Xbox 360 Review

Fight Night Round 4

A real knockout

When it comes to videogame pugilism, it's been a rather disappointing three years since Fight Night Round 3 set new standards for ring-based combat on gaming consoles. Indeed, while Nintendo's recent revamp of Punch-Out!!! may have provided something of an arcade distraction for easy-to-please and waggle-happy Wii owners, nothing else in the interim has come close to matching the genre-leading authenticity and excitement offered up by Round 3.

It's therefore fitting that Fight Night Round 4 from EA Sports steps boldly into the ring as a layered, in-depth, and worthy challenger that not only effortlessly matches the champion blow-for-blow, but also blends savagery with subtlety to convincingly knock Round 3 on its ass before deservedly slapping the heavyweight belt around its own muscular midriff.

Before unashamedly pouring on the critical acclaim, let's deal with the current idiotic contention surrounding the Total Punch Control system assigned to the controller's right analogue stick throughout Round 4. For all those supposed Fight Night purists bemoaning the lack of a 'traditional' button control layout and complaining about non-existent problems with Total Punch Control, the simple truth is as follows:

While I'll concede that it takes a little time to grasp the refined controls mapped to the right stick, once accustomed to the range of simple thumb movements that perform jabs, hooks, overhands, body shots, and uppercuts, Total Punch Control provides a staggering fluidity of movement hitherto unseen in a boxing title. And, when used in conjunction with the controller's shoulder button modifiers to bob and weave, guard and block, and execute powerful haymakers, players are drawn closer to the action than ever before.

Anyone choosing to throw in the towel with Total Punch Control in favour of pressuring Electronic Arts for a button control download - a pressure the publisher is evidently bowing to this coming September - is doing themselves a gross disservice and is, quite frankly, a borderline incompetent gamer.

The default analogue control method enables the dispatch of bone-crushing combinations at lightening fast speeds that actually feel significantly more intuitive than any button-based system could ever provide. Of course, choice is a great thing to have, and perhaps EA should have included a button-specific option from the outset. However, if you're struggling with Total Punch Control, the arbitrary Wii Remote and Nunchuk arm thrusts of Punch-Out!!! await your limited abilities. Enjoy.

Moving on... Given that Round 4 is an EA Sports production, its overall presentation is typically slick and 'EA-centric' insofar as menus are rich but easy to navigate, options are vast, gameplay modes are varied, the commentary is impressively reactive, intro sequences are pleasingly grandiose, and the whole thing is constantly accented by an annoyingly irresistible head-bobbing R&B and hip hop accompaniment.

In terms of content, Fight Now mode provides instant access to a wealth of famous boxers spread across every weight classification, enabling players to select a fighter and go toe-to-toe against legends of the sport such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Mike Tyson and many more. Then there's Training mode, which is separated from the main game, does not affect player stats, and allows budding brawlers to hone their moves through a selection of skill-specific mini games.

Of course, the core appeal of Round 4 is grounded firmly within its in-depth Legacy Mode, where players can create a basic boxer or opt for an established name before making a bid to become one of the greatest fighters of all time in a weight class of their choosing. Starting on the bottom rung, players first tackle the relatively easy amateur ranks, which then segue onto a much more challenging performance-based professional career ladder that builds from humble Prospect through to Contender, Champion, and even Greatest of All Time.

Frighteningly addictive and endlessly exhilarating, Legacy Mode will have players craving 'just one more fight' as they attempt to punch their way to glory while training intelligently between clashes in order to sculpt a better, faster, harder champion. And here's the kicker that separates great boxing games from the strictly mediocre and downright appalling: only a well applied combination of balanced training and appropriate tactics will give players access to said glory. Charging in fists flailing might successfully defeat amateur opponents, but a lack of adjustment for varying pro fight styles will only leave players watching helplessly as their pugilist has his bloodied face pummelled into the ring's canvas flooring - again, and again, and again.

It's important to get close against fighters with strong jab and hook reach, working the breadbasket with heavy, strength-sapping combinations. Conversely, onrushing brawlers with good hand speeds and immovable health meters require outside movement, jabbing and blocking that leads to depleted stamina and opportunities for effective counterpunching. Then there are fighters that just want to dig in and trade until someone drops, which means weathering constant onslaught and picking perfect moments to land haymakers and counterpunches that leave opponents temporarily stunned and susceptible to serious damage.

And, finally, there are the merciless upper-tier champions that are quick around the ring, trap your boxer on the ropes, push and shove him into corners, and tear through guards and blocks seemingly without effort. Players will need to constantly switch between the aforementioned approaches if they want to survive the first round during these clashes, let alone win the bout. While the challenge level can occasionally feel insurmountable, the excitement is always constant and most difficulties can be conquered with the related benefits of steady progressive training.

Specifically, if your fighter is carrying a glass jaw, has a weak right hand, is slow on his feet, or is all punched out early in the fight, then skill training can usually provide the answer. Thanks to the inclusion of a booking calendar, the player is able to schedule fights as they please, spacing them out to allow for multiple training sessions during months of recuperation. Solid progress through the professional ranks requires plenty of training sessions (at least two between each fight), during which the player can hone differing skill and endurance aspects by completing sparing and footwork tasks, maize bag weaving, heavy bag work and punch combinations.

However, the training challenges - which get steadily more difficult over time - may see some gamers losing a little evolutionary momentum. For example, scoring skill points through sparing, completing power combos or scampering around a punch bag are easy enough, but working the heavy bag, dodging the maize bag, and surviving a barrage of punches on low stamina and health can be extremely tough. Luckily, the player can select 'auto-train' for the delivery of up to 50 percent of the task's assigned points value, but efficiency and full points in some aspects will certainly leave the boxer at a disadvantage in others. It's not a major gripe, and makes for yet more challenge as a result, but the training mini games could have been a little more user friendly.

Once actually in the ring, the Fight Night gameplay is instantly familiar in its face-breaking, gut-thumping ferocity, but Round 4 has the advantage of a completely new game engine that delivers unsurpassed atmospheric venues and almost photo-realistic graphics that combine to help take the action to all-new levels of wince inducement. The shocking slow-motion knockouts synonymous with Fight Night have also been taken up a notch on the intensity scale via an amazing resonance feature that shows faces contorting wildly and skin rippling outward after suffering the shockwave of a knee-buckling impact.

Other welcome new additions include a nerve-jangling knockout recovery system. Once downed, the boxer is slammed to the canvas in a first-person perspective, the screen bleeds of colour and focus, and the player must calmly beat the 10 count by aligning a sensitive sliding cursor on a scale that denotes their balance and field of vision. The more the boxer is sent to the canvas, the harder it is to have him successfully scramble back to his feet, which is made all the more difficult because fights are exhilarating affairs and calming shaky hands and a pounding heart in 10 seconds is never easy.

The only note of detraction with Round 4 (because I really should throw one in somewhere) is that the entertaining and informative commentary sometimes creates a false sense of security. To explain, while the commentating team often suggests the player's boxer is well up on the scorecards, fights decided by decision will occasionally result in the unseen A.I. judges disagreeing and leaving the player on the wrong end of a surprise defeat. The best way to avoid such shock losses is to always favour the knockout where possible and never rely on an opponent's weakened stats. The number of punches thrown and landed is not shown until the end of the fight, so there's no real way to know if the official scorecards are in line with the commentators in terms of evaluation. Play it safe. Keep looking for that final thunderous connection that will send an opponent crashing from the fight amid a cloudy slow-motion eruption of spittle, sweat and blood.

While Fight Night Round 4 is easily the best boxing game of 2009 and also markedly better than its superb series predecessor, the game's perfectly balanced blend of challenge and excitement, relentless action, intuitive controls, jaw-loosening graphics, and fulfilling career mean it's the best example of "the sweet science" to ever grace home consoles.

E3 Trailer