Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: June 23, 2009
I should preface this review by saying that I absolutely love the Fight Night series. The original Fight Night is why I originally bought an Xbox and have faithfully played each successive sequel in the franchise. Some people might think that would make me rather biased in reviewing Fight Night 4, but on the contrary, I think it makes me a harsher critic of the series. I've been playing since the invention of the Total Punch Control, the integration of the deadly haymakers, and I've seen the growth of boxing sim to full career play. Just so we're fair, let me get this out of my system now: OMG Fight Night Round 4, finally! Squeeeeeee!
Much like the sticker on the box cover proclaimed, Fight Night Round 4 was one of the most anticipated titles for 2009. Heck, I've been waiting for a solid sequel since Fight Night Round 3, which came outthree years ago. I'm glad to say that the wait seems to have been worth it. Unlike many other serialized franchise games, like Madden or Tiger Woods, Fight Night has consistently fine-tuned and improved the controls based on real gamer feedback. Let me run down a brief history of the games.
In the beginning, EA released Fight Night, and it was good. The game redefined the controller interface, utilizing the second analog stick for your jabs, crosses and uppercuts. There was no more button-mashing; the game was absolutely revolutionary and helped lay the path for other unique control games, like Skate. It wasn't a flawless system, though, as the game had its slow moments and awkward physics.
Fight Night Round 2 built upon the great framework of the original by introducing the haymaker, which augmented counter-punches. It gave you an opportunity to land a devastating blow to the opponent, or, if blocked, open yourself up to a world of hurt. The physics in the game were slightly improved, though the bodies still did some hilarious rubber bouncing when knocked around.
The third game in the franchise, and the reason I migrated to the Xbox 360, added more realism by removing all traces of a HUD and adding impact punches. Now your hits did visible damage, and you had to judge your own stamina based on your movement and speed. It was truly the most accurate boxing simulator on the planet.
Not only does Fight Night Round 4 bring the Total Punch Control system folks have grown to love (or hate, in the case of button mashers), but it has also rebuilt the career mode into a well-rounded package. The Legacy mode, as it's now called, allows you to build a custom boxer from the ground up, and play or simulate an entire career. The level of depth that has been added can only be compared to games like MLB: The Show or UFC 2009: Undisputed. You have Legacy Central, which acts as your calendar, e-mail center, boxer rankings and an insane amount of statistics. It's almost overwhelming when you first see the layout, with your LT and RT controlling the main window menus and LB and RB controlling sub-menus within each framework. Considering Fight Night Round 3 got rid of boxer rankings, it's just great to see them again.
Likewise, another facet in the Legacy Central, as coupled with your calendar, is the ability to coordinate your training around upcoming fights. Unlike the previous games, where you would arbitrarily train before each fight, now you can actually plan out your fights for weeks or months in advance. The longer you have before a fight, the more training opportunities you get. Of course, spending all year training means you'll never move up the rank ladder. It's an excellent and immersive setup.
Conversely, and unlike every other previous title in the series, training in Fight Night Round 4 is outright hard, if not impossible at early levels. In the previous versions, you had to hit high or low on a hard bag, or lift plates at marked intervals. That's all child's play. Now the training modes have you open sparring, punch-pushing a heavy bag across a gym, hitting called combo shots in the right order, and improving footwork by moving to highlighted areas to hit a speed bag. You can master each one given enough practice, but my early attempts were so poor that I often let the computer auto-train for me and happily accepted the 50 percent increase. To be honest, I'm glad it's more difficult and challenging than the previous versions. It was almost cartoonlike and so easy that it was more of a nuisance than a true challenge, so now it feels like I'm really working my guy out.
Speaking of my guy, EA once again lets you use the Game Face feature to import your photos and create your own digital boxer. Considering I had recently gone through the new Game Face setup for Tiger Woods, I decided to take advantage of it and import my face again to be the recipient of leather gloves. It's a pretty time-intensive process, but it works out well. It's still not flawless and will likely require you to go into the advanced sliders to tweak chin, cheek and head dimensions, but it's certainly one of the most immersive ways to get into the game. The graphics for the boxer creator has improved in looks and texture from previous versions, but you're still limited to skin shades and hair types. I'd love to see additional layering added in (Why can't I have a soul patch and a goatee?), as well as some fresher hair options, but honestly, if I wanted to nitpick every fine little facial detail, I'd go play Sims 3. Right now, I just want to punch people and knock them out.
The return of the ranking system is tied nicely to a new popularity option. As you climb up the ranks, offer good fights and ultimately win, your popularity will improve. It's a fairly behind-the-scenes process, but it adds yet another layer to the career mode … er, "Legacy" mode. Likewise, you'll be labeled according to your popularity and standings. As expected, when you first start out as a 0-0-0 fighter, you'll be ranked a Bum. Get some wins, maybe a belt, offer some great fights and you can eventually hope to improve to Greatest of All Time.
As far as graphics go, the game once again has made leaps and bounds in photorealism and accuracy. Muscles move properly, and there is almost no sense of clipping or physics errors. When you lean back, circle around and deliver an uppercut, the muscles move realistically and seamlessly. In a sense, it's almost a shame to see the game look so good because you get so focused on the fight that the realism is almost an afterthought. I can't think of a single gameplay moment where I quirked an eyebrow at an awful movement or clip. It's just beautiful. The bodies move, sweat, bleed and breathe in so natural a fashion that it's really amazing. Now, that isn't to say it's absolutely perfect, but darn near the best of the best thus far. A few errors here and there would crop up, though, such as a glancing right hook where my opponent then reacted by falling to his left. Ordinary physics would say he'd continue moving to his right when he fell, but it's a minor quibble to an otherwise great visual presentation.
Indeed, glancing blows now actually factor into the fights as well. Gloves and arms can get tangled together, shots can deflect off shoulders and bodies, and you can realistically clinch and push your opponent. The previous Fight Nights were all about power punches and heavy hitting. Round 4 has instead gone the route of simulating as real a boxing game as possible.
Normally I'm not one much for game audio, but the sounds in Round 4 are spot-on. Landing a jab just sounds right. The sound of leather hitting leather — or leather on face, for that matter — has a good solid feel with the right sound to back it up. Heavy hits look and sound exactly as painful as you'd expect, and it helps everything blend together into a cohesive game. Music-wise, the game is filled with a slightly less hardcore rap setup than Round 3, but it still leans toward the urban/R&B music. It works, but just once I'd love to see someone get the licensing rights to Slayer or Huey Lewis. Come on, mix it up a bit. Not every boxer is a hardcore gansta thug. The announcers do a good job of calling most fights, reacting to the constantly changing exchange of blows. As with any canned game, though, you're bound to hear many of the same phrases and side stories over and over. It's not too bad, until you hear the announcers bantering about how "this is the best fight I think I've ever seen" three or four times. It's flattering, but a bit hollow.
Let's say you get tired of the immense and insanely detailed Legacy mode, and you're debating one of man's greatest age-old riddles: Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman? Well, OK, they're not in the game. But you can pit Mohammed Ali against Mike Tyson, or pit a rematch of Lenox Lewis against George Foreman. The game faithfully recreates and simulates each boxer's stats, movements, and signature music and style into the game. To me, the replayability of the famous boxers is more of a what-if scenario for simulating fights, or a good excuse to play as Ali to beat up some poor unsuspecting undercard fighters. It's a nice addition to an already stellar setup.
All told, Fight Night Round 4 is a solid game, and it's more than just a rebranding of the franchise. The physics have been tightened, the create-a-boxer improved, the sound updated, and the level of detail is through the roof. Fight Night Round 4 is the kind of game that stays in a gamer's collection for years because of the replayability. The ability to build your own welterweight through heavyweight fighter allows a huge range of options, from quick and nimble to slow and devastating. If it weren't for the slightly limited boxer creator options, the occasional wonky physics action and announcing that eventually grows stale, this would be a near-perfect game. As it is, it's still one of the best titles to come out in years and is a must-have for any boxing, fighting, mixed martial arts or sports simulation fan.Score: 9.0/10
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