A graphical showpiece and a boxing game just a tad more authentic than the ones featuring King Hippo, Fight Night Round 4 apologizes for its sport and chases that unlikeliest of pugilistic goals: subtlety.
MMA is hot and WWE never quite fades away. Boxing eternally hangs from a cliff.
Since the 1970s, each decade of boxing disappointment has been followed by a decade when those of us who can still name a single active heavyweight realize that the previous decade wasn't so bad. The 90s of boxing? I miss them. Boxing never seems to improve, except in my memories.
Those of us who enjoy the sport can at least celebrate this spring of 2009 and its video game boxing renaissance, which has brought us back Punch-Out on the Wii and Fight Night on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Punch-Out's a fun puzzle game — identify and memorize the pattern to knock Bald Bull out. Fight Night aspires to be what boxing should be these days. It gets close when its controls don't deeply bend one of gaming's cardinal rules.
The Sport In Full: Ring walks. Round card girls. Choices of trunks. Previous Fight Nights had those too. Lots of fighters, including Ali, Tyson, Robinson (no de la Hoya and Holyfield), can get in the ring. Added to that — and new to Fight Night Round 4 — is a Legacy Mode that lets the player bring an amateur fighter to pro superstardom, one match at a time. The difficulty ramps up uncomfortably early, and the training mini-games between fights are too hard for a novice fighter whose foot speed and power-punching stats are not yet leveled up. But the climb is exciting and just vague enough in detail to let the gamer's imagination build a narrative better than Stallone's first Rocky. There are unexpected challengers, rematches, far-flung venues, annual achievement awards and a novel's worth of a fighting career determined one punch and one drop of blood at a time. (UPDATE: Judging by feedback in the comments I did not sufficiently distinguish how Round 4's career mode differs from that of Round 3. The new one includes multiple championships, the ability to unify belts, defend the title, move weight classes, all to increase one's reputation in order to be named The Greatest of All Time. Different tiers, from Club Fighter to Contender to Greatest have different criteria for players to achieve, including measures of fame and winning percentage. It's modeled off of a realistic career, compared to Round 3's series of challenges.)
Brutal Beauty: No greater compliment may be offered a game's graphics than to say that this game would be playable without its heads-up display (HUD). I tried one fight that way and I could see enough of the expressions of pain and fatigue on my fighter's and his opponent's faces to know how the match was going. Round 4's new physics-based damage system, which makes flush punches more hurtful than glancing blows, can be read by one's eyes without needing to see a health meter. It's all there in virtual-physical form.
Subtlety: A ha! This is what I like about boxing. Fights are seldom determined by one punch. They are determined by the accretion of jabs and hooks painted on an opponent round after round. Head movement and footwork are keys to victory. The game is a little too in love with making the player look for counter-punching opportunities, but even just a steady jab investment pays dividends, as it should. Leveling up offense and defensive stats like body-resilience or punch-accuracy shows small but significant results each time. Boxing's loudest moments follow many quieter accomplishments that the casual observer may not appreciate. They're in here.
Swift Online: I played the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions and went online with the latter. Matchmaking was swift and the fights were fun. I was disappointed that player's boxer attribute stats are leveled, as it doesn't seem to enable me to bring a fighter who is, say, biased toward power and not speed to match up against a fighter aligned the other way. Nevertheless, integrating fights into an online quest to be the champion of the game's three online weight divisions is a smart move. I'll never be champ, but it's fun to know I have a shot.
Interference: The core of Fight Night Round 4, the boxing, is a smoothly-played delight. But this game's Legacy mode is larded with extra menus and simulation options that slow one's advance from fight to training and back to fight. Then, during the fights, commentators Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore devolve into the worst of boxing announcers by repeatedly calling every round they see the best round of their life. What salvages the commentary is the interesting decision to have the two men criticize the state of real boxing. They discuss the proliferation of world titles and weight classes. They lament the shallow talent pool of new fighters. They even lobby for basketball players to become boxers. But all of that and even Atlas' goofy asides — like his comparison of my great fight to the first time he hard Ray Charles sing God Bless America — couldn't keep me from shutting these guys off.
Strict Controls: EA is so fervently behind Fight Night's right-stick punch system that it didn't deliver an option to map punches to controller face buttons this time. The right-stick technique is conceptually sound. Tilt in the direction of a left or right jab. Hook in the direction of a left or right hook. Pull back and arc in the direction of a left or right uppercut. What could be better? The problem is that many of us can't execute those controls reliably, myself included. My view is that game controls should be invisible and intangible. We should forget them and achieve a oneness with what's on the screen: I think an action; I believe I've done it; It happens. With Fight Night Round 4, sadly, what I think will be an uppercut winds up being a hook half the time. Perhaps I will continue to improve, but it's disappointing that EA did not offer a control scheme that lets me do what I want to do. Why not let the game learn what I think is a hook and map that move to my fighter's hook? Why force me to only use EA's pre-defined arcs? It's a narrow option that has led me to question whether I'm failing at the game or whether the game is failing at me. I'd rather focus on boxing than the controls, but players be warned: if you stink at these controls, you're in big trouble.
Fight Night Round 4 presents boxing at its most beautiful, a sport that looks great, is exciting, is full of talent and devoid of corruption.
The game falters in narrowing its audience to only those who can handle its tricky controls. But those who can manage are in for an experience about which there is little else to complain.
Fight Night Round 4 was developed and published by Electronic Arts for the PS3 and Xbox 360 on June 25. Retails for $59.99 USD. Played two brief, faltering careers on the PS3, switched to the tighter analog stick of the Xbox 360 and have had a rocky 13-6-0 middleweight career with 12 KOs on the Xbox 360. Played several matches online. Used to work for Bert Sugar (in real life). Was once prank phone-called by Michael Moorer (also in real life).
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