FaceBreaker Xbox 360, PS3 Review

FaceBreaker. Just roll that around your tongue for a second. It’s a great title for a boxing game, especially one that appears to be much more the cartoon-based arcade game than it does serious pugilism simulator. With a name like FaceBreaker, one would expect and demand proper crunching hits, faces that mould like putty and juicy, disgusting sound effects. FaceBreaker provides this.

Unfortunately, that’s about all it provides.

Playing FaceBreaker is like a master-class in frustrating gameplay decisions. While the undeniably attractive, colourful graphics draw the eye, the spiteful, obtuse gameplay is frankly repulsive. At face value, it may sound an attractive prospect – batter the daylights out of cartoon opponents, with controls so simple they must be intuitive and the possibility of launching a finishing move that causes real-time distortion and the facial fracturing that gives this mess its title. You might well think that, as did I, as I naively wandered into FaceBreaker’s not so tender embrace. Believe it or not, boxing is a very complicated sport. It may seem to be no more than two overgrown lumps of steak with big gloves on knocking seven shades of sugar out of each other, but there is more to it than that. Strategy, athletic prowess, agility and and the knowledge of exactly how far your body can go all play a huge part in the sport. FaceBreaker takes this concept, so lovingly developed by EA with the Fight Night series, and throws it straight in the gutter.

The mechanics of the sport are now reduced to little more than “high attack”, “low attack”, “block” and a related counter-attack. Bouts last no more than moments, and consist of strategy no more evolved and intricate than Rock, Paper, Scissors. More attention appears to have been lavished on the way an animated jaw-line would quiver after a heavy blow than has been put to actually considering how the game will actually play. What may seem like refreshing back-to-basics gameplay (as hinted at by the game’s admittedly appealing characterisation and over the top atmosphere), soon degenerates into a mess of easy to pull off, difficult to block combos and frustrating unblockable, instant knock-out finishing moves. Even more frustratingly, the AI can and will utilize the exact same tactics against you. All pretense at strategy goes straight out the window the moment the bell rings as both you and your opponent both spam cheap shots and hope to be the first to hit the combo limit to unleash the aforementioned unblockable finisher. Once you realise that every fighter has their own particular Achilles heel to exploit, the rounds become farcical (and not in a good way), as you end up trying one tactic after the other until you stumble across the winning one and spam it to victory. While you feel grateful for having finished the round, the clunking nature of repeating failure until blind chance brings you to a solution somewhat ruins the illusion of skillful play and the satisfaction of besting your foe.

Unfortunately for FaceBreaker, the dubious design decisions don’t end there. Playing through the single-player campaign is a recipe for a disaster – controllers-smashed-in-frustration disaster. Like nearly every hand-to-hand combat game released, the ‘story’ mode consists of fighting one opponent after the other, pitting your skills against the computer until you’ve worked your way through every character on the roster. Fail to win, and you try again. FaceBreaker does something different. I wish I could say it was a change for the better. No, where FaceBreaker fails on this tried-and-tested formula is by making it possible to fall in the rankings. Get knocked out by one opponent three times in a row and you get relegated back down the ladder to the previous opponent. You’ll have to fight them all over again to progress. So, if you manage to defeat an enemy by absolute, sheer fluke, after more than an hour of trying to defeat him, be prepared to dive back down to his level if you fail to beat the next guy. It happened to me, and it was teeth-grittingly hideous.

So, what does FaceBreaker do right? Well, the game does look very nice. The characters are all nicely modelled, and the cute comic-book graphics suit the atmosphere EA were aiming for down to a tee. The game also allows you to map your own beautiful face right into the game, using either the PS3 Eye or the Xbox Live Vision cameras. This is a great idea, particularly if you were hoping to play the game with friends (or deadly enemies). After all, if I’ve learnt nothing from family Christmases, there’s nothing friends and family like more than punching each other into unconsciousness.

Beyond that, there’s not really very much to recommend FaceBreaker. It’s clear what EA were aiming for – a fun, friendly faux-boxing game that encouraged short bursts of fun gameplay, suitable for the so-called ‘casual gamer’ (if such a beast exists). However, the attempt has been botched so magnificently that FaceBreaker is as close to a monument to ‘how things should not be done’ as it is possible to get from such a renowned developer. Of late, I have had an enormous amount of respect for EA’s new games. Moving away from sequel after sequel has been nothing but good for the company – new IP such as Mirror’s Edge and Spore showed that EA was heading for even greater things. FaceBreaker, as a unique IP itself, is a single missed note in the harmony of EA’s 2008 release schedule. A shame, to be honest, as it looked so promising in the screenshots.

C’est la vie. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches.

(what, you didn’t think I’d get through the whole review without using that, did you?)

[You’re fired – Ed.]