Review: Fight Night Round 4

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The audience for most sports simulations tends to be limited to die-hard fans of the sport in question. But boxing is something that seems to have much higher crossover appeal; perhaps boxing games’ similarities to fighting games are what draw in non-boxing fans. Then again, maybe people just love to beat the ever-loving crap out of each other and see the blood fly.

Either way, that appeal applies to the Destructoid staff as well — instead of just Samit Sarkar and Brad Nicholson discussing a sports game, Anthony Burch comes out of his indie cave and joins in on the Destructoid review of EA Sports’ Fight Night Round 4. The highly-anticipated follow-up to 2006’s Fight Night Round 3 was developed by EA Canada, who took over the series’ reins from the now-defunct EA Chicago.

Read on to find out if Fight Night Round 4 lives up to the franchise’s lofty pedigree.

Fight Night Round 4 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: June 25, 2009
MSRP: $59.99

Samit Sarkar (PS3)

As someone who doesn’t follow boxing at all, I was surprised at how much fun I had with Fight Night Round 4. That’s a testament to the quality of its core gameplay, which offers a combination of easily-understood mechanics that provide a mostly accurate simulation of boxing. Gone is the gamey parry system from FNR3; in its place is a counter punch mechanic that brings real boxing strategy into the game. You can create counter punching opportunities in three ways: by making your opponent miss with a lean (L1 + left stick); by blocking at the very last possible moment, just before a punch hits (R1 + right stick up/down); or by weaving (quarter-circle forward from top or bottom of left stick) to dodge a punch.

The game will let you know if you’ve done this correctly: the camera will zoom in, and if you manage to connect with a punch — any punch — your opponent will flash yellow for a second, a visual display that’s reminiscent of what you’d see upon scoring a big hit in the PS1-era NFL GameDay games. The strategy comes in limiting your opponent’s counter punch opportunities. You can’t merely throw punches haphazardly, hoping you’ll land some of them, because the CPU AI is smart. You might hit your opponent a few times, but then he’ll evade or block a punch and counter-punch you. Since counter punches do much more damage than regular punches, if your opponent lands a few in rapid succession, you’ll find yourself on the mat — or at least stunned.

Counter punching works very well — perhaps too well, actually. The balance of the fighting in this game seems to be tilted a bit too far in favor of counter punching. You could be chipping away at your opponent through a round or two, but then he might make you miss a few times and all of a sudden, you’re stunned or knocked down. When your opponent has a counter punch opportunity, you’ll be incapacitated for a split second, but if he takes too long to fire off a punch, you’ll be able to block or dodge. It just feels as if the game is focused too closely on counter punching; they factor heavily into fights, so if you suck at blocking and dodging, you’re going to have a tougher time winning.

It doesn’t help that the game doesn’t seem to award you counter punch opportunities every time. I definitely noticed a few instances where I felt that the CPU had missed, and I didn’t get the telltale camera zoom effect. But overall, the system is a success, especially since it makes you think more like a real fighter. And the new corner game rewards you for fighting like a real boxer. This time, there’s a simple points-based system that reflects your performance in a round. For example, you’ll get 12 points for landing over 60% of your punches. You spend the points on replenishing your health or stamina bars, or reducing damage. It’s more gamey and less interactive than the setup in past games, where you twirled analog sticks to heal cuts and swelling, but as a guy who doesn’t want to have to think between rounds (except about how to improve on the last one), I liked it.

There’s a new setup for the career in FNR4: called “Legacy Mode,” it’s all about building up your fighter’s (you guessed it) legacy over the course of his career, with the end goal of retiring as the Greatest Of All Time. Your initial attributes are dependent on the physical characteristics and boxer styles of your created fighter (though you can also take over for a real in-game boxer). In Legacy, you schedule a fight and will have one to three training sessions before it in which you can raise your attributes. Much has been made of the new training minigames in FNR4, and admittedly, they’re more in tune with how boxers really train. But since your performance is dependent upon your attributes, it’s literally impossible to do well in them early on. It’s much more sensible to just auto-train — and take a guaranteed two or three points out of a possible four, five, or six — than to play the minigames and only get one point.

While I’m discussing minigames, I might as well mention how absolutely stupid it is that you’re also guaranteed to lose an attribute point in two categories every time you train. Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve never seen a sports videogame do this before, and I simply don’t understand it. Why does training with the maize bag — which works on hand speed, head movement, and block strength — take a point off of both your left and right hand power?

Training aside, Legacy has a simple setup: you start at the bottom of the ranks and work your way up the ladder in your weight class. It’s all rather sterile, though; all you do is schedule matches, train, and then fight. Your popularity is represented as a percentage on a meter, but it doesn’t really mean anything except as a requisite for certain Legacy ranks. There’s no involvement of money, either, so it’s not like your bigger fights will have accordingly bigger purses. And the message system is nigh-useless; it informs you of “up-and-coming” fighters whom you far outrank, and the grammar is poor, to boot (e.g., “we new [sic] this would happen one day”).

Still, it’s definitely satisfying to beat upper-echelon fighters with your 75-rated newcomer (especially if he looks like you, which can be accomplished with Photo Game Face). I just wish they’d fleshed out the mode a bit more. At least the game is visually stunning — it’s easily one of the best-looking console games I’ve ever seen. Fighters’ muscles will flex when they move, and it’s hilarious to see the “oh shit!” look of shock and horror when your opponent misses a punch and he’s left vulnerable to a counter punch. Plus, watching someone’s head snap back in slow motion — with his face rippling and a blood/sweat mixture spraying everywhere — never gets old.

Interface-wise, the game is kind of a mess. The menus could very nearly be called “labyrinthine”; at the very least, they’re confusing and illogical. For the longest time, I was irritated by the apparent lack of an options menu for the ESPN ticker that rolls across the bottom of the screen. But for reasons unbeknownst to me, the ticker options do exist — they’re just in the settings for the online modes. (?) And the Legacy interface could do with some streamlining, too. As for the game’s rap/hip-hop soundtrack, I’m personally not a big fan, which is why I was infuriated to discover that FNR4 doesn’t support custom soundtracks on the PS3. As far as I’m concerned, that’s inexcusable this far into 2009.

In general, though, the good far outweighs the bad here. The highly touted all-new physics system allows for glancing blows and removes the invisible barrier between fighters. You can let loose rapid flurries of punches that are immensely fun to watch — as long as you’re the one doing the pummeling. It doesn’t matter if you care about boxing; this superb game is worth a look from everybody, especially since face button punching will be added in September. My complaints with FNR4 are mostly about ultimately trivial window dressing; the game itself is a blast to play, and that’s what stands out.

Score: 8.5

Anthony Burch (PS3)

This game allowed me to knock out a quasi-realistic version of Samit Sarkar in slow-motion. Twice.

Score: 10.0

In all honesty, though, I have to agree with most of the points made by Samit. Though he’d never played Round 3, I’ve spent the better part of a year dicking around with it — and I have to say that Round 4 is, without question, a fantastic improvement on the formula. Though it may not be terribly realistic that the boxers can now throw punches at lightning speed without slowing down for the first few rounds (leading to some visually hilarious online matches where I and my inexperienced opponent literally punched each other in the face for dozens of seconds without pausing to block, like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots), the pace feels much faster and much more brutal without losing any of the previous title’s strategic gameplay. I was literally about to follow up the previous sentence with the statement “the punches come faster and feel harder than ever before” — until I realized how that would have looked out of context. Suffice it to say that the boxers no longer look and sound like they’re lightly tapping one another on the face with oven mitts.

Though I’m absolutely ecstatic EA removed the atrocious parry system from FNR3, the replacement counter punch system doesn’t feel any less artificial. Rather than feeling like a legitimate strategic addition to the player’s toolbox, it seems like more of an imbalanced powerup; as was the case with Samit, many of my bouts were decided primarily by the distinctly videogame-y, more or less strategy-devoid counter punch system. They’re just too goddamn powerful and too luck-related to belong in a game as otherwise strategic as FNR4.

It also doesn’t help that said system is open to a really, really obvious exploit that works in both single-player and multiplayer modes. As “perfectly” timing a block opens your enemy up to a counter punch, and as you can block as fast as you want so long as you hold down the block button and repeatedly press the right analog stick in the direction you want to block (making your boxer appear to play a high-speed version of peekaboo with his opponent), it’s possible to just keep blocking and spam the right stick as fast as possible until your opponent decides to throw a punch. When their blow lands on one of the eighteen thousand mini-blocks you’ve made, the game will stupidly count at least one of those blocks as perfectly timed, putting you in the perfect position to land a devastating counter punch without ever requiring a lick of strategy or skill on your part.

I echo all of Samit’s complaints with the Legacy mode, though I have to put special emphasis on the game’s needless desire to simulate every single day leading up to one of your matches, even if you’re not scheduled to do anything on those days, and even if the AI fighters scheduled to fight on those days have absolutely nothing to do with your career. My problem with Legacy isn’t so much the lack of depth as the fact that they tried to hide its relatively meager features with a bunch of pointless menus and off-screen simulations. Still, though, this is an admittedly minor complaint in the face of what is essentially an equally enjoyable version of the campaign mode from the last game. It’s as satisfying as ever to work your way up the ranks until, if you’re like me, you get about halfway up the ranking list and find the AI gets too goddamn good at counter-punching and you quit because you’re too lousy at the game to learn to defend against it.

I need to reserve special ire for the multiplayer mode, however. I don’t know if this is entirely the fault of the PSN version, but it was literally impossible for Samit and me to instantly play together despite being on one another’s friends lists. In order to get into a game with Browntown, he needed to set up a game with weirdly specific restrictions (Heavyweight class only, New York Arena, Final Destination, no items) and I needed to search for a custom game with those basic parameters. Perhaps the PS3 is to blame for not having a fucking “invite friend to game” option in the XMB, but that doesn’t excuse FNR4 not allowing me to instantly jump into a game with Samit.

But again — and I really can’t overstate this enough — Fight Night Round 4 allowed me to kick the living shit out of an uncanny valley rapist version of Samit Sarkar and then have my own uncanny valley rapist version dance around his comatose body, the word “DICKBUT” emblazoned in bright, capital letters on the back of my boxing trunks.

This alone justifies my purchase.

Score: 8.0

Brad Nicholson (360)

I think I think my love affair with Fight Night Round 4 died after going online.

But let me back up for a second. I’ve spent the majority of my time with Fight Night Round 4 playing online, competing against people on my couch, and in Legacy Mode. I won’t bother with specifics of the fighting mechanics — Mr. Sarkar and Mr. Burch have already done a wonderful job of explaining them. Instead, I’ll focus on my experience playing the game competitively — an experience that I plain just didn’t enjoy.

Fight Night Round 4 does a lot of things right: the boxers look realistic, the presentation is solid, and the physics — the glancing hits, jiggling faces and ring movement — are both beautiful and dreadful to behold. Make no bones about it: the game is mostly a simulation title, requiring skill and twitch, concentration and patience. But the operative word is “mostly.” Underneath the defining aspects of the game lies a pulsating “gamey” core. As wild as Mike Tyson was in the ring, he didn’t throw thirty haymakers in the first round of every match. While Fight Night Round 4 does its best to discourage that behavior, players can still do it. And it’s effective.

Whenever I play another EA Sports title, Madden NFL 09, I always randomly draw the match with the kid that knows how to exploit the game. He plays with a gunslinger quarterback. Every offensive snap, he takes a twenty-step drop, runs to the right and to the left, and then bombs the perfect pass straight into the end zone. This is where I want to turn off my console in frustration: the game teaches you to play and make decisions as if it were real. Twenty-step drops aren’t real. The same rule applies to Fight Night Round 4. You’re supposed to monitor your punch count, lean on the jab and go into matches not like a wild man, but as a collected dude with a plan. The game constantly reinforces accuracy over ridiculousness. Yet, that 70-yard pass — or, in Fight Night Round 4’s case, an onslaught of punches and haymakers — is still a viable competitive option. It’s not only frustrating to have to break the game to win, it’s also quite boring.

My dissatisfaction with the competitive play can be boiled down with two example matches I’ve had online.

The first is the tall haymaker thrower — the Muhammad Ali strategy. These lanky cats are fast and can dance around slower boxers in their weight class with ease. Every time I’m shoved into a match with this type of person, there’s little I can do. He simply runs around in circles, only throwing haymakers. Because of the reach, it’s hard to counter punch. Even if I do manage to juke at the right moment while trying to move in on the boxer, my stamina bar is depleted from the punches. His bar, on the other hand, is quite full. After all, he’s been connecting, so he gets the boost.

The second type of guy is the wild puncher. It’s simply impossible to block every punch that comes in — you can only choose to block your head or belly at one time. The wild puncher gets into a steady but unpredictable rhythm of punches. Because he connects, he doesn’t lose that much stamina. I, on the other hand, will lose a ton trying to move around, push off, and punch back. After all, how many shots to the head can a person take? That answer, by the way, is totally unknown to me. I’ve played matches where it only takes forty. Others, it takes hundreds. Either way, the wild puncher can eat glove all day — his stamina bar is full. Also, because he’s connecting so damn much, he gets mad bonuses between rounds. Awesome.

I refuse to say Fight Night Round 4 is a bad game. The single-player is good. Legacy Mode — despite the constant menu interruption and ridiculous load times — is a robust, fun experience. So are the Quick Matches. In addition to that, turning up the difficulty provided me with wonderfully strategic matches that tested my pugilism mettle. Hell, even playing with my girlfriend was a blast — she tries her best to play the game as it taught me how to play, with some reserve. It’s just that the Fight Night Round 4 experience can break down spectacularly in open competition. People know how to throw the 70-yard touchdown, and it sucks that the game allows it. For me, Fight Night Round 4 is best played against the razor-sharp AI. While I find the idea of “World Championship” — a perpetual online mode that awards three players with belts that can be won by anyone worthy — creative and novel, it simply isn’t for me. It’s just too easy to break the game.

Try FNR4 if you’re looking for a good boxing game or want to experience the glory of current generation pugilism all over again. It’s worth it. Just don’t venture online with wide eyes and innocence. You’ll be rocked.

Score: 7.0

Overall Score: 8.0 — Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won’t astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)

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