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.
At times you'll fail, sometimes because you simply came up against the wrong fighter at the wrong time; someone much more powerful than you. But eventually you'll get to fight your victors again, and it's amazing what a bit of difference a few years and some concerted training can do.
Much of the credit for the game's hidden depth is down to being blessed with a simple, yet deceptively refined control set. Sure, right from the off you'll be able to pull off jabs and hooks to the head and body, lean through 360 degrees of motion to avoid punches, block up or down, as well as throw energy-sapping impact punches whenever your opponent flails and misses or lets his guard down, but using it effectively is another matter entirely. You could legitimately argue that the control system is simplistic compared to your average beat-'em-up; sure, it lacks hand-wrecking, multi-button combos, but what's there is essentially well realised and works incredibly well within the context of what you need to do, which is what's important.
A word to the wise, though. The default Total Punch control system that utilises the right stick for punches still feels far too unreliable for our liking. Far better to plump for config 5 and actually know that when you press one of the face buttons it does what you want it to, rather than faffing with quarter and half turns on the stick.
The real charm of Fight Night Round 3 is how well it works despite the lack of status bar information (though you can turn on the HUD if you miss it that much); in a real sense, not knowing exactly how close you or your opponent are to the edge enhances the tension. The times when you think you've nailed your opponent, only for them to strike back with a vicious combo makes the whole affair much less predictable, and is something that would have been ruined by the abstract presence of a life bar that - in itself - drains confidence when you're the one taking the beating. By removing such screen furniture, not only is the spectacle more immersive, but forces you to pay attention to the actions of your fighter: their breathing, how fast and accurate their punches are, how long it takes to recover from a battering, and so on.
By the same token, the same thing applies when you're trying to finish an opponent off, with the knowledge that you may be using the last dregs of stamina up in doing so, leaving yourself open to a strong counter attack. At the really advanced stages, so much of the gameplay in Fight Night Round 3 becomes wrapped up in strategies: whether to go in strong, or to hold off and wait for your opponent to wear himself out, and generally focusing in on their various weaknesses (speed over power, for example).
If you wanted to be really picky about Fight Night Round 3, then yes, there are things that don't quite come off. The commentary, for one thing, is utterly repetitive and the hip-hop-by-numbers soundtrack gets a little tiresome, detracting from the otherwise astonishing sound effects. You could also argue that the career mode lacks cohesion, with too many inconsequential battles fought simply to gain the popularity required to get through to the next tier, but that's not so much of an issue once you go pro.
In visual terms Fight Night Round 3's not perfect, either. The bobbing and weaving animation, for example, makes everyone look like they're rotating on a well-oiled central pivot - the sudden, unnatural transitions that both you and the computer AI make are far from realistic, and take the gloss over an otherwise pretty flawless looking game. Such a system might make the game more playable, but surely the tiredness and general speed of an opponent should create an inertia that grows during a fight? Not only would it make the game look more convincing, but the growing sluggishness would make more sense in terms of the playability too. After all, a dead-on-his-feet slugger shouldn't be swing his hips with the lithe precision of a greased up Ronaldinho. And as for the occasional clipping and twitching ragdoll glitches... didnít we get rid of that in the last generation?
Aside from that, itís a top notch spectacle, and with all the main weight divisions to conquer, it's hardly a game you can simply conquer and walk away from feeling like you've seen it all. Factor in the other bonus modes, like one-off (ESPN-sponsored) grudge matches between the legends of the past and the joys of multiplayer and it's likely to be a title you'll be coming back to long after you've 'finished' it.
In fact, the online implementation of Fight Night Round 3 is certainly good enough to warrant repeat visits. Admittedly you still have to go through the whole Ts&Cs nonsense (couldn't we just have done that on initial boot up, EA?), and there's not actually much to it, but there doesn't need to be. Getting any kind of ranked or unranked match-up going is as slick and easy as any Live title out there, with leaderboards, stat tracking and huge scope for match customisation - too numerous to boringly list in a review. The only real glaring failure here is the inability to use your custom boxer in multiplayer, but otherwise there's not really much more we could ask for - apart from the inevitable 'give us more real-life boxers' request (a few notable omissions this time, such as Foreman and Liston), and for EA to tone down the blummun' excessive in-game advertising.
The upshot is straightforward: the 360 version of Fight Night Round 3 is by far the most impressive boxing title ever released, even if the gameplay differences between this and previous versions are fairly incremental. Certainly, we're not huge fans of the sport here, yet it's easy to get over any indifference for the subject matter and have huge amounts of fun with one of the best titles released so far this year. Simply, as a videogame it's as close as anyone's got to capturing the essence of what boxing's about; the struggle, the power, the passion, the glory, the disappointment, the tactics, and above all the primal satisfaction you get from punching the living daylights out of someone.
8 / 10