Boxing games have been around for a long time. But never before have we seen such an evolution in boxing since the Fight Night series from EA Sports.
Next-gen consoles have been graced with Fight Night Round 3 for the past few years, and for many it was a first look at what the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were capable of. Now some time has passed, and EA Sports have had some time to work over an already solid concept to make it even better for Fight Night Round 4. EA Sports deliver on making some astoundingly positive changes, but not without some questionable calls.
Fight Night Round 4, much like its predecessor, is a pure boxing experience. The game amps up the speed and makes for one incredibly smooth, fast paced and hard hitting boxing experience. The effort put into simply making the mechanics work smoothly is astounding, with incredibly lifelike movement and animations which are simply glorious to watch. Straights punches, hooks and uppercuts all flow smoothly, and each round is filled with action. Punches are thrown almost entirely by using the right stick - unfortunately there is no alternative to this so you'll need to get used to it (though there have been rumours EA Sports are considering patching in face-button punches)
Essentially by moving your right stick in various directions and in certain patterns, your boxer will throw the relevant punches. Unfortunately, on occasion a punch won’t come out quite as you intended, which can be frustrating, but trying to master this is a damn sight easier than jumping in the ring for real, so it's worthwhile to persevere. You have to think fast on your feet if you want to stay standing, and watch for your opponents hits. A well timed block will allow you to do a powerful counter-attack which will do some serious damage, really making the spittle fly. A visual queue will alert you to the opportunity, but that certainly is no guarantee for a hit. This has replaced parrying, and now blocking is simply a matter of choosing high or low blocks. Unfortunately the counter-attack opportunities are sometimes difficult to trigger, which makes the game a bit challenging in that respect, but once you know what to look for and how to trigger them with late blocks, it gets easier.
You will soon be skipping around the ring with ease, but dodging hits will take some mastering. You can flick the left stick while holding the left trigger to move your characters upper body around to avoid punches, and to get around an opponents blocks. It's about studying your opponent, learning what combos he’s likely to use and trying to protect yourself against them. Simply rushing into a fight fists blazing may work for a few moments, but at the end of it your opponent is very likely to land a powerful counter-attack. When this happens you might find your player dazed, in which case he will not recover health until he is standing firmly on his feet again. This is when he is most vulnerable to being knocked out, and you can grab onto your opponent or try to back away long enough to gather your wits.
When you are knocked down you will have to move your sticks around to centre an on-screen meter and stand up. This is easy enough with the first knock down but gets more and more difficult. In between bouts you have the option to spend points which you earn during the round on patching your fighter up. This is pretty vital if you want to last the distance, and knowing when and on what to use the points is critical. Points are earned by connecting shots, dazing opponents, and knocking opponents down. This system works quite well to reward good performance in a round, but it would have been nice to have more of a mini-game mechanic included here, such as cleaning cuts and putting ice packs on bruises for example.
The biggest problem posed by the boxing mechanics is the A.I. While the A.I. is solid and does a relatively good job at taking you down, it seems to be a little too predictable at times. The attempt seems to be at simulating boxers styles, and this is fair enough considering the wealth of customisation options at your fingers when creating a boxer to determine their own style, but it does reduce the difficulty in that area somewhat when you can pre-empt certain hits with relative certainty. That’s not to say the game is easy - you will be fighting to stay on your feet, especially when you match up some of boxing’s greats such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.
The games smooth animation and fantastic graphics really are the icing on what is boxing bliss. The boxers bodies drip with sweat and spittle flies from their mouths in the more powerful punches. The replays of the knock-outs clearly show the punches contorting the players faces, though oddly the facial contortion seems to occur slightly after the actual impact (or perceived impact), which appears slightly strange when you see it. But we can forgive EA Sports for this one, considering how nice the game looks in other areas. The boxing arenas and stadiums are entirely 3D, with 3D characters lining the ring-side and crowds reacting realistically to each punch with gasps and cheers. The ESPN support makes the bouts feel official, and adds to the immersion immensely.
The game offers several play modes. The normal quick fight option is there where you can simply take on some of boxing’s best, as previously mentioned. These include as Ali, Tyson and Lewis amongst many others. But there is also a legacy mode which allows you to create your own boxer to start their boxing career. You can set up a host of options from their block style, to their boxing style. Are they stronger on the inside or the outside? What style of characteristic punch should they have?
The aim here is to become one of boxing’s best by fighting with other boxers, training, and being challenged to bouts by other boxers. This mode allows you to level up your boxer, improving their skill and making them tougher by training them. Training involves maize bags amongst other boxer training devices, however these unfortunately are painfully difficult to make the most of in the early stages as your boxer is underpowered. Therefore they are best automated, which makes them a bit of a waste of time early on. This mode is done really well, really giving the impression of a real career, particularly with the implementation of a popularity meter which measures how many people are taking notice of your skill.
The multiplayer and online components are fantastic, as we have come to expect from recent EA Sports titles. The multiplayer bouts are largely lag free, and there is a World Champion mode which allows you to rank up your online player in different leagues. There is certainly nothing like taking an online rival down a notch with a nice clean knock-out. A nice extension of EA Sports normal online integration is the inclusion of ESPN video footage that can be viewed along with sports news. Along with the podcasts which are downloaded in the background and played instead of the excellent selection of EA Trax, the online component is once again very polished and highly interactive. There's even an online database of user created players, which is already chock full of people like Ron Burgundy, the late Michael Jackson and Rocky Balboa.
Regardless of what EA Sports have done with Fight Night Round 4 it remains primarily a niche title for boxing fans. It's too serious a title to be enjoyed largely by casual gamers, particularly with the control scheme involving the thumb sticks, which requires some getting used to (particularly if you don’t want to be continuously embarrassed). The sport itself is certainly an acquired taste, and it can’t be ranked as a wholesome family title, which should be considered for anyone looking to pick this up.
There is no doubt however that it will appear fully to fans of the previous title, and fans of the sport in general as it does an exceptional job of recreating the spectacle in all its glory. EA Sports have certainly done a great job at providing a game that fully encompasses the lights and glory of boxing.