Version tested: Xbox 360
Every now and then it's fun to find a game that's not all about shooting men in the face. In times of extreme gun boredom, sometimes it's preferable to express your inner thug by turning to games where you simply batter men repeatedly with your fists until they fall over. Case in point: Fight Night Round 4, the follow-up to 2006's excellent man-battering sim, Fight Night Round 3.
Back in the days when we could get away with using terms like 'next-gen' without unruly gangs wanting to batter us to death, we breathlessly observed that it was “one of the greatest sporting spectacles we've ever been treated to in videogaming history".
But this was no idle hyperbole. Released to blanket acclaim, FNR3 offered an early look at what might be possible with new console technology. The obvious allure of astonishing visual fidelity was backed up with deceptively deep gameplay - all of which put EA so far ahead of the competition that few have even bothered attempting to rival it since. Even EA itself failed to repeat the formula, and got royally smacked down onto the canvas by appalled critics when the cartoon-style Facebreaker limped out last year. Having lost the plot so badly with one promising-looking boxing title, could this long-awaited sequel represent a welcome return to form?
The signs were certainly highly promising when Christian went to see the game during a recent hands-on session. Assurances were plentiful: solid 60 frames per second action, deeper, more tactically oriented gameplay, increased speed and fluidity, better punch collision detection, on-the-fly animation, and a much deeper career mode with a larger roster of fighting legends - and these were just the headline improvements.
As usual there are numerous ways to play the game, from one-off bouts to the more expansive slow-burn thrills of the game's 'Legacy' career mode. For those of you who just want to dive in, pick a boxing legend and create your own fantasy face-off, it's a boxing fan's dream. All the true greats of the modern age feature, allowing you to settle those pointless arguments about whether so-and-so was better than wotsisface. The 48-strong roster of real-life pros has a great selection of crowd pleasers across its eight weight divisions, including Ali, Foreman, Haglar, Leonard and Tyson mixing it up with modern favourites such as Calzaghe and Hatton.
If you prefer you can go in and create your own fighting machine, either from presets and sliders, or put yourself at the mercy of the game's attempts to map your face via webcam or an uploaded photo of your choice. Just as comically useless as the system utilised in Facebreaker, the end results end up barely even looking like you belong to the same species - but it's the thought that counts. Aside from cosmetics, you can also pick from numerous fighting and block styles, and fiddle around with stats to complete your creation. You can use your personalised bruiser in all areas of the game, from one-off bouts against real fighting legends to settling scores with your mates off and online.
Perhaps more interesting in the long run is to try and prove your worth in the Legacy career mode, where you can either choose an existing real-life violent hero or one of your own twisted creations. Taking this route puts you right at the bottom of the ladder as a young rookie, and your stats and abilities get well and truly neutered in the process - regardless of whether, like me, you picked Muhammad Ali, thinking foolishly that it might gain you a crafty edge.
Unlike with the forgiving early stages of FNR3's career mode, the sequel wastes no time in providing a stern challenge. Controls are broadly in line with the previous Total Punch Control system, with a combination of trigger commands and stick movements accounting for your upper and lower body movements, blocks and punches. As a system, the way it's laid out makes it easy to learn the basics - a variety of punch types are assigned to appropriate directions on the right stick, so punches are mapped to the side of the body you want to hit as well as mirroring where you want them to land. For example a blow to the left side of the head is achieved by pushing diagonally left, while a more powerful right hook involves pushing right then literally hooking the stick up in one swift motion. It takes longer to pull off, but the results are deadlier.
On the downside, EA has elected to strip out some of the control configurations present in the last version. If you prefer the guaranteed shot selection that you got from the button-based option then you're out of luck this time. Instead, you're forced to adapt to the much less precise Total Punch Control 'joystick punches' system whether you like it or not. As good a concept as it is on paper, in the heat of the battle it's far too easy to fluff a shot because you pushed the stick a few degrees away from where you intended. In a game that boasts many new features, it's bewildering to see one of the base fundamentals taken out altogether for no apparent reason.
One of the trumpeted improvement to Round 4 is the extra degree of control you have over your career progression. Using the new calendar system you can decide exactly when to fight and who to fight against, and whether to accept grudge matches and televised events. You can simulate fights, change your weight class and import user-created characters. You can even retire, but you probably only have 50 to 60 fights in you, so you can't mess around.
As before, training is key to self-improvement. You have the option to auto-train if you want to guarantee a certain amount of statistical betterment, but the six training games included this time are apparently as much a means of teaching people how to play the game as improving stats. As noble a goal as this might be, at least half of them are not actually much fun to play - and because they're disproportionately tough you'll struggle to level up in the process. Before long, it's highly likely you'll elect to auto-train and skip the process altogether to avoid continually missing out on upgrade points.
Despite a few questionable additions and omissions, once you get in the ring it's hard not to be blown away by what's on offer. As expected, the game looks absolutely stunning. Iconic arenas (such as the Staples Centre and MGM Grand) are lovingly recreated, and the pre-fight build-up matches the razzmatazz of a televised spectacular.
Once in the ring and standing toe to toe, some of the enhancements to the character models become fully apparent. There's greater attention to detail and posture, skin tone, body type and height are now fully replicated as they should be. But character models don't simply look realistic - dramatic improvements in animation allow them to move and behave in a more convincing and authentic fashion, prowling the ring when on top and skulking away when the fight's going against them.
One of the chief complaints about FNR3 was with regard to the slightly comical way the lean system made the boxers look like they were jiving around on oily pivots. Not to mention strange ragdoll techniques which shattered some of the sense of immersion. Evidently the entire process has been reworked, and the results are polished and convincing. The inevitable claims of 'improved AI' appear to be rightfully made, as opponents display discernible characteristics which affect your strategy during a bout. A good fighter knows when it's time to attack, and when you've worn yourself out. This will truly be a stern test for even the most hardcore Fight Night veteran.
Mere mortals might pummel their way out of 'Bum' status in no time, but even by the time you're on the third rank of Club Fighter, this is a game which seeks to test you at every step. As such, this clearly reflects EA's desire to make the game a more strategic, tactical game. Last time out you weren't really tested until you'd slogged your way to Pro level, but FNR4 really wants you to understand the art of boxing. If you just try to wade in and attack, you're going to get punished. Repeatedly. Via the training games, commentary and loading screen tips, the game continually reminds you to always move your head, move around the ring, block, and - most importantly - master the countering technique.
Effective blocks and dodging not only spare you from losing precious health and stamina, they give you a small window of opportunity to launch back with a much more powerful punch. Subtle visual cues alert you to such moments and once you connect, you'll really feel the impact. With the Haymaker modifier applied the effect is even greater. It generally stuns opponents for a few seconds, allowing you to weigh in with a deadly assault.
Opponents will try desperately to clinch or push you away while they regain their faculties, so the best thing to do is pick off your opponent at the right moment, from the right distance. Get too close and they'll drag you in, but stray too far and they'll stagger out of reach and get time to recover. You could always headbutt them if you're feeling especially mean, but do it more than once and the ref will dock a point from the scorecard.
Another element of key importance is your fighter's stamina. Status bars at the bottom of the screen keep you alerted to how exhausted you are, and it's crucial because low stamina means you'll lose more health when you get hit. You'll also perform weaker punches. It's a real balancing act. If you prefer, you can crank up the challenge even higher and (as was the case in FNR3) turn off the HUD entirely to try judging how you and your opponent are faring just by looking. This is Fight Night at its absolute rawest; it makes an already fascinating game of cat and mouse even more strategic and tactical.
Between rounds, a new points system allows you to cash-in on a good performance and spend them on restoring your health, stamina or on patching up damage. It's nowhere near as much fun as the more tactile system employed in FNR3, but does lend a shallow degree of strategy as you figure out where best to throw your resources.
Once back in the ring, you're always aware that a declining health and stamina bar is going to catch up with you. When you inevitably take one punch too many the game gives you an agonising opportunity to get back up on your feet. A horizontal meter instructs you which way to push the left stick, and as it nears the centre you're supposed to push up to stand. But as the momentum builds, it has a propensity to overshoot, meaning you have to try and do the whole thing again before the referee counts you out. It's brutally unforgiving once you've taken too much punishment, and the inevitable jelly legs get you in the end. As a system it's not dissimilar to the one used before, but every bit as effective at making you feel completely out of control.
Whether battling it out with a friend or the AI, Fight Night Round 4 is one of the purest gaming experiences out there. Had it included the simple option to punch with with buttons rather than sticks, it would have been a near flawless experience. Maybe EA Sports will listen to the community feedback currently raging on this issue and issue a simple patch, but until that time the game doesn't quite live up to its astounding potential.
Whichever way you play Fight Night Round 4, it's an intense, heart-rattling experience that gets more rewarding the more time you invest in learning the nuances. With incredible attention to detail, technical achievements are more than mere eye candy and a deeper, more rewarding fighting system than ever before, it's an essential purchase for boxing fans and fighting game aficionados.
8 / 10