CES 2006: Fight Night Round 3 Keynote Address Impressions

Ali vs. Frazier? Leonard vs. Hearns? Forget 'em. We're witness to Ballmer vs. Gates at CES 2006 thanks to EA's upcoming Xbox 360 boxing game.

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LAS VEGAS--Chaos erupted during tonight's Microsoft CES keynote address, when company founder and world's richest man Bill Gates traded punches with Microsoft chief operating officer and all-around hothead Steve Ballmer. Well…actually, it's not what you think. While it was true the two Microsoft luminaries did duke it out on stage during the MS keynote address, which opened this year's Consumer Electronics Show, only the trash-talking between the two execs took place in the real world. The punches were thrown virtually during a brief demo of EA Sports' highly anticipated boxing game, Fight Night Round 3.

This was the biggest public showing of Fight Night 3 since the interactive teaser footage was shown during Sony's E3 2005 press conference. Interestingly, Fight Night 3 also held the honor of being the only game given any special attention during tonight's hour-and-a-half-long keynote address, which also showcased a number of different upcoming Microsoft hardware and software products (including the next version of its operating system, Windows Vista).

It's no wonder Round 3 received this distinction, however, because the game served as a tremendous vehicle for showing off the graphical power of the Xbox 360. The finely tuned character models sent a murmur of appreciation throughout the crowd in attendance as Bill Gates took control of a spry-looking Muhammad Ali and Ballmer controlled a hunkered and hulking Joe Frazier--a titanic showdown of boxing titans befitting the two executives. It wasn't long before the two boxers were pounding each other with brutal hooks and devastating uppercuts (and, yes, a few jabs here and there); every connection was felt throughout the auditorium, thanks not only to the stellar graphics but to some teeth-rattling audio that really showed off the range and power of the impacts during a match. During several combos by Ali, the crowd cheered in appreciation, just as it did when Frazier nailed one of his trademark lights-out hooks.

The demonstration bout was called by ESPN and Showtime boxing announcer Al Bernstein, and in the few minutes it lasted, Bernstein had ample opportunity to sing the praises of the game's graphics, sound, and control--the crowd even got a couple of chances to check out the stun-punch viewpoint switch that puts the player on the receiving end of the punch into a first-person viewpoint where your job will be to block and parry shots from your opponent before you get knocked down for the count. In fact, the punching was so efficient and fast-paced, and the demo so tightly constructed, that it left us wondering if Ballmer and Gates were actually in control of what we were seeing. Nonetheless, the final knockout punch, which was replayed from several angles to garner maximum effect of the blood and spit flying out of the loser's mouth, was met with an appreciative roar of (slightly grossed-out) applause.

Today wasn't just the kickoff of CES; it also saw the Fight Night Round 3 demo become available on Xbox Live marketplace. We had a chance to download the demo and swap leather for a few rounds today, and you can read our first impressions of the game here.

After the Gates/Ballmer bout, we got a chance to sit down with a Fight Night Round 3 producer to talk a bit more about the game and how it's been coming along since our last look. We were especially curious to find out more about some of the particulars in the game, such as details about the beefed-up career mode and various boxing styles that will make their way into the game. Styles make fights after all, and when it comes to styles in the ring in Fight Night 3, you'll want to play not only to your offensive strengths but to your defensive ones as well. The style of blocking you choose for your boxer, for example, will have a big effect on how and how well you go about defending yourself in the ring. A basic cross-block, which has the boxer's arms held horizontally across his chest, is great when blocking punches high and low but suffers when it comes to using the directional parries that leave your opponent open to vicious counterpunches. In short, with a cross-block, you can defend yourself more effectively, but the opportunities for effective counterattacks will be fewer and farther between. The Philly Shell defensive style, on the other hand, is the opposite--great for parrying blows but weak when it comes to the up-and-down blocks. In the end, though, it will be up to you to decide which style you wish to use and how well you execute it.

Another key element of Fight Night 3 will be its career mode, which will find you at the far end of a very long road to championship gold. Unlike in Fight Night Round 2, however, you won't simply be fighting nameless and faceless opponents on your way to the top. Instead, the team at EA Chicago is striving to infuse Round 3 with the type of drama, passion, and intrigue that fuels the sport of boxing. Rivalries will build and dissipate throughout your quest for the belt, opponents will come and go, and old enemies might come back to haunt you later in your career. As reported in a previous preview, we know that some of these dynamic relationships will unfold through cutscenes that show off press conferences (which erupt into chaos when a prebout brawl breaks out). What we didn't know until today was that these events will have tangible effects on the fight they precede. If you get socked in the eye during a prefight melee, for example, you might find that your eye is vulnerable in the fight itself.

Finally, instead of merely having you create a superpowered boxer and take him online immediately, Fight Night Round 3 is being designed to give you incentive to play through the single-player game to enhance your online game. Beat Muhammad Ali in the single-player career mode, for example, and you'll unlock some of Ali's signature punches or his rope-a-dope offensive style. Only by completing this portion of the game will these styles be available to you, giving you a leg up against an online opponent who wasn't man enough to take on "The Greatest."

In all, Fight Night Round 3 made a very successful showing at CES this evening--whether or not it really was Gates and Ballmer controlling the action on the screen. For those who keep score of these types of things, Ballmer's Frazier was no match for the hand speed and deadly combination punches of Gates' Ali. Then again, Ballmer could have just been letting Gates win. And who could blame him? Bill is the boss.

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