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TVG ducks and weaves as EA serves up haymakers and upper-cuts galore in Fight Night Round 4...
EA Sports' previous Fight Night was the first game on the current crop of consoles that really turned our heads back in 2006. Supplanting much of the other graphical dross that was appearing on Microsoft's Xbox 360 at the time (i.e. Perfect Dark: Zero) and ports from previous-gen machines that looked, well, the same (e.g. Tony Hawk's American Wasteland), Fight Night Round 3 was the crème de la visual crème when it was released four month's after the Xbox 360's launch in Europe.
At the time, only Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 2 on the 360 could stand up to the stunning knockout blows depicted in EA's next-gen brawler. So detailed were the graphics that you could actually pick out individual beads of sweat being launched from the forehead of a prize fighter as they weathered a nasty right hook from their opponent, not to mention jaws and cheek bones that visually distorted under the energy of high-impact blows.
Work The Body
So, EA Chicago's Round 3 was built like a brick s#*t house anyway and now EA Canada has taken over the reins for Round 4. A bit like the montage in Rocky IV (before Balboa fights Drago), the more northern climbs of Canada have clearly had an effect on Round 4. It's immediately apparent that the development team has been putting the game through its paces, making it run up snow covered mountains and bench press a horse trailer loaded with logs etc., to build a leaner, meaner fighting machine that can make brutal dictators cry just by shouting "Adrian!" at them.
In other words, the studio has been furiously building on the foundations of procedurally generated animation from Round 3 to make Round 4 the best looking EA Sports game on the market by quite a margin. Gone is the tendency for animations to glitch as boxers unleash a flurry of punches at their competitor, which was a particular problem up against the ropes in Round 3. From what we've seen so far, the animations in Round 4 are smooth as a boxer's satin shorts, with EA Canada paying close attention to how a fighter's muscles and skeletal structure should realistically behave in motion. For example, fine touches such as the undulations of a boxer's shoulder blades beneath their pounds of flexing muscle whenever they throw a jab are stunningly recreated and refuse to glitch when the action gets chaotic.
In addition to these improved animations, the effects of punches and how boxers move to evade them has been tied ever closer to the game's physics, meaning that you can throw the exact same punch twice with very different results depending on your distance from the opponent, your relative stances, and how the opponent ducks or weaves to avoid that punch. An upper-cut might only clip the side of an opponent's head in one example, while the next could land squarely on their chin, putting a particular emphasis on the height and reach of each boxer.
Utilising the same intuitive controls on the right thumbstick that were present in Round 3 and, once again, building on them to streamline the experience, Round 4 will be both accessible to newcomers and tricky to master for veterans. For those who didn't play the last game, these controls are based around gestures such as 'up' on the thumbstick for jabs, while flicking upwards slightly to the left or right results in a right or left handed jab. The upshot of this is that, if you're accurate with these jabs, then you can effectively string together basic 'right, left, right' style combos.
More complex punches can then be thrown with more difficult gestures. Examples include a Street Fighter II-esque 'down; diagonally down; right/left' for upper-cuts, while the opposite of this (rotated from either side to an 'up' position) results in a hook. Body shots can also be performed by flicking to the left or right and, as with all the punches in the game, the key is not merely performing them but pulling them off at precisely the right time when your opponent is within reach and in an area of the body where their defences are down.
But perhaps the most significant improvement for the series in Round 4 will be boxer styles. Our hands on demo was with Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson (Round 4's box-art prize fighters) and we've got to say that EA's choice to feature these boxers is inspired, not only because they're icons of the sport, but because their styles are so different. Because of this, their differences exaggerate the effects that different boxer styles can have. Mike Tyson, for example, is short with a poor reach. As a result, the only way he can get under Ali's skin is to get close in and work the body with his heavy duty, five-ton punches. Ali, on the other hand, has the best chance of success if he keeps his distance from Tyson and makes him move around the ring, tiring Tyson out as he dodges and blocks with ease.
Our only concern with these boxer styles is that EA might have focused on the techniques of a handful of its pin-up boxers, leaving the majority of its fighters as re-skinned moulds of the same, generic base character models. It's certainly a problem that EA has encountered in the past - just take a look at FIFAs over the years (pre-FIFA 09) to see how the techniques and styles of mo-capped players such as Ronaldhino are recreated with painstaking accuracy, but then the vast majority of second-rate players (i.e. the Titus Brambles and Joey Bartons of the Premiership) play like clones. Round 3's career mode was particularly crippled by this lack of boxer variation (instead providing a bunch of no-name automatons for you to fight against), so we're hoping that EA has addressed this issue for Round 4.
Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee
Of course, we can only speak for Ali and Tyson at this stage and their styles aren't limited to vital statistics and how much of a thrashing they can take either. The face buttons provide further differentiation between each boxer with signature moves on the Xbox 360's A button - Ali brings out his infamous quick feet while Tyson adjusts for his lack of height with a duck followed by an upper-cut in one smooth motion. Dirty moves are then grafted onto the B button and are also specific to each boxer, with Ali opting for a low blow and Tyson launching a nasty head-butt.
Haymaker punches have been retained from Round 3 and are on the right bumper button, while grabs can be instigated using the B button. Also present is the detail of defensive bodywork in Round 4, with blocking and dodging controls set on the right and left triggers respectively. Holding down either trigger puts your boxer in the respective stance and it's then possible to move around in that stance using the right thumbstick, which is where the Prince Naseem Hamed-esque ducking and weaving comes in. A knockdown mini-game has also been retained from Round 3, which focuses on the same kind of balancing-act on the shoulder buttons in order to get your boxer up off the canvas (we're just grateful its not a predictable button-mashing fest).
What does appear to be something of a change from Round 3, though, is the end of round mini-game. In Round 3, players had to furiously try and repair their boxer's face as if they were a trainer but we're not sure if this has been kept in Round 3. What we did see was a "meta-game", as EA called it, which allows you to offset your boxer's overall strength in the middle of a bout - for example, sacrificing some of your damage meter to add to your stamina levels in preparation for the next round. If this has replaced the previous mini-game, then we're not convinced that we'll warm to the new feature.
The key to Fight Night Round 4's long-term appeal will be whether the improved styles of each boxer are more than mere cosmetics. If EA Canada has ensured that Round 4's full list of boxers, rather than just Ali and Tyson, show a wide variation of techniques and styles, then there's no reason why the game's knockout visuals and intuitive controls can't headline a brilliant game.
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