It’s been a while since I last stepped into a sparring ring. Ok, maybe a little more than a while, but despite being a bit rusty, I was not all that concerned about being able to take down a virtual opponent. It was with this kind of motivation that I strapped on my Vive visor to test my stuff in Knockout League, a VR boxing game. I stepped into the ring with Tritip, a beefy brawler who serves as the game’s entry level opponent, and managed to lay him out on my first try. It might have all been bravado and bluster, were I not huffing, puffing, sweating, and far more tired than I should been by the end. Ducking and dodging blows took quite the toll on my legs, to the point where two days later I was still walking with a limp. Suffice it to say, I was unprepared for what a freaking workout a virtual boxing match would put me through, and just exactly how much I would enjoy the experience.
Knockout League is as challenging as it is fun, requiring you to read your opponent, dodge, block, or counter their blows, and respond with a flurry of fists. It’s not easy, and I wasn’t the only fighter thrown to the ropes by this high activity VR game. Even a few of those far more committed to their fitness found themselves spent and sweating after just one round; one friend who is active in mixed martial arts all but threw in the towel after two rounds with Tritip, swearing off the game until he was able to come prepared with, I quote, “a towel, work out shorts, and a fresh shirt.” It sounds crazy that taking swings at an opponent who isn’t really there could be so tiring and physically demanding, but Grab Games found a way to make VR a genuine workout.
Flailing your fists about while strapped into a VR visor could very well be a recipe for disaster, both for your belongings, Vive wands, and not to mention the vulnerable flesh of your knuckles, but Knockout League has designed their game around keeping you stationary and facing one direction. You’re instructed to stand in the middle of your play area and to not chase fighters, meaning you literally remain rooted to one spot, facing the same direction; and remarkably, you do so without feeling constrained. I was incredibly impressed by how little I and others who played moved around during matches, and we unanimously agreed we didn’t feel artificially constrained. At no point did any of us feel like we had to think about not moving, we simply behaved as we felt we should, focusing on doding and punching instead of moving around.
The game begins with your coach, who puts you through the basics of reading your opponent, blocking, punching, and dodging. Each of these elements is important, though some are more difficult to master than others. While punching is rather straightforward, dodging requires far more than a slight lean to the side, often requiring you to crouch low or move your body to a rather extreme angle in order to avoid the blows of your opponents. Blocking, while simple in theory, proved to be the most difficult mechanic to master.
In order for blocks to be effective, you’re required to do a ‘strong block,’ where you bring your gloves up just in time to stop the punch, but not too soon. Doing this correctly turns your gloves blue and allows you to follow up with a punch of your own. Unfortunately, the natural instinct for anyone who has done any kind of fighting, from boxing to martial arts, is to keep your hands proactively close to your chest and face, a position similar enough to the blocking position that the game thinks you’re blocking all the time, resulting in a ‘weak block,’ which turns your gloves purple, does not fully block the punch, causing you to take damage, and allows your opponent to block your follow-up punch. This has the nasty side-effect of negating your damage, so you’ll need to learn how to balance blocking and attacking relatively quickly.
Fighting in Knockout League is as much about observation and patience as it is about aggression. You’re required to be on the defensive, and you simply can’t step into the ring and go in swinging madly; your opponents will block your blows until you wear yourself out. This is simultaneously the best part of the game, meaning you can’t just muscle through a fight, you have to think about it, and the most frustrating part, because sometimes you feel like your opponent has left themselves wide open, but you simply can’t take advantage of these dropped guards the way you would in a real fight — they simply block you regardless.
That said, it’s not always the case. There are some moves which are unblockable, and provide you the rare chance to interrupt an attack, avoiding the massive damage your enemies can deal out. Each character has their own set of moves, and most moves are highly telegraphed, which should mean they’re easy to avoid; this isn’t always the case. Dodging Tritips’ hook requires you to move both down and to one side at just the right time, often resulting in your leaning right into his punch, instead of around it. The upbeat Barrage’s special move unleashes a flurry of fists which does massive damage and is incredibly tricky to interrupt. Don’t don’t even get me started on Sir Octopunch. Yes, Knockout League features fighting an upper crust British octopus who is frustratingly difficult to calamari out of. The cast of characters is diverse and strange, each featuring their own unique, bizarre and entertaining fighting style which you’ll have to learn if you want to conquer the ring.
Knockout League is an extraordinary VR experience. It's tough, it's exciting, and it's incredibly rewarding. It delivers exciting, demanding gameplay and requires observation, timing, and endurance. Great mechanics paired with over-the-top characters will leave you entertained even as you're pummeled into blacking out. This is a must have for anyone who likes to box or who would benefit from using a videogame to supplement or motivate their workout routine.