If you're feeling a slight queasiness at the inclusion of Mike Tyson in the line-up for Fight Night Round 4 - and that would be entirely reasonable - perhaps you should just focus on the fact that at least now you can beat him up. Actually, it's better than that: now you can beat him up in what looks to be one of the most detailed and convincing boxing titles ever made.
Building on the success of a game pretty much everyone enjoyed can be difficult, and most people agreed Fight Night Round 3 was a bit of a winner, with astonishing - and only slightly creepy - character models, solid controls, and the subsequent release of turkeys like Facebreaker merely sweetening the memory. At first, then, it's hard to see exactly what EA can do to make Round 4 anything more than a prettier retread.
Luckily, however, it seems that the only people who had any real problems with the previous instalment also happen to be the same people who made it, and they've got fairly strong opinions on exactly what needs fixing. So while the forthcoming Fight Night has the enlarged rosters, gentle presentational tweaks and incremental control refinements you might expect from any sports sequel (headline improvements include the fact that the game now runs at a steady 60fps, and punching is controlled with the sticks alone this time, body jabs now activated via a simple flick system) the main changes are surprisingly fundamental in their nature.
And, in a roundabout way, Tyson's at the centre of them, his inclusion opening a can of worms for the developers as well as, I'm guessing, a can of whup-ass. In the words of Dean Richards, Round 4's producer, "Including Mike meant we had to face something we couldn't with the previous game, and that's that there are two crucial things everybody always says about boxing: height and reach matter, and styles make fights." (The third and fourth things everybody always says are, "Ha, my mum could've seen that punch coming," and "Isn't Midsomer Murders on the other channel right now?")
The reason Iron Mike's so problematic, it transpires, is that he's fairly short for a boxer: Muhammad Ali, for example, is four inches taller than him, and that creates endless headaches for developers trying to match up canned animations and make sure punches land in the right place whenever the two face off against each other. In order to ensure that the illusion of contact never broke down in Round 3, the team had to scale the proportions of all the game's fighters until the entire roster was more or less the same height. In other words, if Tyson and Ali had stepped into the ring together, there'd be no real differences between them: height and reach wouldn't matter, and styles wouldn't really be an issue.
Luckily, EA's latest take on the sweet science has a handy ally: physics. By focusing on realistic modelling, Round 4 solves tricky collision detection problems by creating animations on the fly, and allowing punches to connect - or miss - exactly as they're thrown. In the process, that also opens up the roster for fighters of all shapes and sizes, and ushers in the different ring techniques they bring with them.
The new physics engine is probably at its most immediately noticeable in the new facial deformation system - Richards absolutely promised me that the team had filmed people being hit in the face just to make sure the game's flabby rippling effect was accurate enough - but it's sending bigger shockwaves through the game when it comes to the way the bouts turn out this time around. Even after a few minutes of playing, it's clear that Round 4's a lot more tactical than the previous game ever was. Ali towers above Tyson, and, in the hands of a skilled player, is more than capable of picking the shorter man off from afar.
Tyson's only hope, then, comes in working Ali into a corner and getting in close. For a fighter with a longer reach, most of the power of the blow comes in the final snap of the wrist (I'm not saying this from experience, however, and I doubt it's much of a picnic for the punchee whatever distance away you are), so a tactical shorty can take the force out of oncoming blows by stepping into them, where they'll also be able to fight back more effectively. In a single move, then, Round 4 now allows for both inside and outside fighting styles, and the result is that there's a lot more to the game than just pummelling away at your rival until he goes cross-eyed: placement is crucial, and making the most of the attributes of your boxer really will give you an advantage.
And if it's a more tactical game, it's also a faster one. Round 3 was essentially a digital boxing title: any single punch's animation had to finish completely before the next could be thrown, and the results of each impact were largely predictable. This time, faster combos are there for whoever can move quick enough, with a whole additional range of glancing blows and feints adding to your options, as the fighters move in and the game builds in claustrophobic intensity.
Beyond such basic changes, there's that traditional range of additional tweaks rounding things out. The corner game has been revised for the better, with your performance in each round winning you points you can invest in recovering either damage, stamina or health, while the knockdown challenge has been altered to mirror the experience of steadying yourself on your feet. It didn't look as much fun as Round 3's option in this case, to be honest, but Richards has a habit of demonstrating game changes by mock-swinging at you to illustrate every nuance, so it's possible I was a little flustered by the time we'd reached this level of granularity. Alongside a fleshed-out campaign mode, there's also forty-eight boxers to choose from on the disk, with additions planned for DLC after EA's had a chance to see what the community wants. Start asking for Henry Cooper now, in other words - and maybe Tommy Cooper while you're at it? You know, as a wild card.
So while a glance at comparison videos may initially leave you wondering if much has really changed, with a fundamental shift from digital to analogue boxing, Fight Night Round 4 has the potential to cover a lot more distance than most sports sequels. Even if it does have a deeply dubious character on the front cover come release day, this is shaping up to be a game where all the really important changes are going on inside.
Fight Night Round 4 is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 26th June.