Reviewed: October 22, 2004
Released: September 28, 2004
You just can’t expect UbiSoft to keep cranking out endless Tom Clancy games forever (we wish). So, sooner or later, it behooves them to branch out into more standard video game fare like Prince of Persia and Beyond Good & Evil.
While boxing movies are not the biggest genre of movies, they do have a certain appeal: The underdog. Everybody loves to see the little guy go up against seemingly impossible odds and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Case in point, the Rocky series of movies involves the titular character of Rocky Balboa. From the streets of Philadelphia to Moscow, Sylvester Stallone’s characterization was strong enough to merit him two Oscar nominations in 1976 (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor – though he won neither). It is a testament to the popularity of the character that he was able to make no less than four sequels, and that almost 30 - yeah, that’s right, thirty – years later, we’re still hearing about him.
There have been boxing games around since the Atari 2600. And while they’ve gotten more sophisticated like the Knockout Kings series from media juggernaut EA, there are certain criteria for a really good boxing game that never change: easy controls, great graphics, a reasonable learning curve, and likeable characters. That’s where Rocky Legends comes in. Building on the success of the movie series, the player takes on the role of the celluloid pugilist as he goes from rags to riches. If you’ve ever wanted to fatten the lip of Clubber Lang or Apollo Creed in just three rounds, this is your chance.
I’ve always been a fan of EA Sports’ Knockout Kings if only for the create-a-character mode. I’m just a sucker for putting myself into a game. It doesn’t bode well that this game doesn’t offer that choice. But that doesn’t mean this game isn’t fun.
The menu system is amazing for a PS2 game, with a fluid tie-in to the movies. I mean it’s like looking at the menus of some Rocky DVD collection. Full motion scenes from the movies flash by in the background as the familiar anthems pulsate insistently. It seriously made me want to see the movies all over again and I wasn’t particularly blown away when I first saw them. But that’s the real strength of this game.
Compared to games like Knockout Kings which have had years of practice refining their take on the sweet science, Rocky Legends brings to the table a chance to live the lives of whatever memorable character you wish from the movies. So what you miss in having actual legends of boxing like Frazier, Marciano, Louis, or Ali, you get in the concentrated versions of such careers in the forms of Lang, Creed, Drago and Balboa. Let’s face it, few people have seen the real deals fight, but a lot of us have seen the movies. It’s not such a bad idea when you think about it.
As one would expect, the most natural mechanic for improving your character’s abilities in the obligatory Career Mode is hitting the gym. Through a series of mini-games like Drago’s Squat Push, Clubber’s Chin-up, Apollo’s Sparring and even Chasing the Chicken (don’t ask), you can augment your character’s speed, stamina and power. The only problem here is that the game is fairly unforgiving when it comes to your performance, but leaving out this segment would have been a rookie mistake that Venom avoids handily.
The combat as it were is nicely laid out for beginner and expert alike. The left analog stick handles your movement in all situations, but is contextually useful for blocking (when holding down the L1 button) as well. Your standard compass buttons control your high and low punches for your left and right hand individually, while the R1 button adds the deadly uppercut to the mix. There’s even a taunt animation when you press your select button, but using the L1 and select button together to push your opponent is an odd choice seeing as your L2 and R2 buttons are unassigned. In any case, it doesn’t take long to put together a series of effective combos without even looking at the instructions for those like myself who shun such things.
While the game doesn’t rely on arcade-y aspects of some sports games like power-up tokens and such, there is the clever audience bar that measures the crowd’s reaction to your performance. Fill up the bar by landing some good punches and dodging your opponent’s fury and you might have the words SUPER X 3 appear on your screen, which allows you to execute three devastating power punches in succession. Nice.
Load times are thankfully lean, but I sometimes sit and wonder wistfully if we’ll ever get to a point where games load in the background without us having to see static renders instead of jumping right into the action. In a perfect world, eh?
Rocky Legends does a nice job of visually recreating key moments from the movies with excellent presentation despite not having the mighty pockets of Electronic Arts. Venom Games admirably manages to make an impressive showing with this license. Whereas Knockout Kings is gorgeous and recreates real boxers with uncanny likenesses, Rocky Legends does more than an adequate job of bringing the villains of the movie alive with mere polygons right down to real-time bruising and bleeding.
The cut-scenes are nicely done, but character models lack the polish of the actual versions that do battle in the ring. The quality resembles what we’ve seen in games like The Suffering, especially when you play a career with Clubber Lang, who starts out in prison. Not at all bad for a PS2 game even though the XBox version is undoubtedly superior. What I particularly enjoy is the tasteful use of motion blur and slow motion to add drama and impact to fights. The quick replays really lend weight to the rhythm of the game in its attempt to capture the spirit of the movies. Nice work, Venom.
In this modern age of gaming, with the quality of hardware we have, there just isn’t any excuse to have bad sound. Luckily, Venom does not drop the ball in this respect. The punches, the crowds, and the ambient sounds of each particular venue are represented well in this game and certainly on par with anything EA’s put out.
But, I can’t say enough how much the music contributes to this game. In a time when sports games are replete with hip-hop flavor of the month soundtracks, the favorite songs of the movies (“Eye of the Tiger”, “Gonna Fly Now”, et al) really hit the right note, adding to the dynamic presentation and overall energy of the game.
To be honest, this game is basically for fans of the movies. That’s not to say it doesn’t have anything to offer outside of that. But the esoteric nature of a game based on a series of movies and its central characters automatically limits its scope, right?
Where this setup really hurts the game is in its lack of any kind of personalization of the characters. You can’t even buy new outfits a la Tiger Woods 2005. Your “store” merely allows for the purchasing of new arenas (from the movies) and fighters (characters from the movies), which doesn’t do a lot for replayability once you’ve earned them all. To add insult to injury, there’s no chance of dealing out a beatin’ to, say, a real Russian in an online mode. This is the bane of modern console gaming if you ask me. I mean, how hard is it to throw in a little broadband love?
Ultimately, even for fans, the novelty does wear off leaving little reason to ever pay more than the magic $20 price point at which this title will likely be found before too long.
Any fan of the legendary Rocky movies will no doubt get a kick out of hearing the familiar music behind the memorable characters in the series so well represented in this game. Those people unfamiliar with the movies (all 5 of them), might yet enjoy the glossy presentation that precedes the effective gameplay. But if you’re looking to add a boxing game that not only allows for more customization and the ability to take the fight online with friend or foe across the globe, you’ll probably prefer a different game. In the end, you have an enjoyable boxing entry from Ubisoft that might not knock out the kings, but it ain’t no bum.