The world has changed in the three years between Fight Nights Round 3 and 4. We have gained a black president and lost a white Michael Jackson. Mixed Martial Arts has risen to prosperity as the hippest trend amongst $50 skull-design-shirted males aged 15-young enough to be with it. On the other hand, boxing’s overall popularity has further waned, with few possible new stars capturing the public’s imagination, and boxers becoming less interested in world titles than booking the biggest catch-weight dream fights possible. In those three years, Floyd Mayweather has retired, wrestled, danced with the stars and unretired, Mike Tyson embarrassed his tiger in The Hangover and even Rocky Balboa had one last great comeback against Antonio Tarver.
It has indeed been a good eon since Fight Night Round 3 knocked off the jaws of gamers around the world as the first great HD-friendly Xbox 360 game. Since then, people have comfortably settled into the High Definition/flailing your motion controller aimlessly-era of video games, and even the fighting game genre has witnessed a small renaissance. Now entering a crowded marketplace brimming with competiton, Fight Night Round 4 walks through the curtain with desires of once again declaring itself king of the next-gen ring.
The basic gameplay mechanics are intact. You still swing your punches with the right analog stick. The buttons for dodging, blocking, hugging and crotch-shotting your opponent are still there. Parries (you know, those parries where you stick your arm out in such a manner that your opponent convulses in shock when they jab it, leaving you open for a counter) are gone though. Instead, timing your blocks and dodges perfectly will leave your opponent vulnerable for a more damaging counterattack. Now, the screen flashes yellow to let you know that your counter-punch is sending your opponent’s brain on a one-way trip to the Sports Legacy Institute for concussion research.
I’m not quite Larry Merchant in regards to boxing expertise (or age, or slow wit, or anything for that matter) but I get the impression that Round 4 better recreates the sport of boxing. Fights seem to last longer and you don’t have the same “5 Knockdowns in the first 2 rounds” sense of chaos that occurred in most Round 3 scuffles. And while the fights in Round 3 better resembled Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots than anything remotely sweet or scientific, they were also a great deal more visceral and entertaining. Part of me misses though chaotic, career-shortening brawls of Fight Nights past.
The camera is zoomed back, perhaps to reflect the newfound importance of height in this game. (Tall fighters keep their distance and take potshots, shorter fighters should get up close and deliver a knuckle sandwich catering table of pain.) In doing so, you now have to look to three health bars to observe your fighter’s status instead of the more primal approach of taking visual cues from your smashed-up face. Ergo, the sense of in-your-face brutality is reduced. And I found myself having to pace myself more; picking my shots, conversing energy, thinking about a 12 round fight instead of thinking headshots like FPS Doug. It’s more realistic, it’s just…not as fun. It was only recently that the Punch-Out remake made boxing simple, wacky and racist again. Not to mention the UFC game, which delivered an ideal mix of realism and carnage (with a subtle hint of racism, of course.) Hence, the timing for a more technical, more politically-correct Fight Night couldn’t be worse.
On the upside, the EA Sports Cutman has been fired. Instead, you can use points earned from pleasing your manager (assume your manager is a masochist) to automatically recover certain attributes. Or just take the multiplayer-friendly option of auto-assigning these points.
Fight Night Round 4 let me down spectacularly when I scrolled through the list of fighters and noticed that certain individuals are locked. EA is asking the player to go into their online store and purchase a pack featuring Oscar De La Hoya and the Klitschko brothers. There’s something rather bothersome about being made to purchase both the most popular active fighter in the world and the two current kings of Heavyweight boxing. And where the hell is Floyd Mayweather? It feels like Mike Tyson is Round 4’s one big roster addition, and that the roster has since been a tad ravaged over the years.
“Legacy Mode” is the game’s obligatory Career mode. I’m starting to grow weary of the career mode in boxing and boxing-like video games. You pick a fighter, created or otherwise (oh, there’s one thing Fight Night has over the UFC game; you can play career mode with actual fighters!) You start out with the stats of a grade school bully, fight a lot of chumps, work your way up a fictitious ladder in your road to becoming the champion. Along the way, you grind through repetitive mini-games (though you can skip them with little-to-no penalty), read pointless e-mails and sit through many, many, many load times. Seriously, why would a boxing trainer send me an e-mail, with perfect spelling and grammar, telling me that training is the key to success? Some of the e-mails don’t even make sense. After a fight with some Horton individual, I got an e-mail warning me about a hot prospect called Horton whom could threaten my rise to the top. Seriously? There’s nothing new or innovative about the career mode here to raise it above that of previous games. It’s not worse from previous games, just not better either.
Small side-rant: I know that the road to athletic superstardom requires hours of training, dedication, hard work and neglecting your loved ones, but I don’t play video games to labour over a virtual pair of weights or heavy bags when I’m already spending more than enough time in a real gym.
So the single-player mode is somewhat of a wash, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be twiddling your thumbs in wait for your friends to come to your dorm to play a few sessions before asking you to put Round 3 back in the system. The game has a solid online community and fights are relatively lag-free. There’s even a neat little virtual league of all-created fighters, all vying for one championship belt. The catch to all of this online fighting; you have to give your e-mail address to EA. I don’t think I can ever forgive myself.
Fight Night Round 4 feels like it was designed for the knowledgeable, pretentious boxing fan, thanks in part to its more technical fighting system. But just like in a real boxing fight, more technical boxing may intrigue the Vegas crowd…it just won’t excite friends in my basement looking for some violence to coincide with their beer. And I can’t help but feel that at least three-quarters of the Fight Night audience fits in that frat-room audience, and is in for a slight letdown when they step in the ring.
3 ½ stars