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EA winds up a haymaker with Fight Night Round 4 and TVG takes one squarely on the jaw...
- Intuitive controls.
- Stunning visuals.
- Great ringside commentary.
- Repetitive boxer AI.
- Lacks content.
- Uninspiring training mode.
Back in March 2006, EA released Fight Night Round 3 on the Xbox 360 and marked a graphical breakthrough on the next-generation of consoles in the process. While it was by no means the first game to look veritably 'next-gen' on the console, it was certainly amongst the first two or three titles (e.g. CoD 2, GRAW, and Condemned) to usher in the era and push aside games that were languishing in previous-gen tech. It was, without doubt, the undisputed graphical champion of sports games at the time, with its slow-motion knockout blows that displayed beads of spittle flying in all directions and compression waves passing through jaw-lines and into skulls.
However, with this visual power came animations that were far from perfectly strung together. A boxer's body would move from one punch to the next between jarring frames, resulting in a glitchy appearance to his movement. You'll be glad to hear, then, that this problem has been well and truly remedied by EA Canada in Round 4. The developers have clearly done a good ringside job between the rounds, patching up Fight Night's wounds with a cotton bud and some Vaseline, before sending it onto the canvas to duke it out with game critics once again.
Haymake Not War
The reason these improvements are so important for Round 4 is because they are integral to Fight Night's gameplay. They don't merely add visual finesse to the end product; they make its visceral control system believable as well. Round 4 retains the same punching method as its predecessor, which grafts various upper-cuts, hooks, and jabs onto gestures on the right thumbstick (up for a jab, and down rotating upwards for an upper-cut etc.). Likewise, its ducking and weaving mechanic also follows suit from Round 3. Holding down the left trigger allows you to rotate your boxer's upper-body using the left thumbstick in an attempt to miss punches (N.B. the option to use face button controls for punching is not present in Round 4, although EA is apparently toying with the idea of adding this in an update).
Because the animations governing all of this movement are now near-perfectly implemented, the end result is gameplay that feels much more responsive and tactile. So responsive and tactile, in fact, that we can say with confidence: it's the finest boxing sim we've ever played (put that on the box and print it). Further depth is added to this control system with high and low blocks on the right trigger, as well as simple but highly effective counter-punches. If you time a block perfectly or avoid a punch by ducking and weaving, then a small window is opened for you to throw a devastating counter-punch at your defenceless opponent.
These counter-punch opportunities are well illustrated with a skilful kink in the game's camera and a slightly aghast look on the face of your opponent as they flail wildly into open space. Throw a hook or upper-cut at this precise moment and you'll often manage to stun your opponent, sending them into a semi-defenceless state where their health doesn't replenish for a short period. If these sorts of features are the icing on the top of this particularly sumptuous cake, then the glistening cherries are Round 4's new knockdown and ringside mini-games. The former challenges gamers to centre a finely weighted balance meter in order to get up, while the latter adds a layer of strategy by enabling you to choose which of your boxer's vitals get bolstered after a round (i.e. health, stamina, or damage). This ringside mini-game also rewards you for more accurate punches, which consequently give you more points to spend on repairs.
EA has nailed Fight Night Round 4's gameplay - it would certainly be very hard to dispute that. Where the game begins to fall down though, is with its content. Apart from a 'Fight Now' option and a career mode called 'Legacy', there's very little else to the game. There are no historical fight scenarios to battle your way through and no additional mini-games other than a fairly rudimentary set of training games that are also present in the 'Legacy' mode. These can be used to train your boxer and improve his stats in the career, although the option to simulate these sessions is often tempting due to a lack of additional depth in the mini-games beyond what you'd otherwise experience in the ring.
This would all be forgivable if the career mode was jam-packed with other features to keep you busy, but it isn't. The setup is pretty standard really: start at the bottom of a list of 50 boxers and work your way up to title fights at the top. Occasional e-mails will surface from your manager telling you to do fairly useless things like check out the boxer's in other weight groups. Other minor details include an array of yearly awards to fight for and an occasional ESPN nomination of one of your fights as 'Classic', but it's all fairly cosmetic and you'll rarely come across more than meets the eye.
Players can create their own boxers to fight through this career or chose to redefine the legacy of one of the game's 48 licensed boxers, which includes a wide range of current fighters including Ricky Hatton, recent retirees (e.g. Joe Calzaghe), and past greats such as Tyson and Ali. Top 50 ranking boards are available for each weight group, although there will never be more than around 10 licensed boxers in each grouping, so most of your time is taken up fighting against fictional fighters. This is understandable - most people would struggle to name more than 20 boxers who've ever fought professionally - but a problem arises when you consider how little variation these additional fighters offer.
Fighter AI in Round 4 is quite samey. The basic rule is this: taller boxers with a longer reach should move around the ring a lot to frustrate their opponent, while shorter boxers have to get in close and land big punches. It's a point well illustrated by Round 4's prize fighters, Ali and Tyson. However, beyond these two extremities, boxer AI isn't particularly varied and it's far too easy to surge up the ranking boards adopting the same style and strategy for each competitor you come up against. This becomes more of a challenge as you reach the top 20 but a stronger chin and more powerful punches are usually the deciding factor here, simply requiring you to spend more time in the gym.
Ultimately though, Round 4's legacy may well be defined by its Online World Championship. By creating a boxer in the editor or using EA's Game Face technology, players can compete for the World Championship belt across online ranking boards. There's only one of them in each weight class for the whole world though, so you might want to get practicing.
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