April 4, 2007 - I'd rather watch Rocky V twice than play through Rocky Balboa; what else do you need to know?
No, seriously. I tried very hard to like Ubisoft's homage to last year's fantastic motion picture, but there are just too many technical obstacles in the way. Take, for instance, the incredibly multifarious control scheme. Instead of just reusing the basic button configurations of the already-released Rocky console titles (which worked just fine), Balboa adds a layer of frustration by overcomplicating the simple process of punching.
There are no less than five different hooks that players can throw per arm, four different straights, three different uppercuts, and a myriad of counterpunches that only sometimes match their lead controls. In total, you're looking at dozens of different punches that rely on face-button and analog nub combinations that don't always work. Part of the problem is that the stick isn't sensitive enough to react to your finger's subtle movements between commands, while an even bigger issue is the fact that the scheme is just too convoluted for a "pick up and play" format.
Rocky had to press 59 different buttons to throw that hook.
Then there are the "Boxer Moods," which are some of the most unbalanced and ultimately worthless power-ups to ever come along in digital pugilism. Meant to illustrate what temperament your fighter currently has, the Boxer Moods range from "Normal" to "Dancer" to "Eye of the Tiger." Depending on which mood is currently in use, your fighter can do a variety of different things -- from throwing a flurry of faster punches to hitting much harder than usual. There are nine different moods in total, but none of them really matter to the gameplay except one: The Power Mood. Once activated, the Power Mood turns you into a human wrecking machine that lets you knock your opponent down with 4-5 blows within a certain time limit. In the fights you'll actually manage to win, 99% of them will be because of this feature (which essentially makes the aforementioned control complexity even more useless).
Speaking of winning fights, good luck doing so; even on the default difficulty setting, Rocky Balboa puts up quite the challenge. AI sees most of your punches coming and defends and counters the majority of your intended shots. This would actually be a nice feature if the fighting system allowed for quick responses and defensive movement, but again, the clunky controls keep that from happening. As a result, you can expect to take quite the peppering. Getting up once you've been knocked down the first dozen times is maddening too -- it's a horizon-based system that requires you to center your vision, but is so pinpoint precise that it has a massive learning curve.
Finally, if what's mentioned above wasn't enough to seal Rocky's fate, this is: The game crashes... a lot. In six-plus hours, the UMD froze on me more than seven different times -- and that was with the latest update. Tack on loads that are nearly a minute in length and suspend mode recoveries that are almost as long, and Mr. Balboa goes from being behind on the scorecards to getting into some serious trouble.
To be fair, Rocky Balboa isn't all tragedy. Digital Fiction has done a great job of recreating the fighters from the movies with surprising detail and style. Rocky, Drago, Clubber Lang, Apollo, and Mason Dixon fight just like they did in the movies -- complete with mannerisms and punch types. Each background is a dead ringer for their inspiration as well and the ad hoc mode works pretty well. Additionally, multiple game types such as Historical Fights, Fast Lane, and Exhibition adds some extra value to the package and the unlockables are handled nicely.
Too bad the gameplay can't support them better.
Rocky Balboa the game is the complete opposite of Rocky Balboa the movie. That is, it isn't very interesting and it has a severe lack of fun. Had the control scheme been simplified and the movements been made looser, Rocky could have had a better chance. Stronger quality control and faster load times would have helped too. As it stands now, though, the Italian Stallion's last fight isn't a memorable one... or to quote Rocky's trainer Duke from the previous motion picture, "It's a hurtin' bomb."