Fight Night Round 3 Review
Boxing games are difficult to make. I've had a long history with them myself, lamenting the success of button-mashers and enjoying the smarter ones over the last twenty plus years. EA, the king of sports games, has not had a terrible amount of success in the boxing genre, but they've been refining their formula for years now. Their Knockout Kings series had little merit and wound up being all-around crappy boxing games, but they've restarted with Fight Night and put a bigger focus on strategy over the last few years. Fight Night Round 3 is EA's biggest boxing title to date, with incredible visuals, perfectly animated punches, and the best presentation yet (mostly thanks to the graphics horsepower that can be leveraged with the Xbox 360). But is the boxing any good, and does it actually resemble anything similar to real boxing? The answers to those questions, respectively, are yes and no, but it turns out that it still makes for a very, very fun game. Let's dive in and explore why.
Fight Night Round 3 puts you in the ring as either one of dozens of legendary boxers from today and from the past, or as a fighter that you painstakingly create by molding the face, choosing skin tone, facial hair, and other bits and pieces. You can take these characters online in some Xbox Live matches, do some arcade-style Hard Hits fights (where the rounds are untimed, and a single knockdown finishes a round - the one with the most knockdowns wins!), a quick match, or the career mode. It seems like most will be doing the career and Xbox Live modes, and this is where EA has put a large majority of their effort.
Last year's iteration in the series had a pretty functional career mode, although the AI was weak and easily exploited. You'd move up in rank as you fought, and used its weak and unbalanced training system to raise your boxer's stats. And while the training modes this year are much better balanced, the AI is still just as crappy as ever. Once you get some practice in, even the hardest difficulty level is still somewhat easy.
But let's talk a bit about the actual boxing. Just like last year, the left stick controls the movement of the boxer (while holding the left trigger and moving the left stick leans you away from punches), and the right stick is used to throw the game's many types of punches. Holding the right trigger and moving the right stick will allow you to block or parry your opponent's punches - pulling the stick up blocks your head, and down blocks the body. Additionally, if you pull the right stick into one of four diagonals, you're set up for a parry: when a punch arrives, if it's in the "corner" that you're parrying in, you'll throw the opponent's punch aside completely and get basically one free hit. If you can score a big punch after a parry, it's going to do big damage to the opponent.
Unlike Fight Night Round 2, Round 3 includes actual effective jabs which will generally work well in taking all the zing out of your opponent's punches, and in making his power punches stop right in their tracks. Hooks and uppercuts serve their own purpose as the middle of the road in punching power (when compared against speed). EA has also reduced the power of the haymaker punches by making them tire you out much faster, and slowing them down a bit.
But the new punches in Round 3 are really interesting. The Stun and KO punches require you to really pull back far on the right stick, well beyond what a haymaker requires, and the resulting punch is hugely powerful but incredibly slow. It's actually effective if you can lean away from an incoming power punch and answer with something this big, but the problem I have is that in the hands of an experienced boxer, either one of these will put will instantly put someone into a state where a couple more weak punches will put them down. With the HUD turned on, one can see just how powerful these things are, and it seems to me like it's just a bit too much.
As the player goes through the career mode, there will be training to be done, contracts for fights to be signed, gear to be bought, and popularity to be kept up. Round 3 has gotten rid of the ranking system entirely in favor of a popularity system. Boxing freaks will likely hate this decision, but once one considers just how crazy the real-world ranking system is, I don't see this being any worse. Truly, it's a pretty decent system that works in ways similar to how ranking does, but there's just no actual number attached to the various boxers out there. And in this way, EA can also enable one of its big features this year: rivalries.
With the rivalry system, doing multiple fights against the same guy can start up a rivalry which can get you much more money for a fight and plenty of popularity as well. During your career, you'll be fighting both some made-up boxers as well as the real deal, and unlike Round 2, this game doesn't wait until the end of your career to put you up against real boxers. You'll also see that with the game's set of distinct offense and defense styles that the licensed boxers in-game much more resemble the real-life counterparts. Too bad they're still nowhere near as smart as they are in real life.
The money you'll make from fights can be used for one of two custom-tailored trainers that will specialize either on speed or on power. You can also buy boxing gear from the EA Sports store, and these gloves, shoes, and other accessories will give you various boosts to your stats. This is a pretty shallow system overall, though, and while you can tweak your setup for the eight stats that control your boxer's abilities, there's nothing here to really sink your teeth into.
Before every fight, the player gets to pick from one of three different training sessions to improve his or her fighter's stats. Unlike last year, this time the three options are a bit more balanced overall; it's a good idea to go through at least two repeatedly, and the third will become handy as well once the gains from the first two training sessions start to diminish. The training mini-games are still annoying and boring, though, and don't really teach anyone to become a better boxer once the fight starts.
The Xbox 360 version of Round 3 has some incredible graphics that clearly make this a truly next-generation game. Not only can you see unique body language from when a boxer's tired or about to get knocked down, but their animations are better than ever and the texture quality for each boxer is immensely high. You can see each boxer's pores easily with a nice-sized HDTV, and the looks on their faces when punches come in are realistic and look very brutal. Body blows will cause boxers to buckle over in some motion-captured animations, but most knockdowns come from hits to the head - and that's where the ragdoll action comes in. The game uses physics when someone's been beaned in the head too many times and hits the canvas, and the most satisfying part of this is how the boxer's head and body react to further punches even after it's decided that the poor victim has been knocked down. Even if the first punch of a flurry was all that was needed, it's incredibly satisfying to just finish your combo on that guy's face anyway.
That leads me to talk about something unique in FNR3 - the on-screen display, by default, is turned off. You can turn it back on and see it in all gameplay modes, but you really don't necessarily need it anymore if you want just a ballpark idea of how your fighter's doing. You'll feel your punches get slower and weaker if you tire yourself out, and if you're about to get knocked down, the body language changes - your fighter will drop his gloves and wince when he moves or when more punches land.
Damage, like in previous Fight Night games, must always be considered. Fighters' faces will swell and bleed as punches come crashing in, and it's the job of the player to reduce the swelling and close up cuts between rounds with the cutman mini-game. This is somewhat similar to what we saw in Round 2, but the sweeping analog stick movements you need for maximum healing are easier to do. And it's important to get the right wounds patched up, because I've found that both in the career mode and in online play that most fights either end in a knockout or in a stoppage due to cuts or swelling - even the featherweight fights. I guess that kind of hard-hitting action is just part of a modern boxing game.
When someone gets knocked down, that's the only time you'll actually see the referee. He'll stand over you counting while you're presented with a weird little mini-game which is mostly identical to what was in Round 2. To get up from a knockdown, you've got to move two cursors, one corresponding to each analog stick, into a circle at the center of the screen. This gets harder and harder to do as the knockdowns rack up, to the point where the referee gets to the 10 count and someone's counted out. Actually, now that I think about it, just about every mini-game in Round 3 is annoying, much like last year. From the knockdown game, to the training, to the cutman, and to the stun punch, I feel that these little bits and pieces drag down the actual boxing. I'm hoping that EA moves away from this eventually.
You'll find a decent amount of product placement in Round 3. During the career mode, specific challenges come up with real-life sponsors getting their name plastered over the fights. Under Armor and Everlast are two of these companies, and they fit in well since they do make real boxing gear. ESPN's in there too, but the more dubious types of product placement are Dodge and Burger King. During the Dodge fights they throw in some cheesy plugs for some new Dodge car - hell, at least with the Burger King challenge, once you beat it you can pick up The King himself as your new trainer and get a nice free little bonus to one of your stats. Overall, I found the product placement in this game pretty heavy, but overall tolerable.
Once again, ESPN commentator Joe Tessitore is back to yammer on about the fights in Round 3. His vocabulary has been extended and almost completely reworked this year, as he'll now talk about real boxers' pedigrees (like Ali getting the gold at the olympics in 1960, or the overall fighting style of Roy Jones Jr.) or an overall strategy that one boxer might be using. And if you've got a rivalry going, Tessitore might also talk about the results of the last fight between the two boxers. Overall, it'll take you far longer to get tired of his voice, but that's still measured in hours rather than days or weeks.
The arenas you'll be fighting in look absolutely incredible. The boxers look an order of magnitude more realistic this year, and I'm happy to say that the environments have made that same leap as well. While you'll be able to see the crowd in the big stadiums, they're still cheaply-drawn two dimensional "objects", but they are animated well and the Xbox 360 version uses a "depth of field" special effect to keep the crowd out of focus (and the boxers in focus, of course). The effect works very well.
Other than the fight sponsorship that has been thrown in, ESPN also has its part in this game through the "ESPN Classics" section. What it does is allow you to create matchups with some of the greatest rivalries in boxing: Ali vs. Frazier, Gatti vs. Ward, and many more. This lets you and your buddies quickly get a fight with the biggest names in boxing going, and if you set up a rivalry with any two boxers in the career mode, those will get added to the Classics section as well. I didn't find this part of the game to be any kind of hugely important feature, but it is a nice addition to the total package.
Online play with FNR3 is a treat. Not only has the action been cleaned up from last year, but the boxing itself has gotten more realistic. It's not perfect, as the Stun and KO punches are still too powerful (despite what EA says, I don't think one punch should change the outcome of a fight), but at least the fights I completed were mostly made up of real punches and people realistically trying to defend themselves. The online mode does of course allow ranked games to be started, and there is a leaderboard that shows the best player. As of this writing, there's a guy who's got 146 wins and only 4 losses at the top spot. And that's only after two days - ouch! There are two reasons to do ranked games in any Xbox Live game: one, if you're good, you're more likely to find people that are as good as you, and two, you want to get to the top of the list for all to see. But in this game that's going to be difficult, so start early and play often if you want to get to the top. I do want to mention the music in Round 3 - as in past games, it's all hip hop, and unlike in previous titles, I actually like quite a few of the tracks this year, and didn't find any that stand out as just being terribly bad. And even if you do, you can turn specific tracks on and off, plus you can always throw in your custom soundtracks through the Xbox 360's guide interface.
I thought that Fight Night Round 2 took boxing games in the wrong direction, and I was afraid that was happening here with Round 3. But after many hours of play, I've realized that its few unrealistic elements are acceptable, and that this series is back on track. The number of immensely detailed licensed boxers is wonderful, the punches are brutal, and the overall boxing gameplay requires strategy and reflexes without degenerating into pure reliance on power punches. While the career mode's lack of difficulty is disappointing, those looking for a challenge will still have plenty of that from the well-made online modes. Fight Night Round 3 is most definitely a winner.