a month on movies I don't want to watch? The only thing of note on HBO are the occasional fights. Now that Acclaim has released HBO Boxing for the Sony PlayStation, I never have to think about ordering HBO. HBO Boxing is fully licensed, as evident by some of the big name boxers. How do names like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Rocky Marciano, Macho Camacho, and Mr. Lean Mean Grillin' Machine himself, George Foreman, sound? Besides retired boxers, HBO Boxing packs in a few current names, including Fernando Vargas and Roy Jones Jr. There are some brawling chicks in the game, namely Mia St. John and Bridgett Riley. Let the cat fights begin! Featuring several game modes and a different approach on boxing than the current crop of boxing titles, HBO Boxing is an intriguing title worthy of a look.

Presentation/Graphics : 75
Admittedly, the graphics in HBO Boxing are a mixed bag. The boxer models have intricately detailed trunks, gloves, and shoes. There are several dozen shoe designs with varying color schemes and patterns, and an almost equal number of trunks. Likewise, the number of body styles is endless. Hair styles are numerous and range from the normal to the outrageous. Unfortunately, the boxers' faces don't maintain the same high quality as the rest of the bodies. In the default camera view, the faces are nearly faceless. Only when significant facial damage is done is there a visible change in appearance. The game utilizes a real-time "damage" model to show bloodied faces from cuts.

Aside from the boxers, the ring and environment both look good. The ring has ropes which bend when pressed against and vibrate once the load is removed. The ring design varies from venue to venue. If fighting in a back alley boxing club, the ring is nondescript. Once you hit the big time under the lights of Caesar's Palace, the entire ring looks more professional. Likewise, the graphics outside the ring change with location. In the aforementioned club, expect an empty house. Benches, gray walls, and other trappings of such an environment adorn the room. Once at a real venue, the fans turn out and lights, attached to rendered scaffolding, shine brightly. The crowd is comprised of blocky textures but serves its purpose.

While the graphics are fairly fresh, the animations could use some work. Punch animations look good, as do the boxers' responses to getting hit. The boxers respond in numerous ways to punches to both the body and head. As the boxers move about the ring, however, the walks are similar crab style motions. But the oddest animation occurs when a boxer gets his bell rung - a boxer will stand with his feet spread and simply wobble in place. That is, think of planting your feet and moving your upper torso in a circle. Boxers will do this for 2 to 3 seconds during which time they are vulnerable. If a boxer gets knocked down, he hits the canvas with one of several canned falling moves. Once on the canvas boxers will sit up, take a knee, lie on their back, or lie stunned face down.

As with most boxing titles, there is also an issue with collision detection. At times you'll swear a punch connected only to see it go right through your opponent. It does occur often, particularly at close range. Also, the default camera can lose sight of the action at times. Usually isolated to the corners, if the two boxers are near the corner the camera will situate itself outside the ring behind the corner cushion. Expect to fight blind for a few moments.

Presentation/Audio : 70
In keeping with the HBO name, HBO Boxing utilizes a blow-by-blow commentary. Veteran HBO ringside commentator Larry Merchant backs up Jim Lampley with the calls. In addition, Harold Lederman lends his talents at times. The commentary is rudimentary and only occurs at the larger venues. Don't expect to hear talking down at the fight club. Under the lights of Vegas, Lampley calls the action with little flair. He'll comment at times about a punch. Then, at the tail end, the game searches the archives for the name of the boxer. An obvious change in tone occurs as Lampley blurts out the name of the boxer. The sounds of boxing are fairly realistic. Blows are greeted with thuds and grunts by the boxers. Overall, the sound is decent but not an integral part of the game.

Interface/Options : 80
Upon booting HBO Boxing, you'll find four different boxing modes and the typical options menu. The game has a QuickBout mode where two randomly selected boxers hit the ring in a random location. If you want more control over the match, the Single Bout mode allows you to select the boxers. A decent career mode lets you create a boxer from scratch and move up the ranks. Finally, the Pay-Per-View mode is a single elimination tournament with up to 8 boxers.

In some of the modes, you can change the rules of the match. The options menu allows you to set sound and controller options as well as the "rules of the bout." The rules are plentiful, with items like fight and round length, judges' judging styles, and referee strictness included. Judges can call the fight evenly or be prejudiced towards certain boxing styles. Depending on the options selected, the referee may stop the fight if significant cuts open up or a boxer is injured. However, I noticed one glaring omission from the rules. In many fights either I have been knocked down or have knocked my opponent down more than 3 times. There is no 3-knockdown rule in effect in the game, and nor is there an option for one.

The career mode is loaded with more options than can be discussed here. Suffice it to say, you can create a boxer with 13 appearance parameters, 9 boxing styles, and special boxing moves. All the options are spelled out in the well-written manual, which describes just about everything. The exceptions include the stamina meter, which measures the remaining stamina of your boxer. While it provides the aforementioned definition, it fails to discuss the tiny meter directly underneath the stamina bar. This bar is some sort of punch strength. Also missing are button combinations for some advanced moves. Sports Gaming received a beta version of the game well before we received the final release version. The beta version came with a cheat sheet of moves, and looking back at that many moves aren't mentioned in the final manual. It's up to you to find them all. From my time with the game, it appears to increase if you fight aggressively.

Gameplay : 70
Acclaim has some tough competition. EA's Knockout Kings series has continued to improve year after year, with Knockout Kings 2001 being the best yet. HBO Boxing attempts to be a true boxing simulation but falls a little short. Still, it's not a bad game for a first effort. Briefly, the game modes described above vary in depth. The QuickBout and Single Bout modes are over relatively fast. Likewise, you can breeze through the Pay-Per-View mode in no time. The meat of the game lies with the Career Mode. Here, you create a boxer in one of 3 weight classes and assign some attributes. Next, you are given 3000 credits which allow you to improve your boxer and to hire some help. You'll need a manager, trainer, and promoter to get you to the top. There are several levels of help, and the quality of your team depends on the coin you spend. Once the team is in place, you start at the bottom of the charts and move up. You can challenge any boxer within your immediate rank. Depending on your promoter, another boxer's camp may accept the fight or reject you. If accepted, it's off to training camp. If you have any credits remaining, you can purchase training regimens that affect your skills (such as stamina, strength, ability to cut, etc.). The regimens unfortunately are non-interactive. At any time you can bail on the training (or are forced to because of lack of funds) and head to the ring. Then, depending on your performance, you move up or down in the ranks and earn more credits.

In the ring, the boxing is unique. HBO Boxing implements a two-handed control system. One glove will glow to show the active hand. With the active hand, you can throw 4 different punches to the head with either the square (cross), triangle (jab/straight), O (hook), or X (uppercut) button. Body punches use the same buttons but with the R1 button applied simultaneously. To switch hands, toggle the L1 button. The control scheme takes a little getting used to, but once you've mastered it you'll recognize the exceptional control it gives you over some of its competitors. In addition to standard punches, 2- and 3-punch combos are available along with a trademark and special bunch. You can block high or low with the L2 or R2 buttons, respectively. You can even tie your opponent up and slip punches when being held.

The exceptional control is fine except that CPU opponents tend to be overly aggressive. Rather than roam around the ring and pick times to punch, I felt that the moment I got close my opponent would wail on me. Contrast this to the punch and run style I employed in Knockout Kings 2001. Here I couldn't set up punches to my liking. Part of the problem lies with the speed of the boxers as they pace about the ring. They walk slowly, and that affects your strategy in approaching an opponent. Once inside, a few blows to the head renders your boxer slightly stunned and unable to counterattack. While clinching does help, you are left with the defenseless feeling the controls are sluggish. The preview sheet which accompanied the earlier beta version mentioned that the career mode is "no walk in the park." Sure enough. I cursed the game often. With practice, however, I have learned how to master my opponents.

Unfortunately, the mastery comes about in the same way Knockout Kings 2000 did - punch combos. Throwing combos is the easy way to defeat almost any opponent. Just like KK2K, you can throw a combo almost exclusively. This takes the challenge away, but if you can duke it out without relying on the combo the game is more enjoyable.

Depending on your taste, another aspect of HBO Boxing may grate on you. Much like real boxing, knockdowns can occur out of nowhere. If you catch an opponent wide open on a counterpunch, you can send him to the canvas in short order. Be careful, as the same can happen to you. Of course, with the 3- knockdown rule not available, the number of knockdowns can be outrageous. In one fight against Fernando Vargas, I knocked Vargas down nearly 20 times in 8 rounds. Clearly, this is another flaw in the game. Some boxers, despite being knocked down repeatedly, always get up. My Vargas fight ended in a unanimous decision for me.

The judging can also be suspect. While I agree with most of the scoring, there are times where the judges clearly make a mistake. I totally dominated an opponent in one round but was knocked down by a lucky punch once. Having landed more punches and causing my opponent to lose more stamina than myself, I figured I won the wrong. I was shocked to find the judges scored it 10-8 in my opponent's favor. On the positive side, the game has a great referee. I've had a few contests actually stopped by the ref by TKO. In one instance cuts prematurely ended the fight. In another bout, I was brutally punishing my opponent with body shots. The ref stepped in to end the fight. I even had an opponent quit on me.

Replay Value : 75
As mentioned earlier, HBO Boxing takes some time to master. The two-handed punching system is more complicated than the arcade-like controls found in the competing boxing titles. If you take time to learn the controls, you'll find a decent game. There are some obvious flaws in the game, but the game can be enjoyable nonetheless. Also, the Career Mode can be frustrating at times due to the aggressive CPU opponents. It takes time to improve your boxer to a point where he's competitive. Furthermore, the game has the most replay value in the Career Mode. The other modes tend to be too simple, especially if you exploit the punch combos.

Overall : 73
HBO Boxing is a decent game. There are some flaws in the game, but Acclaim should be applauded for bringing the title to market. This is the inaugural edition of the game, and it shows. Since it is the first in the series, we can't expect it to be as good as the older and more polished Knockout Kings franchise. However, the foundation has been laid for an exceptional boxing title in the future. The two-handed boxing controls give gamers unprecedented freedom. And while most of the game modes are easy, the Career Mode is no pushover. If you've been looking for an alternative to Knockout Kings, HBO Boxing is clearly the number two contender.

By: James Smith 12/27/00

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