Fight Night Round 4: Hands-onShawn Drotar

Posted on May 13th, 2009 in Gaming, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, News, Opinion by Shawn Drotar

At the metro Vancouver EA Canada studios in March, roughly a dozen gamers got their hands on one of the most anticipated titles of the year: Fight Night Round 4. Only now has the embargo regarding many details of the game been lifted, and with the demo’s imminent appearance, I can finally share with you my experiences with the title.

The bar’s set very high for EA’s latest boxing opus; its predecessor, Round 3, still holds up reasonably well today despite being released in March of 2006. The game’s designers knew this and brought three years of development and improved techniques to Round 4, and the likely blockbuster was there in front of us, its disc whirring away in the debug Xbox 360s placed around the room.

The team’s tag line is: “No two fights are ever the same,” and they’ve completely re-written the game engine, removing all scripting and the “force field” that separated each boxer, which allows for close-in fighting that changes the game completely.

A straightforward command scheme has a clear (and depending on your dexterity, substantial) learning curve, but it also enables gamers to have complete control over their fighter. That control scheme has been tweaked a bit, allowing for faster combinations, especially the high-low ones that are so much a part of boxing in lighter weight classes. There’s no more button-mashing here; gamers will have to learn the nuances of the more immersive, natural - and superior - Total Punch Control system, or risk tasting the canvas. While it takes a while (and perhaps a long while) to get used to it, removing the buttons from the main portion of play is a terrific decision. Step up or step off, as it were.

Strategy matters, too - the development team is made up of boxing fans, and they intended to put the “science” back into “the sweet science”. Now, fighters are different sizes, not only in weight class but in height, so their reach matters a great deal. Tall fighters can keep opponents at bay while shorter ones are often better off getting body-to-body and slugging it out in close quarters. These variations make every fight quite a bit more strategic and forces gamers to adopt the proper style of their chosen boxer if they want to be at their most effective.

The game’s new physics-based system and vastly improved collision detection allows for punching through blocks, among other effects, which have more than a visual impact - they can make the difference between winning and losing.

In other words, Fight Night Round 4 was designed to be a thinking-person’s brawler. And that’s a recipe for big-time fun. Picking up a controller, I set to blistering my fingers and knocking out my opponents.

Regarding the game’s visuals, responsive controls and fluid, 60 frames-per-second graphics were a must, and players react realistically to both glancing blows and solid contact. Muscles show clear striation when they punch, which adds a jaw-dropping level of detail, especially in replays, and it’s easy to tell the condition of your boxer simply by how he looks, which adds to the experience. But it was the gameplay that captured my attention.

Fight Night Round 4 uses more ratings to differentiate its boxers, and among the most important is Punch Accuracy. Combined with the better physics and collision system, fights play out in an organic fashion; just because you throw a punch to the head doesn’t always mean you’ll land it. This makes picking your spots even more important.

Clinching finally adds to the title, as well. While boxing fans don’t like to see it, a well-timed clinch can keep a fighter on his feet instead of off them. Expect to use it with more realistic frequency this year; it’s another welcome addition to the game’s in-ring strategy. In between rounds, the corner-man mini-game has been simplified. You’ll earn points in a round, which can be used to improve your boxer’s health, replenish his stamina or patch up his cuts. The way you spend those points will have an immediate effect in the next round. Risk not closing a cut and the ref may stop the fight, but let your health go too low, and your trainer will be giving you smelling salts in no time.

While it’s important to note that the game I played was over two months old at this point, there was a significant issue with the length of the fights, which made it impossible to determine how fatigue and damage will work from round to round, but Fight Night Round 3 already had a solid system in place and there’s no reason to expect trouble there.

The problem with fight length wasn’t that they wouldn’t last; but they couldn’t due to a nightmarish recovery system that’s well thought out but far too difficult to execute. Requiring both analog sticks, you’ll need to keep your boxer upright as his weight keeps forcing him downwards as he staggers. There wasn’t anyone among the group on invitees that could get their boxer up with regularity (I did it once in probably 40 tries), so fights usually ended with the first knockdown. Now, these weren’t “n00bs” at this event; these were hardcore gamers - and boxing gamers to boot - so there’s no question that this part of the game needed to be simplified; it was far too sensitive. I’m optimistic that it could be made workable with more forgiving controller timing (something that wouldn’t require a complete overhaul), and given EA’s early response to community input, I’d be shocked if this problem existed in the final build. The proof, however, will be in the pudding.

In all, Fight Night Round 4 looks spectacular, and will be a go-to game for those wanting to show off their high-def gaming setups, but the gameplay is what’s likely to keep fans coming back for more. Even though the attendees at the event only saw one feature of the alpha-build (early in development) game, there was a lot to like. It’s fast and fun - and a great multiplayer romp - but the best players will be using their heads as quickly as their hands; a hallmark of every great sports game.

Fight Night Round 4’s currently scheduled to ship in late June - if you don’t have a finger-strengthening regimen in your workout yet, I’d suggest you start. You’ll need it.

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Shawn Drotar will return with a new editorial next week.

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