As a fan of the Fight Night series I was a little worried about Round 4. Given the lack of serious competition within the boxing genre and EA Sports' (currently undeserved) reputation of cranking out sequels with little more than roster updates, I was hoping that EA Canada would take it upon themselves to innovate instead of iterate after taking over the series from the now shuttered EA Chicago. They did.
Technically, the game is breathtaking. Round 4 runs at a gorgeous 60 frames per second and is based completely in physics, which has to be seen in motion to be appreciated.
The boxer collision system is enough to release a sequel on, but it doesn't end there. Almost every aspect of the game has been streamlined from Round 3. Load times are shortened, tedious minigames are reduced, and the gameplay is generally faster. If you want to play a highly-mobile, jab-oriented fighter... you can. The new boxing system will allow for a fighter's style to actually come into play and matter.
So how is the actual fighting different?
As mentioned, punches will be flying much faster than in Round 3. The engine also buffers a single punch into memory. If you throw a quick jab and then follow-up with a hook, you won't have to wait until the jab is complete to execute the hook. Just jab, then hook. The game will throw the hook when the jab completes. Remember the four-quadrant guessing game from Round 3? Gone. In its place is a much more natural block system. You'll block high or low. If you time it well, it will momentarily stun the opponent, but will not guarantee you a hit. It's much more fluid and only requires you to read a head or body shot, instead of four directions.
The controls themselves are roughly the same, but hold a few key improvements. First, haymakers no longer require you to wind-up on the analog stick. Instead, you'll hold the right bumper and throw a hook or uppercut. The wind-up time will be determined by the fighter's stats and condition. This makes it much easier to land a haymaker on a split-second opening. Secondly, you'll be getting a few body shot shortcuts. In Round 3, you had to hold a trigger (the same one used for leaning) and throw a punch as regular. Now, because there are no more wind-up motions for haymakers, you can flick the stick to the left or right to throw a body hook. Down-left and down-right will execute a body uppercut. Jabs and crosses to the body still require the left trigger to be held.
Think you'll be leaning away from every punch? Guess again. Boxers will now re-target based on where you are. Against skilled opponents, you'll be able to lean away from punches if you're quick, but you can't just lean back and avoid punch after punch like in Round 3. There's an interesting strategic side-effect to this new system. You can lean toward your opponent and pull back quickly when they attack to make them miss. In addition to leaning, you'll also get a new bob-and-weave move that will make your fighter quickly duck, weave, and step-in. It's a key maneuver to work your way instead and beat a reach fighter.
You'll have three bars on screen during a fight: health, stamina, and block. Health functions the same as Round 3; you'll lose some when taking a hit, but regenerate based on your boxer's stats. Take enough damage and you won't be able to regenerate as much. Stamina decreases as you take body shots and throw punches. Again, like Round 3. Block decreases when you guard and drops when you block a punch. Let it get too low and you'll find your opponent's punches sneaking through your guard for some damage.
The terrible corner minigames are gone between rounds. Instead of rotating your analog stick to compress your fighter's face, you'll be healing up through a streamlined menu system. Using points gained during the previous round (or banked), you can recover different amounts of health, stamina, or damage, which will cause the ref to stop the fight if it gets too high. Even if you're losing a fight, this new system adds a lot of incentive for giving each round your all to get some points and maybe turn it around with a boost in health or stamina. You'll also be able to see what your opponent is spending their points on, their meters, and you'll heal up simultaneously instead of one at a time.
As for the career mode, it will put a lot more emphasis on the time before and after fights. You'll still be presented with some fight options to choose from, but they will be organized on a calendar. Fights will come with different amounts of training time leading up to the bout and tougher fights will put your boxer on ice for longer recovery periods. There will be instances when, for example, a fighter drops off of a card and you're offered the fight, but are still recovering. Do you want to risk it and sign-up before you're 100% or wait it out and see what comes along next?
Equipment in this mode will be completely cosmetic (thank you!) and you won't be playing a mini-boxing RPG trying to minimize or maximize your Boots of Speed and Gloves of Stamina. There will still be training minigames, but I was not able to see them at this time. Hopefully they aren't as repetitive as the ones in Round 3.
As for online, EA has some big things planned: video uploading and worldwide tournaments. Round 4 will support replay uploading, which is absolutely amazing. During my hands-on time there were at least five instances where I wanted to upload the replay to the internet. The game has this amazing tendency to create spontaneous realism based on the physics based systems. It's a lot like skate in that respect. For example, I managed to weave under a right hook, but my opponents arm got wrapped around my fighter's neck when I stepped in. While his arm was momentarily immobilized, I threw a quick uppercut into his chin under his trapped arm. It was a brilliant moment of unscripted, physics-based realism that I wanted to upload to the world.
As for worldwide tournaments, EA is planning on conducting region-based tournaments on Xbox LIVE and PSN. There will be belts handed out with requirements to defend the title a minimum number of times. You could be the middleweight champion of New York City (this is an example, EA hasn't announced how the regions will be separated). Lightweight, middleweight, and heavyweight fighters will all find circuits to compete in and only created boxers will be put into the running. Additionally, all boxers used in this mode will be completely equal in their statistics. The tournaments will definitely be based upon skill instead of picking Ali or Tyson.
I was extremely impressed with Fight Night Round 4. In fact, I kept finding myself wandering back over to the display to watch other journalists take on producer Brian Hayes. The game is beautiful in motion and it's easy to get lost in the punches like in a real bout. Luckily, you'll control the replay function. EA didn't have to improve the game this much over the previous version, but they did and we should be thankful to them.
Fight Night Round 4 releases on June 30, 2009 for the Xbox 360 and PS3.