Fight Night Round 4 Review
After seeing half a dozen EA videos comparing Fight Night Round 4 to its predecessor to a level that most fans didn't even really consider, I toyed with the idea of trying to do the review for this game without any comparisons to Round 3 at all. It didn't last long, though, because so many of the new features and the overall feel of this game seem to have been designed specifically to make the developers of Round 3 - the now-closed EA Chicago studio - look bad.
Not that any of that is really necessary. We all had a pretty good idea of that game's drawbacks going in, but still enjoyed the hell out of it. But now, EA Canada's Round 4 is here and has been completely rebuilt, seemingly with little to no use of assets from the past game (something other sports game developers should do every once in a while). While the Fight Night name is still all over the package and a few things like the commentary from Joe Tessitore have stayed constant, this looks and feels like an entirely new game in a different franchise.
Of course, boxing is not popular enough anymore to have multiple, competing franchises, so we should be lucky to have EA recommitting themselves to putting together the best boxing experience ever seen in a game. While Round 4's new physics-based punching and movement sometimes look a little wonky and unnatural, the fantastic visuals, silky smooth 60 frames per second action, solid career mode, and extra features like replay editing and uploading really help to erase the memory of almost every past boxing game ever made out of our memories.
The biggest new fighter this year is, of course, Mike Tyson. Ali has been in the series since it used to be called Knockout Kings almost a decade ago, and since then the roster has slowly grown to cover dozens of past and present fighters. We've lost a few here and there (Mickey Ward is nowhere to be seen in Round 4 but his classic-fight counterpart, Arturo Gatti, is still around), but overall the series has mostly increased its roster of legendary fighters.
And they look better than ever here, too: not only does this physics system allow boxers to really get inside and punch (this was the only way that Tyson was going to look remotely good in a modern boxing game), but the game puts some unparalleled quality into the looks of each fighter's face - and it even simulates the muscles tensing just under the surface of their skin, too. It adds up to a wonderful presentation that goes beyond any one-on-one fighting experience seen in a video game yet.
I have my doubts as to whether the actual boxing lives up to the standard that the visuals set. The fighting system has been redone in such a way that the fighting is so fast and furious that trying to defend yourself feels like an exercise in futility. At any of the lighter weight classes, you can expect to send and receive punches with such a blistering speed that defending them only happens if you can predict them rather than see them and react - except with the slowest of haymakers, you likely won't be able to see it coming and pull out any advanced defense, like a correct lean or a quarter-circle weave. There's just no time - often, the best you can do is get your gloves in the way. That being said, watching slow-motion replays of fights looks wonderful, and the punches look and seem incredibly life-like, well beyond any other boxing game has ever even attempted.
The new stun system feels a bit arbitrary, though, and with the lack of power to most punches, these stuns are were a good chunk of punch damage comes from. The idea is that if you lean out of the way of a punch, avoid one with the weave move, or do a "perfect block" where you get your gloves in place just before a punch lands, then you're set up for a counterpunch and if you land that next punch within a couple seconds, then it becomes a huge power punch. This system has some strange rules, though: if you dodge a punch a bit too early and your counter hits the opponent while he's still in the follow-through for his punch, then your counter is just a regular punch. But if he has finished his follow-through when yours lands, it turns into a counterpunch that could do anything from knock off a good bit of health (or stamina if it's a body punch), to put your opponent into a stunned state (where his health bar flashes red and no health regenerates while you get a few seconds of maximum stamina that doesn't drop), to just directly putting the guy on the canvas. And yes, a counter jab or straight from a skinny guy can and will score a knockdown sometimes. This leads to big swings in momentum in the fight for seemingly arbitrary reasons, where catching a guy even more off-guard - in the middle of his punch - isn't as useful as catching him after he's already finished it
But this is a problem that mostly has to do with facing the AI. When going online, I found out quickly that carefully trying to defend myself, box right, and set up counterpunches is a recipe for failure. Instead, players who throw hundreds of punches in a round are having a great time just spamming their way to victory. Some of this comes from the new punch accuracy system where the boxer will actually throw a head punch at the opponent's head, no matter where their head is with the only exception being it happening during a weave move. It looks great and it makes perfect sense on paper and in practice against the AI, but it also means that tossing out constant lightning fast jabs ties up the opponent to a ridiculous degree even if they're trying to come in low and avoid the jab. You'd think that firing out punches constantly would tire out a boxer, but with the way this game is set up, it's perfectly reasonable to throw over a thousand punches across several rounds and still have plenty of stamina left to do it again for a few more rounds.
And if it's not those people, we get players the that have figured out the one almost-working foil for the jab/straight spamming: those who spam leans and blocks, hoping that one of your punches falls into the game's magic counterpunch trap, causing huge damage as soon as you fall into their no-skill trap.
Maybe it's still a bit early. I've played this game for many hours and done plenty of fighting both online and offline, and it's possible I simply haven't figured out the solutions to these problems; maybe they're there, just waiting for me to find them. At least in the meantime we do get some great online features, and the Skate-like replay system that lets you set up videos of whole rounds of fighting (or just some hilarious KO highlights) and upload them to the new EA Sports World is fantastic. I guess the only thing I wish for now, and this is probably pushing it too far, would be the ability to make and upload HD-resolution videos as well as regular-sized ones.
The Legacy (career) mode was really where I hoped to stay most of the time, but the whole system is flawed to the point of being less fun than I had in Round 3's barebones career mode. Yes, there's more detail to the fighter's career now, where you have an actual calendar and real boxer rankings and you get to choose your fight date, but for the most part you're still taking turns doing one training session and one fight, and the calendar and schedule make little sense. Every once in a while early on you can pick a fight date far enough in the future to do two training sessions before fight, but that's rare. Also, the game seeds in the real, licensed boxers to the ranks, but some of them are ranked down to about 30 in the ranks or so out of 50, and unlike your fighter who's building his skills up, they have their full strength all the time. So you might fight a guy with a 68 overall rating as your 12th fight and have a tough time with, say, a 69 rating on your own fighter, but then Tommy Morrison comes along with his 89 rating, challenges you specifically, and will wipe the floor with you because every punch he throws is so much more powerful than your fighter can take. And this happens whether you create your own boxer or choose to recreate one of the licensed boxers' careers.
Beyond that, the six mini-games included here are generally pretty tough to do, and my first try on most of them would only net me maybe a one or two point increase in total (which doesn't even increase my overall rating by one) when getting a good score would net you closer to fifteen. Sure, you can press the auto-train button, but it gives you half of the the maximum points points possible, and if you keep doing that, you never learn how to train. Luckily, the game does include the ability to practice the training games straight from the main menu (buried in there somewhere) so you can get good at all six of them before starting Legacy mode. At least two of them are real sparring sessions with boxers, and for the most part all six do teach the player a few skills that can be used in the ring, but to maximize the numbers, you'll need a lot of practice before ever starting the Legacy mode.
But none of this solves the problem of the career mode being a huge source of frustration. The AI fighter profiles are good and the boxing itself looks great, but the counter system, annoying training mini-games, and uneven fighter strength when taking on the real-life licensed boxers really saps the fun out of the career mode after the first ten or so fights. There are flashes of great challenge and satisfying outcomes in there, but once you get a ways into the Legacy mode, they're too few and far between to make it worth suffering through the more aggravating fights.