Fight Night Round 4
There are moments in video gaming where a well-known genre is turned on its head. Perhaps it's a graphics breakthrough, or a change in mechanics. And sometimes, in the case of Fight Night Round 3, it was both. EA Chicago took the series' analog control scheme and refined it to the point where it felt organic, and then upped the graphical bar to the point where it almost felt like you were watching a boxing match unfold right before your eyes. The game was quickly proclaimed the greatest boxing game in history (well, maybe second after Mike Tyson's Punch Out!). EA, displaying the kind of forward thinking philosophy that brings us Madden after undercooked Madden, promptly closed EA Chicago. I don't remember the reasons given, only the cry of "FOUL!" from the game's fans, who were worried they'd never see another Fight Night, or at least one on the level of Round 3.
Which brings us to Fight Night Round 4. The reins have been handed to EA Canada (such imaginative names) who, instead of resting on their laurels, built a new engine from the ground up. The results are often quite impressive, but also frequently frustrating.
First, the good: Fight Night Round 4 feels like a true sequel to Round 3. Anyone who enjoyed the last entry will no doubt have fun with this one. So rest easy on that score. Furthermore, there are a bevy of fighters to choose from, from the all time greats to the scrappier guys who still pack a mean punch. Not only that, but you can upload a picture of yourself (or others) to EA's website and import that into the game for creating your own character. And EA Canada has refined the analog stick system even further, really giving the player the chance to play according to his own style. And the fight are much more unpredictable. Your opponent will surprise you with his moves, and if you don't vary your attacks, you'll find yourself getting a beat down real fast.
Another nice addition is EA Canada's decision to throw out Round 3's corner system, where you would manually heal your fighter until the timer ran down. Now you get points based on how you fight, and you use those points to up your stats for the next round. This, combined with the improved gameplay mechanics, really make you think about how you play. You may get more points in a match for throwing more punches, but you'll get less points in the corner if your punches are being blocked or miss.
Not every change works. Round 3's method of recovering from a K.O. was simple and effective, the kind of thing that made you work but didn't ruin the momentum of a fight. Round 4 replaces this with a clunky system that requires you to hoist your fighter back up from the mat. It's distracting and kills all the enthusiasm you may have had for the fight at hand.
But by far the worst part of Round 4 is its career mode. Now, I'm not saying Round 3 was brilliant in this aspect (in fact, the lack of a true career mode in that game was one of the biggest criticisms leveled against it), but at least it felt like you were in control of your own fighter. Round 4 gives you lots of things to check, but really only two things to do: Schedule fights and train. And the training minigames have gotten no better than the ones in Round 3. So it's already tedious, but then EA Canada throws insult to injury on top. The game actually simulates the days in between your training and your fights. You sit there watching the screen as it says "Simulating" and you do absolutely nothing. To me that's like an RPG where you have to watch your party while they sleep instead of just filling up their HP and MP. It's boring, it's time consuming, and it sucks all the fun out of the career mode.
To make things worse, the career mode, called Legacy Mode, pushes you towards several goals that you have to achieve before your fighter grows too old. This doesn't seem like a problem until you discover that the opponents your facing are becoming progressively stronger much more quickly than you are, and you never have enough time to train up to their level if you wish to actually make it to the end before your character retires. So eventually the people you're fighting are much better than you, and your only method of winning is by scoring points for punches landed, but these punches pretty much won't hurt the other fighter, meaning that while your stamina drains, theirs stays pretty stable. I'm sure you can see how this would be a problem. It's just one of the many issues Legacy Mode creates.
If Legacy Mode is wearing you down, you can always jump online and play with friends--or enemies. You'll have to watch out for spammers, though. Too many players make characters with long reaches who will then throw punch after punch before you can close the gap, and it's annoying. Since online fights are ranked, you have little incentive to leave early, even if your fighter is getting creamed. But if you're playing with more sophisticated, fair-minded individuals, the game is really fantastic online. Unlike a lot of fighting games, I never noticed much of a lag, and you really get caught up in the sweep of the fight.
Fight Night Round 3 was praised for its highly detailed graphics, including a bold "knockout cam," where everything would slow down to feature the punch that brought your opponent (or yourself) down. Spit would go flying as the fighter's face distorted almost beyond recognition. This last feature has been sharply toned down for Round 4, and I think that's a good thing. After the first few "Wow!" moments, the knockout cam in 3 just felt too cartoony, especially for a game striving for photo realism. Round 4 does have a knockout cam, but it's not nearly as drawn out or over the top. The rest of the graphics are fantastic, with tremendous representations of the real fighters, and good quality integration of uploaded faces. The real impressive feature is in how the fighters move. They weave and bob much more realistically than in Round 3, and at times it really feels like you're watching a boxing match on TV.
As great as the graphics were in Round 3, the audio was no slouch either, and Round 4 proudly follows in its aural footsteps. Like before, you get blow by blow commentary from ESPN commentators, and while some of the comments get repetitive, they're not nearly as bad as in Round 3 in that regard. They also drop factoids about the players you're fighting, provided you're fighting against actual boxers. But more than the commentary, the punches land with satisfying thumps, the crowd gets worked up, and everything sounds like a good boxing match really should.
Despite EA's decision to close EA Chicago, the Fight Night series is in good hands with EA Canada. Improving on Fight Night Round 3 in many aspects, these new developers prove they have what it takes to fight with the heavyweights. While the game isn't perfect, specifically in the areas of its deeply flawed Legacy Mode, it still manages to provide a boxing experience like no other. Highly Recommended.