E3 09 Preview: Fight Night Round 4
Some fans might be surprised to hear this, but it's now been well over three years since Fight Night Round 3 was released on the Xbox 360. And while fight fans have probably already played the Fight Night Round 4 demo on Xbox Live and gotten to try the new physics-based punching system, the 3-round fight between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton that it featured didn't really do that great a job of showing what happens when two heavy hitters step into the ring for a longer match. At E3 this year I got the chance to do some one-on-one play between Muhammad Ali and Jermaine Taylor in a longer five-round match, and I have to say that while I came to really enjoy the action in the demo released on Live, getting to see The Greatest in action in a longer fight has resurged my anticipation for the game.
The first thing I noticed was that Ali moves like he did in real life, and he was ineffective against Taylor when fighting from the inside like my opponent was trying to do at first. We noticed that Ali was having a hard time blocking punches that close, and his own swings lacked both power and accuracy when we were inside. Once he got used to pulling back enough to fire out jabs and power-punch combinations from a longer range, things really started to go poorly for Jermaine Taylor (in my clearly incapable hands, of course).
Once things started going south for me I quickly asked if Taylor was rated lower than Ali, and the answer was yes, and that just made me fight even worse. Still, the game's fair: the KO Moment can now happen long before a fighter runs out of "health" and will instead basically deplete what he has left much faster every time he gets hit - while the opponent hardly loses any stamina for throwing flurries of power punches. But some diligent blocking will get you back in the clear, and while it is tough to predict where a punch is coming from (especially now that hooks don't need to be wound up: they're a flick left or right on the stick, making this key punch just as quick to start as a FNR3 button-presser could do) and the whole speed of the game has been increased, it's also more important to lead with the jab to play a bit of a mind game. Sometimes, there is just no time to see a big punch coming, decide what to do, and react accordingly.
Of course, doing that wouldn't help much in t his game anyway - the removal of the parry system and reliance on a simpler up-down block puts the focus more on avoiding a punch than absorbing one with your gloves. It also means you're spending less time trying to predict your opponent's arbitrary choice and more time setting up counterpunches rather than retaliations. You'll also need to strategize on whether your head or body need to be better protected while still trying to do some damage of your own. I'm still not convinced that this system, with the addition of a "Block" bar that forces your hands to drop and more punches to get through if you block too much, is really the best idea, though.
The problem comes down to the fact that your non-punching hand still doesn't do anything when you throw a punch, so if you're winding up something big or are just bringing a nice shot around, you're completely defenseless for that split second. This is not how real boxers fight, and while your fingers would likely have to play Twister on a 360 controller with about four analog sticks to be able to block, punch, weave, and move at the same time, I still think there's got to be a better way. Now, the punching system does take glancing blows into effect so if the opponent's punch does happen to run into your glove or forearm instead of hit home, then you'll get a break even if you're in the middle of a punch, but from my experience this doesn't really happen often. Maybe Microsoft's full body motion-sensing Project Natal, which was just announced, is the solution to all of this mess, but either way I have become resigned to the fact that we simply are not going to get all the key elements of a true boxing simulation working on today's controllers.
That's not to say that FNR4 isn't enjoyable as hell, though. Sure, the physics-based boxing takes a little getting used to and at first it may seem like the boxers are made out of some kind of rubber that's been given animated life, but one makes sense of EA's new animation system eventually and can start really belting out some good combinations and setting up fantastic wins. EA recently has been pushing their face customization system and ability to configure your ring entrances, but that's not a big deal for me - I'd almost rather that effort just be put into making a deeper career mode. Either way, as long as the career mode can keep my attention for dozens of fights, the versus play brings the world's best boxers to the ring fairly realistically, and the new defense system stands the test of time, I'll be thrilled.
Fight Night Round 4 will hit stores on Xbox 360 and PS3 in one week on June 23rd.