Undisputed (Early Access) Review: More Of A Hot Prospect Than A Champion

  • You can see the elements of real boxing peeking through
  • Online play offers a good challenge
  • A very solid game for early access
  • Not all game modes are available
  • The servers seem to be struggling
  • There are some balance issues
  • As it's in early access, expect bugs

Boxing fans have been horrifically neglected by the gaming powers that be in recent years. The last notable release was 2011's "Fight Night: Champion," and that — like many EA sporting releases — is an unpatched, buggy, mess. Champion came out in what was a pretty weak heavyweight era, as evidenced by the Klitschkos being the only notable big boys of the day in the game. But now things are exciting again. Tyson Fury has turned the Hollywood division into the WWE, and the lighter divisions are also star-packed. You have Canelo carving out a legacy between Welterweight and Light Heavyweight. The Welterweight division itself is arguably the most competitive — though undefeated welterweight champs Errol Spence and Terrance Crawford have yet to meet in the ring. Names like Tank Davis, Shakur Stevenson, and Naoya Inoue keep the lighter divisions exciting. And some YouTubers' playfighting has created an entirely new audience for the sport. 

All in all, it's an ideal time for a new boxing game. But none of the big companies are making one. Instead, it's been left to Steel City Interactive, a small company based in Sheffield, England. Steel City's effort is called "Undisputed," but it isn't actually out yet. It was announced under the name "Esports Boxing Club" way back in 2020. Now, almost three years later it has an Early Access release on Steam. "Fight Night" is still the last (major label) boxing game to get a full release, so it's still the champ by default. But could "Undisputed" be a contender in the near future?

Undisputed's roster is more limited than it looks

"Undisputed" boasts a roster of 50 fighters, including many current household names and legends of the past. Unfortunately, if "Undisputed's" current roster was a hamburger around 50% of it would be sawdust. The big names include what is most likely the current heavyweight top four: Usyk, Fury, Wilder, and Joyce. Then there are legendary fighters like Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, and of course the legendary Muhammed Ali. 

Down the weight divisions, you have the likes of Roy Jones Jr, both Sugar Rays, Canelo, Terrence Crawford, Sunny Edwards, etc. The problem is, the roster is padded out by the likes of Eddie Hall, a strongman who lost the only boxing match he ever had to The Mountain from "Game of Thrones." And Hall is far more well-known than Patrick Rokohl, Hopey Price, and Dalton Smith. There are also fighters from the Women's division, including Katie Taylor, which is nice — but there are a lot of big names missing there too.

The Sheffield-based company that makes "Undisputed" definitely has a touch of British bias too — though it is nice to see the likes of Frank Bruno, Johnny Nelson, Nigel Benn, and Ricky Hatton in there. Even if the likes of George Foreman, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Manny Pacquiao, and Lennox Lewis aren't. There is some good news though, the "Undisputed" team promises more big names are on their way this year (though some will eventually be added as paid DLC). You also get more than one version of the boxers that fought in different weight classes, which is a nice touch.

Not every game mode is available

One thing that isn't in the game, but is on the road map, is a career mode. This could be something that makes "Undisputed" truly stand out, as the last few mainstream boxing games have been in the hands of EA, who did the sort of job EA usually do. "Fight Night 3" had the odd repetitive press-conference-based punch up to add "depth," and one of the most shameless bits of product placement in gaming history. One of the elite-level trainers was that terrifying "King" mascot Burger King used. 

"Fight Night: Champion" had a reasonably good story mode — but the "player career" was the same bland, email-based nonsense we had in "Fight Night 4." Oh, and as EA was involved, all of the career modes were packed with game-breaking bugs that were never patched.

So far, the only details we have about "Undisputed's" career mode is that you can: "Climb the ranks to the top in our single-player Career Mode and become "Undisputed." It could be anything from a series of fights against gradually better fighters in your chosen weight class, only broken up with stat-boosting mini-games — to an actual, well-thought-out, plot-driven, boxing experience. And anything in between. While the online play is potentially great, a solid career mode could make "Undisputed's" career side truly stand out. So fingers crossed it's a good one. 

So what can you do?

There are a few game modes on offer. There's a "quick fight" mode that will allow you to take on a computer-controlled fighter or a person if you have both a second gamepad and a friend. It's pretty simple, you select the fighters, select the venue, then get punching. Options seem to be set in the options menu. Then there's the "Prize fights" section, where you complete fight challenges of varying difficulty. 

The current ones involve a classic in Ali v Frazier. You fight as Ali and have to take Smokin' Joe out on "amateur" difficulty. Then there's Sugar Ray Robinson Vs. Sugar Ray Leonard. Two fighters from different eras with the same nickname. You're Sugar Ray Robinson, the difficulty is set to "pro," and the commentary gets pretty bizarre when it's insinuated both fighters somehow have a bit of social media beef going. Then there's the battle of the bombers, two other fighters who share a nickname. "The Brown Bomber" Joe Louis is up against "The Bronze Bomber" Deontay Wilder. This is on the game's hardest difficulty, "Undisputed," And presents quite a challenge — particularly as Wilder isn't great by any means. 

Then there are the online modes. There's "quick fight," where you pick a fighter and get matched against someone in the same weight division. This can sometimes take a while, and you might end up fighting the same boxer you've picked — though that can lead to a very interesting fight. And there's a ranked mode, which is similar to quick fight mode but you end up with a record that's there for everyone to see.

There's a steep learning curve

What gives me more hope than anything that "Undisputed" can become a truly definitive boxing game is the learning curve. It's horrendously steep, and you actually need to develop some degree of skill to get good at this game. You can't just wail on someone who's any good and get a lucky knockout. Slipping is a good example. It's a great way to set someone up for a potential fight-changing counter, but to use it effectively, you need to spot what your opponent is throwing, time the slip well, then respond with the correct kind of punch — which is usually a hook or uppercut from the side you've slipped towards.

Beyond that, there are a lot of actual boxing elements in this game. If you're not too knowledgeable about boxing, the game makers have been kind enough to put some tips on the bottom of the loading screens. Tips like suggesting that you try to keep your right foot on the outside of an opponent's left when fighting as a southpaw (left-hander). A bit of boxing knowledge goes a long way. Good distance control and timing are enough to see a lot of opponents off. Working the body can pay off big time, as it will both hurt your opponent and sap their stamina. You'll learn from your wins, and you'll probably learn more from your losses.

Don't take it too seriously just yet

If you're an overly competitive gamer, you might want to avoid "Undisputed" for now. Aside from the balance issues, it's pretty easy to get robbed. In what is a sad but accurate representation of actual boxing, the judge's scorecards can sometimes make no sense at all. During the testing period, I managed to somehow lose rounds despite landing as many as three times the number of punches my opponent landed. It seems like the only way to guarantee a round in the game is to put your opponent down and make sure you don't end up on the deck yourself.

Similarly, online play is fraught with connection issues, people can also simply rage quit and close the game if they're on the receiving end of a particularly bad beating. Those issues may lead to a loss on your end even if you're not the one who disconnected. As online ranked play is going to be one of the game's main selling points, this will all need to be fixed as a priority. In the grand scheme of things, your competitive record in an online boxing game is a bit like your golf handicap. No other human being on the planet actually cares about it. 

And to make things even more trivial, the game is still in early access (akin to beta) and everyone's records will undoubtedly be wiped as soon as the game is properly released. But that doesn't make it any less annoying, and the more hyper-competitive amongst you may even end up launching a controller at the wall or something. As with other issues, hopefully, this one is fixed in the near future.

There are bugs to be found

As you might expect with an early release title, "Undisputed" has a significant amount of bugs. Phantom punches can knock you out from across the ring — there'll be times your arms get tangled allowing your opponent to rattle your brains repeatedly without reply. Your arm might bend backward and get caught behind your back for no apparent reason. A couple of light punches will totally deplete your stamina bar and leave you open to a knockdown or KO, and the judges will absolutely rob you or your opponent. You might be at a point in a fight where your opponent's face looks like a bulldog attacked by a swarm of bees — but with no damage. 

These will all probably get patched in the coming months but for now, it's either frustrating or hilarious depending on the timing. One particularly funny one involved my opponent seemingly bouncing off the canvas then flying out of the shot, and presumably out of the ring, at lightspeed. He reappeared for the ten count, but it was a bit of an odd moment.

There's a treat for people who miss Sonic's underwater levels

The game requires timing and precision if you want to compete at a high level, so any kind of lag will absolutely ruin it. Unfortunately, "Undisputed's" servers are far from where they need to be, and lag will be a regular companion during your online sessions. Some days, it all goes fine, on others, you'll be watching half your rounds in slow-mo. If you pick a fast character, like Ali, it'll be like watching an underwater boxing match. Already slow fighters, like Joe Joyce, or strongmen that shouldn't even be there like Eddie Hall, move at the pace of tidal erosion as soon as a lag spike hits.

I'd argue this is a bigger problem than anything else. The limited roster, the weird bugs, and the balance issues, all seem trivial compared to lag. Sometimes it's actually advantageous, but this is a coin toss and it feels a bit like cheating. You can see your opponent swinging in bullet time so slipping and countering is the easiest thing in the world. There are also weird instances where the lag only seems to affect one player. So your opponent will be popping off jabs and crosses like Goku while you're swinging slower than one of William Shatner's spoken word tracks.

The feeling is there

There are a few subtle little things that go into a good boxing game, and one of them is feeling. A good punch needs to seem like it's actually made an impact, it gets the adrenaline flowing and massively aids immersion. "Undisputed," for all of its present faults and quirks, has absolutely nailed it in this department. When you time a power punch or counter perfectly, the vibration on the controller, the reaction of the fighters, and the sound of the impact sells it all well. Also, the little ripples from the point of impact really help sell things. If you landed right, you may even be able to recreate Fury's famous fat ripple from the third Wilder fight.

You can actually feel like you're doing a bit of damage, the little tactile reward is there. The actual gaming reward isn't. Counter-punches seem massively underpowered and power punches, given how hard they are (and should be) to land, don't seem to do as much as two or three quick left hooks. Or at least it has been over the last few days, this game's received balance tweaks about three times in the last week by my count. There is an art to game balance, you obviously don't want every quick counter to go off like a hand grenade, but they are one of the ways the momentum can swing in real boxing and that should be reflected in the game. I'm also sure this is one of the areas where "Undisputed" will eventually get there. Steel City Interactive will probably get plenty of feedback from its wider user base and eventually settle on something that's somewhat realistic without unbalancing the game.

You'll have stories to tell people who don't actually care

You know a game is good when you insist on talking about it to people who are obviously disinterested. Despite my limited skills, I've had some outstanding fights on this game that nobody with any sense will actually care about. There was that time I fought Tyson Fury with Ali and got dropped twice in the first round. I responded by putting the "Gypsy King" down twice in the second, then we went toe to toe for another nine brutal rounds. In the 11th round, I managed to put Fury to bed. Then there's that time I was Joe Louis, fighting another version of Joe Louis. That devolved into a brutal eight-round slugfest with both of us going toe to toe until my stamina dipped too far in the eighth and I got sent to Hades with a brutal counter left. 

My point is, I've had some of my best gaming experiences with "Undisputed" and the review copy only arrived a few days ago. You know the gameplay is solid when it does the storytelling for you. When you get good enough, the game basically turns into a very violent chess match. You need to work out how to beat your opponent without getting flattened yourself. Different people, and different fighters, have different strategies and attributes. Winning each match takes something different.

It looks pretty good too, though the arenas are limited

Graphically, it's pretty decent for a boxing game. It's not totally photorealistic, but the fighters and environments all look good. Things like sweat sprays look realistic when you clock someone right. Damage is clearly visible on people's faces, and is more than just a comical black eye that shows up after a direct hit or two. The face will actually swell, and the area will get redder and redder. Cuts show up accurately too and are closed between rounds. It takes a shot or two to get them flowing again. Older fighters have been suitably "vintaged." Their gloves are that reddish-brown you'd expect and there's a very mild sepia note about their whole appearance.

We could use a few more arenas though. In online play at least, the venue seems to be random. There are a couple of gyms, a couple of small venues, one large arena, and one outdoor venue that seems to be based on Eddie Hearn's back garden and unfortunately looks like a level from a PS2 game in some lights. Hearn, of course, hosted a card or two there when the COVID-19 pandemic made live events at traditional venues impossible. While the closer crowd members could use a bit of a touchup, the crowd that's a bit further away in the smaller venues is in semi-darkness and covered by a hazy fog — which actually adds a bit of atmosphere. None of the gyms or arenas are named after actual places, and a bit more variety would be nice — even if the venues are still fictional. As with everything else, this is probably somewhere on the to-do list.

If you need a boxing fix, this is a must buy

Before I recommend this game, I need to be clear that it's very much a work in progress, it's buggy, the servers are abysmal at times, and more content may be on the "to-do" list than has actually been included thus far. But I don't actually care, and if you're a fan of boxing or boxing games neither should you. It's been well over a decade since "Fight Night: Champion." As fight fans, we've needed this fix, and Steel City Interactive seems to have provided it. It's worth the wait, worth the frustration, and definitely worth the $30.

Hopefully, things continue to go well and the game gets even better. We've seen gaming roadmaps go wrong plenty of times, but so far the people behind "Undisputed" seem keen on getting it right. Updates are streaming out constantly as feedback from the community pours in. The foundations are all there, the balance will come with enough patience, and we're probably a few licensing negotiations away from a top-level roster. I like what I've seen so far, and if all goes to plan then we could be talking about this being the quintessential boxing game in a year or two's time. If you have a half-decent PC and Steam, get it now. You've waited long enough.