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First Night: Round 2; Champions: Return to Arms; Saint Paint Studio 9.2

Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page F08


Round 2 gets most of its punch from its graphics. The sweat and blood drips more realistically than ever, while a doubling of the polygon count allows fighters to wince in pain in the most lifelike manner yet. (The game features the likenesses of most major fighters -- for example, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield and Roberto Duran -- with the notable exception of Oscar de la Hoya.) What game developers call "rag doll physics" showcase knock-downs and knockouts, complete with twitching body parts after a boxer hits the mat.

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But there's more to the game than bruises and body fluids. The already well-developed control takes a step up in Round 2 with the "EA Sports Haymaker" -- a devastating punch, usually a hook or uppercut, that players can charge up during a fight (subject to their own remaining stamina) before unleashing it on an opponent. This does a great job of keeping contests even: Just when you think your opponent is ready to topple, he'll come back with a Haymaker that lands you against the ropes.

Fight Night's Career mode, in which amateur fighters start from the bottom and work up to champion, has been revamped as well. Round 2 does a better job of teaching players the fundamentals of offensive and defensive strategies -- a boost for beginners.

Last, this game offers what EA calls the Cutman, the guy who patches up boxers between rounds. You can briefly put down the boxing gloves and play as the Cutman instead, a whole new challenge. Here, you have to scramble to reduce the swelling under your fighter's eye or stop a cut from bleeding, after which you can switch back to being the boxer.

In case you miss some of a fight's finer points, ESPN boxing analyst Joe Tessitore provides informative, blow-by-blow commentary while surround-sound effects play up the racket from the crowd. Players with a broadband connection can log on from a PS2 or Xbox to take on other gamers online. -- Tom Ham

PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, $50

CHAMPIONS: RETURN TO ARMS, Sony Online Entertainment

Master developer of role-playing games Snowblind Studios has found a way to cure PS2 gamers of their addiction to its hack-and-slash title Champions of Norrath. It has shipped that game's sequel, Champions: Return to Arms.

Return to Arms features the simple spell-casting and melee combat interface of the first game, but with more detailed graphics, branching storylines and a no-subscription online component. You can create a new character from one of the original five classes and two new ones (lizard shamans and tiger-like warriors) or import your heroes from the last game. You can even choose to be good or evil this time.

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