June 29, 2009
2009 so far has been a very testosterone filled year for me personally as far as reviewing games goes. In February I was knee deep in hadoukens and spinning bird kicks with Street Fighter IV. In May I was attempting to transition from a rubber guard mission control into an open guard mount in THQ’s UFC 2009 Undisputed. Now, as June comes to a close, I’m dropping illegal head butts and trying to bite opponent’s ears off in Fight Night Round 4 to see whether it fits the main billing. Well, not biting ears off, although the digital Iron Mike may break the shackles of his pre-programmed AI to do so any minute now.
Fight Night Round 3 set the early standard for video games visuals in this current generation, and whilst Fight Night Round 4 continues that trend, its sequel is more than just a pretty face. It takes what was wrong with the original, throws it in a blender, packs it in a space shuttle, and sends it off to Neptune’s third moon never to be seen again. Gone is the sluggish gameplay, as are the big match ending haymakers and poor career mode; and in comes everything else to make this the ultimate boxing experience to date.
The controls in the latest Fight Night do take some getting used to until you feel truly confident with the fighter at your disposal. In what is the biggest oversight in the title this year, the punching in Fight Night Round 4 is solely dependent on the right analogue stick with no option to map it to the face buttons like there was in Round 3. The controls then become the game’s main sticking point but if you bear with it and master it, you should be able to get the most out of the title. It’s still a weird choice from the developers; taking out something that was already in there and relied upon by newcomers.
Using the right analogue stick in short directional flicks and big sweeping motions to perform a whole array of punches make up the fundamentals of the game's controls, but it’s only part of mastering the whole experience. Players will then need to learn; the weaving (left trigger and the left analogue stick), blocking (right trigger and the right analogue stick), when and how to connect with haymakers (right bumper and the right analogue stick) and countering. In fact the countering in the game is more reliant on timing than anything else and if you bring your gloves up or down just as an opponent is about to make contact with you, it opens them up for a counter punch which has more of an impact than your traditional punches. The controls do feel a lot more responsive in this latest version of the franchise but the haymakers seem predictably slow and almost unrealistic. Granted, they were overpowered in Round 3, but they seem underpowered this time around. The way your opponents easily get up after the first and subsequent knock downs also seems to have been dumbed down as well to elongate the experience, and you almost never see a flash punch win a bout. Again, pretty unrealistic.
When fighting the A.I. the game really comes into its own though. It is bearable fighting opponents online that seem to do the same thing over and over again, but the real test comes with the harder difficulties against the AI who like to mix it up and play to their strengths. So expect Tyson to try and stifle you and fight toe to toe, whereas Ali’s style will have him dancing around the ring keeping you at arm’s length. Whatever difficulty of the four you do decide to tackle, you’ll be faced with tense and unpredictable fights that require you to keep your eyes on the action and your finger on the pulse. If you’re on top, expect your opponent to up the ante and throw everything at you looking for that one punch to put you down. A few times I had been winning every round only to get floored in the ninth with a big punch that I had left myself open for. It definitely adds an edge to the gameplay and keeps you immersed in the action from the beginning to the end.
If you do take a blow and end up on the canvas, you’ll have to have steady hands to raise your fighter’s head with the left stick and then when his head is straight and stable, push forward on the right stick. The more times you get knocked down, the harder it is to get up, in fact, I never managed to beat the count after the second knockdown. If you want to treat a wound or regain stamina, you can do so in between rounds with a fairly innocuous mini game. Or you can do what I do ... click auto recovery which bypasses all that.
One of the game’s main staples is the Fight Now mode which is basically a posh way to sum up an exhibition match. Here you can take control of any of the 51 included fighters from past and present and recreate classic matches like Ali vs. Foreman, or just rewrite history with Pacquiao vs. Hatton. Heck, if you wanted to have Tyson belt ten tons of crap out of Marvin Haggler, you can do that too ... so long as they are only two weight classes apart.
The crux of the offline game takes place in the “Legacy” mode, in other words, the game’s career mode. Here you’ll have to rise through the ranks from a rookie to the big leagues, starting off in a crappy back street gym, attempting to raise your profile and stats so you can challenge for the titles and become the headline fight in a packed out arena. The career mode is pretty damn extensive and can cater for hours upon hours of fun that can be personalised to the nth degree. The import game face feature lets you bring whoever you want into the ring and it does so pretty accurately. Whether you use the online upload a photo service from your PC, or a vision cam, the results are pretty impressive and whether you want to see yourself, Will Smith or Borat in the ring, you can recreate that. Not only that, but you can also heavily customise your boxer’s ring entrance, fighting style, signature punch and so much more, meaning that you can truly build the fighter you want to see in the ring.
In order to raise your stats in the career, players will have to set a fight in advance and then prepare in training sessions before it. There are 6 boxing related mini games that are pretty fun and interactive, from things like perfecting combos to dodging a maize bag. The unfortunate problem comes when there is no real incentive to play these because unless you perform greatly, you’re no better off, in fact you’re worse off, than if you click the auto train option. In a similar vein you can simulate matches as well that you don’t want to participate in via a one-click result option or via a simplistic managerial fight cast where all you do is shape your fighter’s mentality.
The overall presentation of the game is top notch. The visuals are some of the best we’ve seen on a console to date and not only do they bring the fighters and matches to life, but also the crowd. Where UFC lacked on stage entrances and the crowd of the octagonal MMA title felt lifeless, Fight Night Round 4 feels spot on. As you are dancing your way around the ring you’ll even hear the odd stray voice from the crowd or your trainer shouting instructions at you which add to the spectacle. Throw in the eclectic, heavily amusing and often interesting commentary of Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas, and you have a solid soundtrack to compliment the fantastic visuals. There is a little repetition on their part and once you’ve played it for a few hours you’ll be hearing the same old lines, but on the whole, they do more than a solid job.
The online mode of Fight Night Round 4 is pretty enjoyable on the whole, offering you ranked and unranked play with the game’s extensive roster, or getting involved in an online World Championship fighting for belts and leaderboard places with your created characters. The online championship only takes your created character’s visuals to the stage as the stats are all the same to level the playing field. As far as gameplay goes, the experience is lag free and runs as smooth as silk. You will however run into people constantly making use of the game’s illegal blow system to save themselves from an almost certain knockdown which is an obvious exploit that EA clearly missed. On more than one occasion it happened multiple times in the same match and it frankly saved my opponent from an almost certain knockdown. It hardly makes for a realistic experience when that happens, in fact, it makes the whole thing quite frustrating.
The achievements for Fight Night are pretty damn terrible. Not only do they put a 150 point emphasis on winning a belt in each online class, but they focus most of the achievements on the Fight Now against the CPU ... which isn’t exactly playing to the game’s strengths. The online belt achievements relate to players picking up the one belt per class. Yes, there is only 1 belt per class ... so this pretty much puts the clamps on 99.9% of players coming away with any more than 850 points. There are only 33 achievements as well which is surely a clear indication of how much they care for the achievement system. Possibly one of the worst lists in a long time, and we’ve had some bad ones recently.
There’s no doubting that EA have delivered a knockout punch with Fight Night Round 4 and it truly is the closest we’ve come to boxing without strapping the gloves on ourselves. The physics are spot on, as is the visual appearance of the game, but the inability to map the punches to the face buttons leaves it short of truly epic. There is a lot of hours of realistic boxing to be had here through the huge career mode and online arena, that make it a must buy for anyone that even remotely calls them self a boxing fan.
The hip-hop influenced soundtrack, mixed with the occasional ESPN news chatter, topped off with some amusing and informative commentary means Fight Night Round 4 is packing the punches as far as the audio package goes.
Not a foot wrong with the visuals. The boxers themselves look utterly fantastic and even the crowd look like they’re enjoying the action ... and rightly so. You’ve not seen blood or sweat sloshed around until you’ve seen it coming off your opponent’s body as he sinks to the floor after that killer blow.
The controls can take some getting used to, but once you do, you can reap the benefits of a deep and intense boxing game. Excluding the option to map punching to the face buttons seems like an oversight that we fear will put a lot of people off. Not having that choice isn’t going to ruin a game, but not including that option can potentially hold it back from greatness.
A pretty extensive roster of characters that all look like their real life counterparts, slick menus, a deep and appealing career mode and a fairly solid online arena. What else can you ask for?
One of the worst lists of the year for numerous reasons. Whatever possessed them to allocate 150 points to 3 seemingly impossible achievements is beyond me. They went from too easy in Fight Night Round 3, to totally and utterly ridiculous for Fight Night Round 4. The rumour is they’ll finally get it right with Round 5 ... but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
With Fight Night Round 4, EA have delivered what is a pretty impressive boxing simulaton title. Aside from the relatively steep learning curve, awkward punching system and inability to map punching to the face buttons; the game delivers on almost every other front. With a bit of tweaking, the next in the series may actually blow our minds, quite literally.