Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: February 20, 2006
The Semi-Sweet Science
Let me be clear: the Xbox 360's EA Sports launch lineup was tremendously disappointing. I began to get concerned when I saw Fight Night Round 3 was due out rather soon after launch, but much to my ironic delight, FNR3 was pushed back for "polishing." Maybe someone in EA Chicago told Kudo Tsunoda something, or perhaps the EA LA offices were suffering from a collective strain of laziness that bypassed the Chicago offices. Anyhow, personal disappointments aside, FNR3 is finally here, and while it delivers a fast and furious combination, it doesn't quite land the knock-out punch I'd hoped for.
To my mind, Fight Night Round 2 was one of last year's best titles, if not the best sports game of 2005. Total Punch Control, Live matches, and character creation options made that title so cool and promoted a sense of ownership over one's boxer that even most RPGs struggle to achieve. I wish every game allowed you to shape your character's face as well as FNR2 (and FNR3). I've never jumped out of my seat so often and as readily as I did when I knocked out some fool in FNR2. I actually took it personally when Antonio Tarver smacked me up and down the ropes, and I got angry at those pixels and polygons that had so easily dissected my defense and thwarted my offense. I was fully satisfied and vindicated when I came back to the rematch to beat his bald-headed self into the mat. I'd say any game that does that to its player is a success.
Does that mean I believe FNR3 is unsuccessful? Well, to be short, yes. I love the game, and I've been playing it non-stop. My World of Warcraft guild mates are wondering if I'm still alive because of FNR3. I want to begin with my criticisms because once you see them, you'll understand why they're disappointments and why they don't ruin the game.
The first thing I noticed about FNR3 that seemed to be "missing" was the fact that you cannot change your fighter's entry music. You also cannot hire some stripper to follow you out before the fight. The animation of your fighter's entrance is exactly the same as those in FNR2; in fact, several animation segments haven't changed between FNR2 and FNR3. I know that this was done as a means to save time and to focus on other areas, but to me, it was a glaring corner that was cut. Missing the customizable entrances bummed me out. When I strolled into the Congo's Boma Stadium and pyrotechnics erupted as I was walked in by some chick in a camouflage bikini, well, I thought that was cool and fun.
I was also disappointed when I scrolled through the choices of gear and equipment that could be purchased for your fighter. I liked that the prices made them a little more strategic and important, but the choices seemed so limited, and the commercial gear was cheesy. Yeah, Under Armor is cool, but Dodge Ram trunks? Who fights in those? Frankly, I was disappointed that I was looking at a lot of the same equipment that I'd previously seen in FNR2, and even then, there were a lot of pieces of gear missing. The means of scrolling through the items and previewing them is also clumsy and annoying – you have to select the item and your boxer puts it on, but then you have hit B before you can continue scrolling to the next item.
Another glaring omission was the fact that the man, Kudo himself, told us we'd get robes to wear on our way into the ring, but alas, robes are still nowhere to be seen, and our fighters are left to shiver on their walk from the locker room to the ring. Kudo also made a big deal about the rivalries that would develop between your fighter and other fighters, in addition to how the pre-fight weigh-in drama would contribute to a more cinematic and developed narrative between fights. Neither feature delivers. Rivals are fighters that basically show up at different intervals in your career, and the commentary changes to reflect the overall record between you and your rival. Your rival will resort to cheap shots more than regular opponents, but other than that, the gameplay is not affected by the rivalries.
The pre-fight weigh-ins start a little mini-game where you have to defend yourself or attack your foe, and it's supposed to heighten the tension, but the tension isn't there, and the weigh-ins end up looking odd and fake. Normally at a weigh-in, you have a stage with a scale, and both men make their weights and sometimes they face off and say some not-so-nice things to each other. Then bodyguards, cousins and cousins' friends start throwing stuff at each other, and sometimes, someone slaps someone else. It's a nice touch to try and incorporate weigh-ins into the game, but weigh-ins are usually pre-scripted and staged, and thus not really all that compelling. I mean, how many people tune in to watch the weigh-in?
What I think EA Chicago should have done was develop and add more depth to the training mini-games. The training games are essentially the same as they were in FNR2. The affect your trainer has is more pronounced and meaningful this time around, and for some reason, the Burger King "King" can be hired as your promoter. While the King has some uses, this is totally a commercial move, which is a little nauseating, to say the least.
FNR3 does get a good deal right. Total Punch Control is back and tweaked to make the game much more tactical. Blocking, leaning and parrying are much more important this year. Go ahead, wind up and fire off haymakers, and see what it gets you. The reason for this is because so-called impact punches were incredibly effective last year, but in FNR3, it takes a much longer time to let loose with a haymaker, and if you do, your opponent can see it coming. The best means of dealing with this is to not throw haymakers until you have leaned out of the way of a heavy hook or uppercut; it's better to throw a haymaker after you've parried a punch. A counter-punch is more damaging than a regular punch, and a counter-haymaker will give your fighter a boost of adrenaline for a few seconds so you can then follow up your counter-shot with a flurry. What this means is that haymakers are less important to the overall fight, but they can also turn the tide of a fight. That is one thing FNR3 has nailed: momentum.
Last night, I was getting my head caved in. I was cut and bleeding badly (because the new cut man mini-game is less than stellar), and by the eighth round, I was just about all out of gas. I was rocked, and the game went into slow motion as it does when someone's all but knocked out. My opponent decided a haymaker hook was in order to put me down, but I timed it and parried the shot and wound up delivering a haymaker of my own. Not only did I cut the chump, but I sent him into a dazed state, and with three shots to the chin and one to the gut, I put the boy on his butt where he belonged. Impact punches come in three flavors, but haymakers are most common.
There are Flash KO Punches, which drain the guy's health almost to zero, no matter how good he's feeling. The Stun Punch starts a mini-game where you can throw punches, and you or your opponent has to block them while in first-person view. Stun Punches are few and far between, but they are also the same mini-game you play during the weigh-in. The mechanics around impact punches make them really powerful (even more powerful than they were FNR2), but they must be judiciously used at the right time. You can easily punch yourself out trying to land haymaker after haymaker and then find yourself totally out of gas by the fourth round.
The gameplay balancing around punching is perfect, and I can't imagine how EA could have done it better. The only thing I'd change is the visual damage punches do. In FNR2, if a fighter's eye was swollen shut, it was swollen shut. In FNR3, however, the commentator will ask how a fighter can see out of his eye, but the eye doesn't look damaged at all.
This leads me to the only thing about FNR3 that really upsets me – the cut man mini-game returns, but it is a shadow of its former self. You only have to repair halves of your fighter's face (instead of quarters), and the motion you have to follow is way too vague. In FNR2, there was a meter you had to follow, and the more damage that was done, the faster the meter moved; if the damage was great, the sweet spot in the meter was smaller, thus making it even more difficult to repair damage. In FNR3, you're given a little rotating stick to mimic, but the speed doesn't change, and there's nothing to aim for.
Damage seems almost arbitrary at times. I've gone from perfectly repairing my fighter's bruises and swelling in the second round only to come back to my corner a bloody mess after the third round. My trainer will also tell me that I'm cut, but no cut appears on my fighter, and then as soon as my fighter starts the next round, I can see where he's been cut. This is simply inexcusable and needs a patch to be fixed because it directly affects gameplay and puts the player in a much disadvantaged state.
Something FNR3 does well in all aspects is graphics. I think FNR3 is the most visually impressive game on the X360. I reserved this console for Call of Duty 2 and Condemned in terms of their modeling and use of lighting, but FNR3 uses light and ambience in a whole new way, and the fighters' modeling simply has to been seen in order to be believed.
FNR3 actually face-mapped stuntmen's faces as they got punched for real, and the work pays off, as each knockout blow looks like it really would cave your face in. Beads of sweat fly in greater quantities, as heavier shots land later in the fight and fighters spit blood when they get popped in the mouth. FNR3's visual prowess is merciless, and the game actually uses its graphics as a gameplay mechanic. You can tell when your opponent is getting ready to fold by the way he moves and the expression on his face. You can see fear in his eyes when he's getting beaten, and it works better than I have ever seen in a game before. If your fighter is confident, he's smiling and there's a killer gleam in his eye; likewise, if he's getting beat, you'll see the confidence he once had bleed off with the glistening sweat on his forehead and shoulders.
FNR3 also makes for a great party game, since it's almost as much fun to watch as it is to play. If you have a group of friends over, you can have a long evening of entertainment for all. Playing online is just as fun, as you can take your created boxer abroad to fight anyone willing to get in the ring with you. Sanctioned bouts reflect your overall record and statistics, or you can fight simply for fun. You can recreate famous bouts between the likes of Ali and Fraiser, Patterson and Lamotta, Hopkins and Taylor, and Goliath and Big E.
Never heard of the last two fighters? Well that's because they're made-up characters, Big E being that fake football player from the Under Armor commercials. This brings me to my final criticism of FNR3, and perhaps gaming at large. I have not encountered a higher level of commercialism in a game before FNR3. Product placement abounds, and it disturbed me. "This fight brought to you by Dodge," or "This knockout replay is brought to you by Burger King," are lines you'll hear from the announcer, and you'll see logos all over the place. I understand gaming is a business, and a new model of in-game advertising is all the new rage with marketing firms, but you're going to pay 60 dollars for this title, so it seems like advertisements shouldn't be featured quite so prominently.
FNR3 plays great. The gameplay balance is better than FNR2, and the title looks and sounds superior to last year's offering. There are elements that embody the highest level of design ethic and customizability, and yet there are elements that aren't even modifiable. Where FNR2 had more options in the types of trunks you could dress your fighter in or the tattoos you could adorn your fighter's physique with, FNR3 seems oddly lacking. Custom entrances are gone and replaced with half-baked "rivalries" and weigh-in "fights." There aren't any more arenas or venues to fight in (I miss fighting at the carnival), and Madison Square Garden seems oddly empty and quiet.
While Fight Night Round 3 was delayed from being a launch title, I can't help but feel that some aspects were skipped or omitted due to time constraints, mainly because there are portions of this game that are flawless. I am hoping that next year's edition will address these shortcomings, because FNR3 gets the important stuff right. It is a fun game to play, it looks great, sounds great, goes the distance, and is a blast to play with friends. I wish EA Chicago hadn't cut out so much, and if anything, I'd wish a "director's cut" edition would be sold, even if it has to wait until next year. In any event, whether or not you like boxing, you'll like FNR3. It's worth the price of entry and will fit comfortably among your modest X360 library. I recommend it to just about everyone, even though there are some aspects to the game I cannot overlook.
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