Early Impressions: Knockout League is the VR heir to Punch-Out and Wii Boxing

Combine the colorful characters and pattern-based enemies of Punch-Out with the frantic physicality of boxing on the Nintendo Wii and you have Knockout League, a virtual reality boxing game currently in Early Access on Steam. The game is being developed by Grab Games (a studio boasting ex-Konami devs among its members) and published by Vive Studios, a company under the HTC VR umbrella.

Despite the association with Vive, the game is available for both HTC's headset and the competing Oculus Rift. That's great news for PC VR headset owners, because Knockout League is one of the very best new VR games of 2017.

It's all about timing

Knockout League has a lot more in common with a rhythm game like Just Dance than it does with something like EA's Fight Night series. Beating each of the four opponents currently available in the game's Early Access mode requires mastering the game's core mechanics: dodging, blocking, and punching when your opponent leaves you an opening. Each opponent brings new challenges to the table, requiring different tactics to defeat. The roster of enemies currently ends with a four-gloved British octopus, so don't go into this game expecting a serious boxing sim. 

Fighters stand toe-to-toe, which means the title rather surprisingly doesn't require a room-scale VR setup to function. Instead of roaming around the ring, you'll need to get your head out of the way of your opponent's swings or get your gloves up to block incoming punches. The game begins with a brief tutorial section in which you learn how to move to evade different types of attacks, which can sometimes be as simple as leaning a bit to one side but other times will require a combination of ducking and leaning to avoid sweeping haymakers. Getting your fists up to block is another important skill, and requires precise timing to pull off correctly (if you hold a block for too long you'll still block the attack, but you'll lose the ability to strike back for a few seconds). 

If you have a room-scale VR setup it'll probably take you a few matches before you internalize the idea that you can't just step backward out of your opponent's range to avoid attacks, though aside from that quirk the whole experience feels quite natural once you get the hang of it. Move your head to the side or duck down to get out of the way of a punch, then get in a quick jab if you see an opening. Occasionally you'll knock the other boxer into a daze, in which case it's time to swing your arms for all your worth, getting in as many punches as you can before they recover. 

Since fighters follow the same general routine over and over again (adding in new attacks as the fight progresses) you'll have a chance during a match to learn their patterns and, hopefully, master the timing and motions necessary to defeat them. While the first of the four opponents currently available is relatively simple, the other three get significantly more challenging and will likely take several attempts each to defeat. Matches last five minutes at most, though if a fight goes the distance you automatically lose, so you'll need to get your block and dodge timing just right to force openings to knock your opponent out. 

A workout that is actually fun

Remember how tired your arms used to get after a few hectic rounds of boxing on the Wii? Knockout League takes that experience to a new level, engaging your whole body in a way that will get you moving and make you sweat. It might also leave you sore, so take it slow if you aren't used to this kind of physical acitivity. 

Knockout League is the most physically demanding VR game I've played yet (if you don't count the quirky VirZOOM bike-controller), even though it won't have you running around the room the way you might be in Raw Data or Space Pirate Trainer. The reason Knockout League is so intense is that it rarely lets up during its five minute matches, and you need to continually be ready to shift your whole body to one side or the other, duck down low, raise both arms to block, or start swinging when you have an opening. The fact that you have to do all this with a VR headset strapped to your head doesn't make it any easier, and can lead to some irritating issues if your headset slips out of place during a match. Just tell yourself you took a bad right hook to the eye, and that's why everything is blurry all of a sudden. 

Though tripping on your cord isn't as big of an issue with Knockout League as with more mobile room-scale VR games, it was still a concern for me early on until I really grasped how to fight without moving around the ring. If possible, you'll want to help players new to VR manage their cords with this game until they get the hang of it.

When playing on the HTC Vive, this is a game where you definitely want to use the controller wrist straps! With sweaty palms and wild haymakers, it's all too easy to lose your grip on your valuable Vive controller and send it flying across the room. Smacking the controller into a wall with one of your virtual punches is even worse, so make sure you have plenty of space before you start swinging. 

Begging for Tracker glove controllers

Knockout League will continue to get new content throughout the year in advance of its official launch version, and the developers have also said that they are working on compatibility with the Vive's Tracker peripheral, which is coming out in the second quarter of 2017.

That's absolutely fantastic news for Vive owners, since the Vive's default controllers just aren't very well suited to the rapid punching required for Knockout League. The lighter and less-bulky Oculus Touch controllers are a better fit, but a pair of gloves (maybe even boxing gloves!) with Tracker attachment points would be on another level entirely. Knockout League requires essentially no buttons or triggers to play, and something like the Noitom Hi5 gloves, which were on display at HTC's Vive booth at CES in January, would be well suited for the needs of the game. 

Knockout League is an easy recommendation for Vive or Oculus owners looking for a new kind of VR experience, and could easily become part of a VR fitness routine. There's a surprising amount of depth and challenge to the title, even in Early Access. As it stands now it isn't quite accessible enough to work as a pick-up-and-play VR party game (though that may change as additional training modes and other content are released in the coming months), but it's our current VR obsession and will likely get even better once Vive's Tracker releases.

For more VR news and hardware, visit Newegg's VR Central