Fight Night Round 4 brings boxing back to the Xbox 360 and PS3 with the promise from EA Sports of more realistic pugilism.
What Is It? Fight Night is the leading boxing series on consoles. It has been since Fight Night replaced EA's own Knockout Kings series. It comes out on June 30, about six weeks after Nintendo's Wii revamp of Punch-Out. Fight Night's last development studio, EA Chicago, was shuttered after Fight Night Round 3, making the new game the first in the series from EA Vancouver. EA is pushing a legends angle, with a vintage Muhammad Ali and a prime Mike Tyson facing off on the cover of the game and in its virtual ring.
What We Saw About a month ago, EA provided your formerly MTV-employed previewer with a PS3 build of the game. Only coverage of the game's basic single-fight mode would be allowed. The game's single-player campaign, its Legacy mode, would be off-limits. I played the game several times against Fight Night super-fan and MTV News correspondent Tim Kash. I also played bouts against the computer, facing vintage 70s George Foreman against Lennox Lewis in one memorable barnburner.
You should know, preview readers, that I didn't play a lot of the previous Fight Night games, but I am a big boxing fan. I used to be the managing editor for Boxing Digest magazine, throughout college. I prefer my boxing to be more realistic than Rocky.
How Far Along Is It? The game is six weeks from release, so the build I was given was quite far along. The matches played smoothly, with full commentary.
What Needs Improvement? Quiet, Please: The core boxing in Fight Night Round 4 is very good. It looks good. It feels good to control. But much of that is sullied when the announcers are talking about punches that happened seconds ago — which in boxing terms is a lifetime ago. Like real announcers, they'd best be served to let the action speak for itself sometimes. Otherwise, they're prone to falling out of step and becoming an annoyance. (The quality of the colour commentary from Teddy Atlas, it should be noted, is quite strong and will teach a lot of non-boxing fans plenty about the sport.)
The Wrong Winner: Tim and I repeatedly experienced a surprising turn of events. One of us would have the decisive advantage in a fight, but suddenly the match would be stopped and the other fighter declared the victor. The reason? The loser had started bleeding from a punch. I e-mailed EA about this, weeks ago, so they know about it. My hope is either that players will be able to change the game's tolerance for blood or that, as in real boxing, that the referee would break the action, give a doctor a chance to look at the cut… anything to warn us that a little bleeding is about to bring the fight to an end. Then we'd go for the KO, a la James Toney against Tim Littles in 1994.
What Should Stay The Same? The Bodies: Finally, Fight Night has fighters who are shaped like they are in real life. It works. Muhammad Ali's longer reach allowed me to use him to keep Mike Tyson at bay. Foreman is giant. Thomas Hearns is lanky as a stringbean. Some of the guys with shorter arms are great inside fighters. Whether this is all due to programming or just the fact that the visuals encourage me to roleplay the way these guys fight in real life doesn't matter. They are shaped as they are or were in reality, so I make them fight like they would. That opportunity is a thrill for a boxing fan.
The Graphics: Fight Night games have become graphical showpieces. This one's no different. Watch the trailers for yourself. No game this year turned heads in my old MTV office like this one, not Resident Evil 5, not Street Fighter IV.
Revised Controls: I was never that good with the old Fight Night controls, which required more elaborate arcs of the right thumbstick to swing hooks and uppercuts. The arcs have been simplified with nearly straight flicks of the stick allowing for my go-to hooks.
Proper Contact: One of the new gimmicks for Fight Night Round 4 is that the physics system now allows for punches to realistically hit any part of the opposing fighter — and for your target's body to react accordingly. The new collision detection also allows fighters to stand closer together, instead of being buffered by an invisible barrier. Not being a Fight Night fanatic, I can't assess how much of an improvement this is. But judging by my taste for realistic boxing, I can say that the results look like real fighting to me. There was very little Rocky about the contact I saw. Instead there was more of the subtlety of movement that excites fans like me.
Final Thoughts I never got hooked on any previous "realistic" boxing games because they always felt just too removed from the sport itself. Baseball games have come to be video-perfect simulations of the real thing. Basketball games look like telecasts. But boxing games had looked to me like cartoon versions of the sweet science, with absurd knockdowns and zombie fighters. Fight Night Round 4 looks like it might cross my boxing uncanny valley.
Let's just hope that our fights aren't stopped too soon and that this still-secret Legacy single-player mode makes EA Sport's latest effort something more than a multiplayer delight.