Review: Chillingo Touch KO
Everyone loved to watch Mike Tyson fight, and for a time, Mike Tyson branded boxing games were hot, but what would it feel like to actually play as Mike Tyson? Electronic Arts might have part of the answer in its Tyson-licensed console boxing game Fight Night Round 4, but Chillingo's new Touch KO ($3) provides a closer experience -- and not for the right reasons. In this new iPhone and iPod touch release, you control a user-created boxer in a series of 3-D-ish fights from amateur to professional classes, which regrettably are so easy to blaze through that you'll think you're Tyson himself.
On the surface, Chillingo’s graphics engine and general concept have a ton of appeal. You’re given the ability to build your own character, complete with tattoos, skin coloration, and clothing, and throughout the course of a fight, his eyes will swell and bruise from punches, while his opponent will do the same. Dramatic though not bone- or cheek-wobbling Fight Night-style replays accompany knockdown blows, giving you a close view of the fist and the drool that flew through the air before a character hit the canvas.
Reasonable 3-D backgrounds and nicely textured polygonal characters make the experience interesting to watch—initially, quite impressively so by iPhone boxing game standards—though there are occasional animation oddities, such as some weird body twisting as opponents hit the mat, and belly-stretched gloating poses thereafter. As the fights go on, you’ll also realize that everything looks mostly similar from match to match; the poses, stances, and animations don’t change.
Even more consistent is the modest level of skill needed to progress through the game. Your character starts out with relatively weak vitals, but it’s easy to discover that laying on the offense works to end the first couple of matches quickly, then alternating a little defense with punishing blows when an opponent opens up, then blocking aggressively and using dodges to make cagey opponents drop their guard. Using this simple strategy repeatedly, we were so successful so quickly that we never even made it to the end of a round for our first seven or so matches, at which point we discovered that you can rub the screen between rounds to heal your character’s eye swelling. Most of our first 15 fights went only 1 minute and 30 seconds before we’d knocked out our opponent, truly up to the classic Iron Mike performances; eventually, we were bringing down opponents listed as “challenging” and “hard” in the first round, as well.
Part of the issue is that Touch KO is inherently a simple game. There’s basically no character movement to worry about, as controls consist solely of tap-jabs and swipes to land crosses or uppercuts, plus device tilts to dodge, and two-finger press-and-hold commands to block. Opponents are always presented from the same visual angle, and there’s little Nintendo Punch-Out!! style timing or nuance in the fighting. This makes it obvious for a player to know when to throw punch after punch, and where. We kept waiting for better boxers to appear with patterns to memorize, but they didn’t show up; even when we earned the Amateur belt and stopped fighting with protective headgear on, the boxers we fought were pretty close to human punching bags.
The other issue is the game’s imbalance. Every match is preceded by an opportunity to add 5% to one of three player characteristics—going to the gym, with boosts that are automatic rather than skill-based—so by the time we were 15 matches in, we were at 98% punching power, and hadn’t needed that much strength to bring down any of our prior opponents. One match later, we went to 103% power, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and challenged ourselves by facing an opponent who had 118% stamina. There were other signs that the game’s math wasn’t really tight: virtually every knockdown resulted in a 7-second count before the opponent got back up, and a cash winnings system was imbalanced to offer only meager characteristic boosts through clothing upgrades.
Touch KO isn’t as impressive from an audio standpoint as it is visually. The game starts very promisingly with a rap track that plays through the character customization screens, but the music stops when the gameplay starts, and there’s little audio besides punching sounds and grunts as you fight. Play-by-play and other voice samples are absent, save for occasional “wows” and other minor noises from the crowd.
Overall, Touch KO is substantially different from other iPhone boxing games we’ve tested—considerably more ambitious visually, and better for that effort, but also truly underwhelming as far as depth and challenge are concerned. Unlike the pitifully designed Smack Boxing and Fist of Fury, this game has nothing to be ashamed of, but it needs a lot of work under the hood to improve its gameplay before it’s worthy of being called more than a lightweight contender. For now, its low price is the single biggest reason to give it a shot.