Fittingly, given that Rocky Balboa is a boxing game, your hands will be killing you after just a few hectic rounds. It’s not the game’s fault, though; it’s more the fact that PSP requires you to have fully elastic thumbs.
Thankfully, the controls themselves are well laid out, and make the best use of the handheld’s somewhat awkward layout; after time, they become second nature. The face buttons are for your basic punching: Square and Triangle take care of left and right direct smacks, while X and Circle take care of left and right uppercuts. Simple enough. Combine these with the nubbin - which controls your boxer’s body movement, to alter the power and angle of your punches - and hit R at the same time to dodge any unfriendly blows.
So there’s a wide-ranging set of haymakers, jabs, hooks and sucker punches at your disposal. Pushing left on the nubbin while hitting X, for instance, unleashes a mighty left hook that can practically lift an opponent clean off the canvas. Meanwhile, the dodge move fools an opponent into going for you and then leaving himself open to a sudden onslaught. The thing is, with some boxers (especially Rocky), these more powerful blows can be relied upon a little too easily to put the kibosh on a rival, and unbalance fights - especially against human-controlled opponents. There’s little fun knocking your opponent down when you haven’t really earned it.
Power Moods are activated once a succession of meaty blows has been rained down on a fighter, and make the screen go all blurry as your power is increased. It’s a simple form of focus, and can be countered by landing a heavy blow of your own.
It’s disappointing, considering the thought and care that’s gone into the mechanics of fighting, that there’s no tangible structure to this game. There’s no Career mode to speak of, which means there’s no cohesion, and no sense of progress. And with a license as strong as Rocky, the possibilities are nearly endless - think of the missed montage opportunities, for one.
The closest thing we’re given is the Fast Lane mode, which is a collection of unconnected, standalone bouts with differing conditions. Using a selection of boxers, including multiple versions of Apollo Creed, Clubber Lane and the Italian Stallion himself, you’ll be required to win by knockout, not get knocked out yourself, or indulge in some street-fighting (which isn’t street-fighting at all, but boxing in the street - a subtle distinction). While this mixes things up, with no sense of progress it’s almost pointless.
Other gameplay modes are Exhibition, an arcadey match-up of two fighters of your choice, and Historical Fight, where you relive every fight from all six Rocky movies. The latter is the best mode in the game, especially on the hardest difficulty setting, as you get to indulge in some melodramatic slugfests over 15 grueling rounds. Spit spatters everywhere, boxers’ faces swell up to twice their normal sizes… It’s the whole shebang.
Rocky Balboa is a game to dip into despite its shallow structure and the sheer pain of playing - provided you don’t expect something that’ll take you on an epic journey of the movies, you should get regular, punchy bursts of satisfaction out of it.