Boxing's always been about personalities. I don't follow the sport particularly, but even I can identify most of the people who've been involved in it. Not too surprising, then, that EA's Kudo Tsunoda is quite a character himself. He wears shades in January, talks at about a mile a minute, and constantly says things that I'm surprised his PR minders aren't yelling at him about. When one of the journos questions the presence of a Burger King logo on a replay overlay, he says, "It's because it's the Burger King punch of the round," - an obvious reference to the game's TV styling, which owes a lot to EA's deal with ESPN. "Or, as we like to call it, the Burger King five-hundred-thousand-dollars-for-us punch of the round." Er. "Um, yeah, don't write that down." Too late.
He's full of amusing anecdotes. For example, the one about the audio samples. "We were just punching stunt-guys but they were too ripped," he says. "So in the end we got this pig, oiled it up, and then just punched the living crap out of it. So there was our sound guy with a microphone getting covered in oil." I assume he's joking. Either way, the noises you hear when someone's whacking X repeatedly to replay a knockout punch over and over is one of the most horrible things I've heard since I last turned on MTV Hits. Remember that bit in American History X where that guy bites the kerb and Edward Norton stamps on the back of his head? It's proper fingers-over-ears stuff. Every single time.
Fight Night Round 3 was one of EA's big demos at last May's PlayStation 3 unveiling in Los Angeles. Kudo was there showing it off, but the content won the headlines. That one punch shocked the whole world, as the camera caught everything in minute detail - the crumpling of the glove on the boxer's chin, his lower jaw shifting awkwardly to one side as the impact of the punch rippled along his face (remember that bit in The Matrix where it happens to Agent Smith? They got the same effects guy to help them do it here), blood flying out of his mouth and perspiration fleeing his face like hundreds of tiny bodies propelled through windscreens. I'm not shown the PS3 version (in fact, I'm not even allowed to ask about it), but Kudo reckons the Xbox 360 version is even better looking than that demo. Which most people thought was faked anyway.
It definitely wasn't. Kudo finds the internet reaction quite entertaining. He talks about how, when people heard his name, they said the game would suck because he was Japanese. He's "about half-Japanese" but he's distinctly American - you have no trouble believing he works in Chicago - but the 'net said it'd probably still suck. When people played it on Xbox 360, they suggested that the PS3 conference demo was running on an Xbox 360. You can't win. "Last time, somebody complained the game sucked because we didn't have robes," he says. "I'm thinking we should put that on the back of the box: NOW WITH AUTHENTIC ROBES."
They won't of course, but there's no dearth of things to put on the back of the Xbox 360 packaging. Above and beyond the PS2 and Xbox versions, X360 Round 3 includes new fight mechanics and graphics easily on a par with any next-gen tech demo we've seen, boxers modelled to "pore-level detail" - to the extent that the 360 does away with any sort of heads-up display or screen furniture and lets you gauge the relative health of any fighter by their body language and the state of their face - along with photo-modelled arenas, loads of real boxers, a Career mode that lets you throw punches at the press conferences if you really want to, an ESPN Classics mode that lets you relive great fights throughout history, and far more that I can't fit into this spiralling paragraph.
Visually, hyperbole isn't necessary; you can do it on stats alone. Fighters were built out of three million polygons, based on high-res photoshoots. Existing boxers were brought in, photographed, and those photographs formed the basis of their models, which glisten with convincing sweat (no FIFA-style zombification here). Dazed boxers look dazed and stumble around convincingly; they let their guard down, their hands dropping and heads slumping. Noses are broken and bent out of shape by well-placed roundhouses. "We used to be able to fake so much stuff, but you can't get away with that [on next-gen]," says Kudo. "We used wireframes to set up the animations, and the rule was that if you couldn't figure out it was Ali, we changed it." The same went for the AI. If the CPU boxing didn't look like Ali, or Foreman, or Holyfield, or whoever, when it was just a wireframe, they changed it. They're extremely conscious about the way that you notice the tiniest discrepancies in high-resolution visuals far more than you do the big ones in low-detail graphics.
Ali's inclusion raises an interesting question though - how did they model older boxers? "We put out a casting call for body doubles, people with the same body shape as Ali, the same face shape, the same kind of skin. We got videos and showed them how to move like Ali and filmed that." Collecting assets was one of the biggest tasks involved in development - and the same attention to detail was spread around outside the boxers. All the arenas were modelled with high-resolution panoramic photoshoots - an approach similar to the one Project Gotham Racing 3 uses, and to similarly gob-smacking effect. "We even used the same three million poly/photoshoot stuff on the ring girls. We worked hard for you guys."
Some mistakes were made though. Like the first time they got a ring-girl in. "We've got about 120 guys in the Chicago office, and the make-up room is down the hall from where. We didn't really think about robes at that point, so this poor girl had to walk the whole way down the hall to where we take the photos in a bikini. Suddenly 120 guys all had a reason to be in the hallway." Oops.
Obviously they couldn't punch and cut up Holyfield or his kin (not without getting hit back, we expect), but that wasn't too much of a problem. "We paid stunt-guys 500 bucks a day to just punch them repeatedly in the face to capture the facial movement," says Kudo. Another anecdote: "You know, we have this street hockey team at EA, and one time this guy caught a stick above the eye and it opened up a big wound. He had to have like 14 stitches or something. So we were trying to get him into a car, take him to hospital and he was like, 'No! Get me into the studio!'"
But enough of the graphics. Even if you doubt it looks this good (there's a downloadable demo on Live if you want some first-hand experience), Kudo reckons the strength of the fight mechanics ought to sate you. The game uses analogue sticks to fire punches, treating 'up' on the right analogue as facing the opponent. Arcing a quarter-circle left-and-upward on the right stick throws a left hook, while you can wind up from further back to throw haymakers. Haymakers even have a little delay now, so a good receiving player can anticipate it and evade. Evasion's very believable, and each boxer has their own style - and naturally some are better at blocking in particular circumstances. You can uppercut, jab, and even throw in the odd taunt or illegal move - once or twice anyway.
The real improvement on 360 is impact punches, and specifically the EA Super Punch, silly name or no. "We wanted one punch to be able to change the course of a fight," says Kudo, "like in a real boxing match." That it can do. Land the right punch, and it becomes obvious the other guy's reeling; all he can do is block or grab you in a "man-hug" to try and break up the bout. And if you land a decent flash punch, the perspective changes - the game is suddenly viewed through the eyes of the reeling fighter, and all he can do is pull his hands in front of his face to block heavy blows, which the player on the up can rain down with abandon.
If you make it to the end of the round, there's also a mini-game for mopping your boxer's face through analogue stick motions. It's a bit throwaway, but it gives you a chance to laugh at just how awful your opponent is; their failings brought to life by some damage percentages and visible cuts and bruises all over. And that broken nose. Ouch.
Elsewhere in the ring, you can switch stances on the fly. Stances and styles are very important to Fight Night. With the game going online in Europe for the first time - "finally we pulled our heads out of our asses!" - you'll be able to unlock styles, like Ali's rope a dope, and then apply them to your own custom character when you go on Xbox Live and take people on. There'll be around 800 variations in all. For all the game's emphasis on authenticity, Kudo still wants it to be very individual - if you have a particularly memorable tussle with someone, for example, you'll be able to relive the bout in ESPN Classics mode as though it was one of the many real-life grudge matches that captured the world's attention.
Actually stepping up to play the game, it's solid. I suck, obviously, but it's been obvious that actual talent brings with it more success. "You really need to figure out everyone's strengths and weaknesses," he says. So we see when he gives us about ten minutes of presentation while absently beating the crap out of an EA PR rep with his hands, only to find himself in more trouble when a journo with some experience of the demo version grabs up the pad and has a go. He still wins though. I don't. In fact, I set a record for the quickest defeat, getting knocked out within seconds and failing to rouse myself - something done by trying to centre a pair of analogue stick icons on a centralised KO count to unblur your boxer's vision. And as we watch my demise over and over, it doesn't get boring.
In fact, I'll probably play it when it comes out. If only because I'd love to hear Kudo smack-talk.
Fight Night Round 3 is due out on Xbox 360 on March 3rd.