Version tested: Xbox 360
Under normal circumstances it's pretty difficult to get too worked up about another EA boxing game. Sure, they're the best boxing games by a country mile (by virtue of, um, being the only boxing games released in recent years, come to think of it), but the art of pugilism has rarely translated to being a gripping videogame. Whether that's been a technology or a design issue is a tough one to argue. With the notable exception of Rage's excellent Rocky, on a design level the genre's often laboured through unsatisfying and inflexible control systems that never quite give you the feeling of being fully in control, and from the technology perspective the animation's never really been fluid enough to give you the feeling of true, convincing impact - despite the huge strides in character model realism.
But now that we're now riding the next gen wave, there's a real chance for Electronic Arts et al to harness all the extra grunt of the 360 in a more meaningful way than merely delivering the same old gameplay in high def.
It sounds like the fluffy, Tomorrow's World introduction to a typical game conference speech, but imagine a boxing game where the characters move, behave, react and look in such a natural fashion that you no longer need health and energy bars on the screen because you can see everything you need to know by observing their responses. A game where the knockout punches connect with such convincing force and velocity that you physically wince as the stricken boxer crumples in pain, sweat spraying off the aggressor's gloves as it connects, gloopy spittle trails shooting out of the victim's swollen, mis-shapen mouth moments before he hits the canvas with a grace of a felled tree. A game where the detail levels are so high that the character no longer look like computer generated avatars, where sweat glistens on their freckled skin, and boxers move with a precision and grace so believable it's virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. A game where the fighters perform with such varied and convincing tactics that you feel truly involved in a battle: not just of physical might and combo mastery, but of wits, of playing to your strengths and nailing weaknesses with ruthless aplomb.
It sounds fanciful, but Fight Night Round 3 on Xbox 360 almost succeeds in pulling off all of these unlikely claims with such casual ease it's easy to take them for granted - but even then it's not a game you'll fall for in the early stages.
Of course, the ridiculously detailed, supremely animated character models, intricate arenas and lively crowds all make it one of the greatest sporting spectacles we've ever been treated to in videogaming history. You'll swear it looks just like one of those improbable-looking PS3 videos shown off at Sony's conference before last year's E3, and begin to see the real potential of Microsoft's new system.
But far from the novelty of these incredible graphics wearing off quicker than a face-wobbling, spittle-flecked slo-mo action replay, the more you play Fight Night Round 3, and the further you get into it, the more it becomes evident at how integral these visuals are to the real meat of the game.
Getting your hands dirty in the main single-player Career mode does scant justice to the depth of the gameplay for quite some time, though. It starts off on a high, with another typically wonderful example of EA's commitment to giving players full customisation over their character, and if anything Fight Night's system is the most flexible yet, offering almost infinitely tweakable settings for just about every conceivable facial feature.
With that done, you'll be on a mission to establish your young gun as the champion of the world in your chosen weight category. However, after the initial 'wow' factor has worn off, you would be forgiven for thinking that the gameplay lacks depth. On the default 'normal' setting, for literally hours on end you'll blast through amateur fighters with ease, bemoan the rather simplistic training minigames and mutter 'typical EA flash' or words to that effect.
Until you work your way through to the professional ranks (there's no longer a specific numbered rank like previous Fight Nights), fights are typically short-lived affairs, with opponent AI giving you untold opportunities to pull off 'Haymaker' impact punches one after the other - punches which bring proceedings to a very rapid conclusion. Indeed, to actually fight beyond the first round is something of a novelty once you're familiar with the controls, and for some time the game can feel immensely shallow, not to mention unchallenging.
This monotonous early procession isn't exactly helped by the insipid pre-fight training routine which involves nothing more than two forms of Simon Says punch-bag sessions or an immensely simple weight-training game. As with previous Fight Nights, you can always opt for the auto-training, but gain half the maximum stats you would if you'd engaged with boring mini-games for a minute. There is also a sparring session, but this does little more than teach you the basic controls and tactics so isn't something you'll visit very often.
On top of that, there's an entirely pointless shop which allows you to use the cash you earn to upgrade your gloves, shorts, mouth guard, shoes and even buy new taunts and tattoos. The pay-off is slightly enhanced stats, but in reality these trinkets offer little more than a further layer of customisation if such things matter to you.
But if you bother to stick with it, things suddenly improve to the extent that it feels like an entirely different game. In the pro ranks, suddenly opponents take full advantage of all the countering opportunities you've been giving them all along, and won't hesitate to blast back with deadly combos and impact punches that leave you kissing the canvas more times than you'd like.
When you do fall victim, the effect is suitably excellent, too. From the eyes of your punch drunk fighter you'll see the blurred referee counting you out, with the idea to move two circles into the centre with the analogue sticks before he counts to ten.
Such a rude awakening is warranted, though, because suddenly you'll be forced to work on your positioning, your defences, and the art of countering. Not only that, suddenly you'll be mindful of conserving energy and only letting rip at the appropriate time, as opposed to merely going crazy from the start. You'll start to work out that jabs to the face help ward off an aggressive opponent, that targeting a specific side of your opponent's head is a sure-fire way to create the sort of cut that'll get a fight stopped early, and you'll learn how to take evasive action when things aren't going well - even if it means pulling off an illegal elbow to the face or clinching them to buy time.