For many gamers, Fight Night Round 3 was one of the most jaw-dropping gaming experiences of all time. It was one of the first games that showed what the current generation of consoles could do, and to many, it’s still one of the best looking titles of all time. It also did a better job of emulating the sweet science of boxing than any game before it, and made for some incredibly fun head-to-head fights. The studio that made the game, EA Chicago, went out of business shortly after beginning work on Round 4, and the project was moved to EA Canada. Rather than building off the previous offering, they constructed an entirely new engine that focuses more on speed and physics than parrying and haymakers, and the results are simply spectacular.
While many of the best elements of Fight Night Round 3 are present in Round 4, the fighting mechanics are significantly different. Jabs, hooks, and uppercuts to the head are the same, but body punches have been changed. A quick flick of the right analog stick to the left or right will throw a low hook at your opponent, and a quick motion back diagonally will throw a low uppercut. Instead of swinging the stick back, then forward to throw haymakers, the Right Bumper acts as a haymaker modifier, adding power to any of your punches at the expense of hand speed. It doesn’t feel as natural as it did in the last game, but it serves to de-emphasize the haymaker and increase the speed of the game significantly. The parry mechanic from the last game has also been removed, with a more organic countering system that rewards players for dodging punches and blocking at just the right time. Again, this speeds the game up, and avoids the parry-fests into which Round 3’s matches often deteriorated. Computer-controlled fighters seem to have an advantage when it comes to the countering system, and opponents will occasionally counter punches almost before they’re thrown, but overall, the mechanic is a big improvement over its predecessor. These seemingly small changes have transformed Fight Night Round 4 into an even more convincing boxing simulation than its predecessor, but have taken away a certain sense of control. Rearing back for a massive haymaker may have been tactically unsound in the last game, but it gave the feeling that you had total control of your boxer’s arm. That feeling isn’t as strong in Round 4, but it’s easily a fair tradeoff for the game’s true-to-the-sport feeling and blistering speed.
The main complaint about Fight Night Round 3 was its feature-poor career mode. Round 4 gives players a bit more to do on their road to the belt, but it’s still a bit on the thin side. In addition to scheduling fights, you’ll need to put your boxer through various training mini-games in order to increase his stats. These training games, including heavy bag, sparring, and the double-ended bag are more relevant to the sport than the last game’s generic training exercises, but they feel somewhat unbalanced. Early on, you’ll find that your boxer’s stats simply aren’t high enough to complete many of the challenges. Fortunately, the trainings can be skipped, albeit at the cost of reduced stat increases. Several other tweaks, like instant rematches against rivals and a “Pound for Pound” ranking, help flesh out the career mode, but it still feels like there’s plenty of room for improvement in the future.
In addition to Legacy Mode and exhibition matches, there are several online modes of play, and each is a blast to play. There are standard quick matches, which are perfect for a pick-up-and-play online experience, but the real star of the online suite is the World Chapionship mode. This mode allows you to create a custom character, assign him to one of three weight classes (light, middle, and heavyweight), and pit him against other online fighters in a bid to become a holder of one of three belts per weight class. This is essentially a twist on the standard Ranked Match found in most games, but the online rankings, which are displayed in the menus by default, along with the use of only created characters, makes players feel like they are truly chasing a belt, and not just fighting for experience points. Both online modes perform like a dream, with hardly any signs of slowdown. In a game with action as fast and precise as Fight Night Round 4, a solid framerate and connection are essential, and EA has done a fantastic job of ensuring that players will very rarely have anything to blame a loss on but their own lack of skills.
Character customization has received a much more significant upgrade, and it’s now on par with some of the best custom character creators in the industry. Fight Night Round 4 includes support for EA’s Gameface technology, which allows players to map their own face over their pugilist’s. The effect is pretty impressive, and takes far less time than previous games that utilize the technology. Of course, even with a pre-made face, you can still tweak every aspect of your boxer’s appearance, from nostril width to eyebrow shape, and even make limited body modifications. Whereas in the previous game, you could buy pre-made trunks, gloves and boots, Round 4 allows you to customize every piece of clothing, down to the mouthguard, using an intuitive and somewhat ingenious interface. This allows for far more options for your fighter, further immersing the player in a boxing world where he is the main attraction.
If the 45+ boxers that come with the game and whatever fighters you create on your own aren’t enough, created boxers by other EA Sportsworld members are available by extremely quick download. These downloaded fighters can then be used in any mode except World Championship mode, and can be inserted into Legacy Mode as fighters you’ll face on your way to the top of the rankings. There are already some brilliant creations online, ranging from expected sluggers like Rocky Balboa, Evander Holyfield and Glass Joe, to less likely pugilists like Borat and Barack Obama, and with more and more real and fantasy boxers going up every day, the game’s roster is becoming almost infinite. You can also upload replays of your best knockouts for others to view and rate.
Just like Round 3 was, Fight Night Round 4 is a visual powerhouse that features some of the best character models in the business. Every boxer in the game is an almost photorealistic rendering of their real-life counterpart, and looks stunningly life-like in motion, complete with facial damage, rolling sweat, and muscles that contract and expand just the way they should. This is aided by a physics system that knows when punches should glance off, when they should get tied up with the opponent’s gloves, and when they should connect. Realistic punch physics make the in-ring action extremely fluid and believable, and there are times when the action is nearly indistinguishable from real boxing. This is most striking when viewing replays, which showcase the game's spot-on physics and collision detection. You'll almost never see punches clip through opponents or "phantom punches" that do damage without actually connecting. With so much riding on the game's physics engine, it's imperative that everything work exactly the way it should, and in Fight Night Round 4, it does. The rings and arenas in which you fight look great as well, with great lighting effects and a dense, reactive crowd, and the in-ring audio features all the glove-on-flesh sounds you’d expect. Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas provide the play-by-play for the game, and while it sounds somewhat more natural than in the last effort, it’s still repetitive and often ill-fitting or confusing. The game’s soundtrack is another low point for the audio, and many gamers will quickly tire of the seven or eight tracks that repeat during menus. Luckily, there’s also an EA Sports ticker and radio broadcast to break up the monotony, and custom soundtracks can be used when you get sick of that awful Afrika Bambaataa song.
There is still room for improvement for the Fight Night franchise, but just like Round 3 did, Round 4 elevates the series to a new high, and sets a bar that no other boxing series is close to approaching. It’s faster, more dynamic, and more fun than the previous offering, and it does a better job of emulating its sport than just about any other game out there. There were concerns whether EA Canada could improve on the success of the last game, but luckily for us, they managed to surpass EA Chicago’s efforts in just about every way that matters. It’s a great single-player experience, an even better multiplayer experience, and the best boxing game in the world.