I’m an avid boxing fan. I was at one point in my life an active amateur boxer. As I’ve grown older and left my youth behind, a lack of free time has taken from me my freedom to practice my favorite martial art. I’ve been unable to step into a ring and swap punches freely with an opponent. As evidenced by old fighters coming out retirement well past their best years, there’s something addicting about getting punched and returning the favor.
It’s hard to explain, even to myself, why I miss it so much. It was an adrenaline rush, for sure, but the greater effect was in the sense of communion I felt with my opponent. A level of trust gets established when you’re trying to hurt each other without hurting each other too much. At the end of each session, as romantic as it sounds, my soul felt a little bit closer to my opponent’s soul.
This is all basically just to say that I love boxing, and I miss it. “Knockout League” from Grab Games, then, has a tall order from me.
In “Knockout League,” you’re expected to stand in one spot. Footwork is important in boxing, but I’m willing to concede footwork in a VR boxing game, as it would be nearly impossible to implement without an actual boxing ring and ropes. However, there are many other mechanics at play that can maintain a respectable level of realism.
Anyone familiar with the classic “Punch-Out” series will be familiar with the mechanics already, except that it’s required to physically perform the actions rather than hitting the buttons. Doug Johnson, the owner of the game’s gym and my trainer, walked me through this in the tutorial. He taught me how to duck to the left and the right, under my opponents “overhand” punches. He taught me how to duck under my opponents hooks. And he taught me how to time my opponents punches to either block them, or perform a “hard block” counter if done just before impact.
While it’s relatively straightforward to read Doug’s movements and their corresponding defensive maneuvers, these did not translate perfectly to practice in the actual boxing match. Doug trains and attacks from clear angles, but the arcade style of the opponents tends towards animated, wild attacks whose angles are difficult to calculate even if seen in advance. For example, one opponent stepped widely to her side in a motion that looked like an overhand attack, or at the very least a hook. Only after failing to dodge it multiple times did I realize that it was likely an uppercut that required dodging in the opposite direction to defend against. Once I was able to successfully dodge the punch, I saw clearly why I needed to move in that direction to dodge it.
It’s important in real boxing and this game to always keep your eyes on your opponent.
However, defense is only one half of the game in boxing. It’s important to remember to include some “hit” with your “not get hit.” And this is where Knockout League delivers its most promising service as a game.
Knockout League is advertised as monitoring punch variety, speed, and power with its punches. And although I couldn’t quantitatively detect much difference, I did notice that my opponents felt like they’d go down more quickly when I varied my punch angle in my flurries and when I focused on fitting more punches in the flurry window. This kept me from getting lazy, and it kept the intensity high as matches got close.
It wasn’t perfect, however. There were times when I saw my glove graphic clip through my opponent’s face with no result, mid flurry, and it ruined the flow I had. But it wasn’t game-breaking, and it was more an issue of my position relative to the camera and its visibility.
After 2 matches I was worn out. I was sweating like crazy (be prepared to sweat), and I was breathing heavily. This was starting to feel like the real deal. And my sore body the day after could attest to that.
However, authenticity in games isn’t a result of purely technical accuracy. It’s an emergent phenomenon that many aim for but few attain. The realness of the albeit arcadey boxing in this game manifested itself after a hard fought match. As I watched my opponent stumble to the ground, I began to develop a sense of respect for her. She staggered her way back and re-commenced the action, and eventually knocked me down in turn.
I could feel myself growing closer to the character, as silly as it seems. This caricature cartoon boxer was beginning to bond with me through our cooperative pugilism, and I was getting a small semblance of that mutual growth that I felt when I used to box real opponents. Maybe I had worn myself out too much, or maybe I’m just too enamored with boxing. But at the end of the match I felt accomplished, and I wanted to hold my opponent’s hand high as well for a hard fought scrap.