It's tough to tell whether the success of EA Sports' early-2005 game, Fight Night Round 2, was a result of its being such a finely tuned semblance of boxing or that expectations for boxing games had sunk so low in recent years that any game portraying something remotely exciting would have been a hit. Nonetheless, the second game in EA's revamped boxing series has set a new standard, one that creates an entirely new level of expectations for the third game in the series, Fight Night Round 3. At a recent EA Sports event in Redwood City, California, we got a chance to see and play Fight Night Round 3 and were pleased to find out that the game looks to not only meet but exceed our already lofty hopes.
Sure, the game is being developed for the PlayStation, Xbox, and PSP, but there's a reason EA Sports producers had the Xbox 360 version of the game running on the biggest television in the room. The next-generation version of the game looks flat-out amazing, with big burly boxer models that are astonishing in their level of detail and clarity. The camera angle seems closer than ever to the action in the ring, really providing a sense of immediacy and motion to the two boxers as they square off. You don't just feel like part of the action here; you feel like an errant swing might knock your block off at any moment.
The development team behind Fight Night has always been about pushing the series forward--the additions they make to each successive entry have consistently felt new and fresh. Fight Night Round 2, for example, beefed up the game's control scheme with haymaker and clinch controls, as well as a cool cut-man minigame, making it one of the best sports games of 2005. With Round 3, the team at EA Chicago is adding two essential features: rivalries and boxing styles. Rivalries were basically nonexistent in the last Fight Night--you simply punched and parried your way up the career ladder on your long march to championship gold. That won't be the case here, because you will definitely have your share of rivalries with other boxers as you make your way through your career. Rivalries between boxers will be told in a number of different ways--videos where a rival calls you out, interactive media circus brawls like those seen on ESPN, and so on. In addition, the storylines between the ropes will be dictated by the game's complex artificial intelligence, which may find your chief rival delivering some low blows once the bell rings to up the emotional ante that much more. We didn't get to see any of the rivalries scenes in action, but we're definitely curious to see how interactive they'll be and just how they'll affect your virtual boxing career.
While there were some nods to boxing styles in last game, you could choose from only three options: power, balance, and speed. When it came to getting busy in the ring, one of the most important aspects of your "style" usually involved deciding when to let loose with your haymaker. Boxing styles will play a much larger role in Round 3, and you'll have more control than ever when deciding exactly how you want your created pugilist to fight. Your entry into this improved style system will be the improved create-a-boxer feature. Of course, it will contain the requisite insane amount of detail and flexibility that made the last game's create-a-boxer feature so fun, and you still use the dual analog sticks to make adjustments to things like face size and nose shape. Along the way, however, you'll also be asked to choose your boxer's in-ring style, and you'll have a number of different options to choose from under three main headings: movement, punch style, and block style.
When it comes to movement, the available style choices are, among others, smooth, bully, upright, textbook, mummy (think George Foreman), and wild (think Prince Naseem Hamed). When choosing your punching style, you'll choose which types of punches you wish to focus on when trading fists in the ring, such as the lethal uppercut. Finally, a plethora of blocking styles will be included, so you can choose from a cross style à la Jake LaMotta or an up-and-down block style. These different styles will play a huge role in your success in the ring and will dictate how you'll need to shape your style to be effective. Your block style, for example, will determine how effective you are at stopping punches from a variety of different angles, and as a result, you'll be more effective against certain punches than others.
More so than any previous Fight Night game, Round 3's focus on styles will mean there's more to beating an opponent than simply hoping you get lucky with a haymaker. Just like in real boxing, you'll be responsible for picking apart your opponents' defenses and watching how they react, probing for chinks in their armor and exploiting any weakness you find for maximum effect. Of course, choosing one style won't mean you're locked into one way of fighting--just as in real life, you'll be able to switch tactics in the ring on the fly and, for example, switch up your stance so that you're leading with your power hand. The design approach for boxing styles in Round 3 seems to focus on making sure that styles are an advantage for the player willing to make the most of them, while ensuring that a balance is found for every skill level.
Of course, haymakers will still have their place in the game as well. In fact, the "easy to pick up yet difficult to master" controls of Fight Night, which revolve nearly entirely around use of the dual analog sticks, have been enhanced this year with a number of new punches designed to cause maximum devastation on your opponent's grill. Two in particular--the flash KO and the stun punch--merit mention here, as they're both entirely new entries in the Fight Night offensive arsenal. Fight Night vets will remember that the haymaker controls in the previous game let you wind up your punch by tracing a reverse arc on the right analog stick and following through accordingly. The flash KO punch is like a haymaker on steroids--instead of pulling back to, say, 6 o'clock on the analog stick, as you would for a haymaker, you roll the stick back to 8 o'clock. Onscreen, your boxer will bow back with his punching arm even further than normal, loading up power for that one quick blast that will send his opponent kissing canvas. If it lands, a flash KO punch will go a long way toward sending your opponent to Sleepy Land; he'll be dazed and stumbling around the ring, and you'll have a prime chance to send him to the mat with a well-timed follow-up blow.
The stun punch, on the other hand, features both more windup and more follow-through than your standard haymaker. The difference here is that if you land a solid stun punch, the viewpoint will immediately shift to a first-person view, where the "stunner" will be on the offensive, looking to land the killing blow as quickly as possible, while the "stunee" will be desperate to keep any solid shots from landing. It won't be easy either; as the stunned boxer, your primary goal will be simply to survive--when blocking, your hands will shoot up high or low directly in front of you. Thanks to the switch in viewpoint, these stun-punch survival moments are a gripping change of pace from the normal boxing action and really serve to add tension and drama to the bouts.
Another effective twist in the Round 3 formula is in the HUD-less presentation. Instead of relying on health meters that tend to detract from the sense of immersion in the game, Round 3 is letting the next-generation console powering those gorgeous-looking character models do all of the work. You won't need a meter to flash red to let you know your boxer is low on stamina or health here--the look on his face will say it all. When a fighter gets run-down, his shoulders will slump and his eyes might glaze over a little bit. We watched a demo fight that had Bernard Hopkins take a flash KO punch to the face at full force. Immediately after the blow landed, B-Hop dropped his hands, his eyes rolled back slightly in his head, and his facial expression changed dramatically--he appeared more like a dazed extra in a zombie movie than a pro boxer. The graphical horsepower of the next-gen console that powers the boxer models means you won't need to wonder when it's time to go in for the kill and when it's time to back off. It should be noted that the current-gen versions of Fight Night Round 3--appearing on the PS2 and Xbox--will still use the familiar health and stamina meters found in the previous game.
Online play was a big part of Round 2 and will continue to be so in the third Fight Night game. The development team recognized that one of the key tactics used by players who took the matches online was to simply maximize their fighter's attributes, then take him to the Internet and fight a bunch of similarly maxed-out pugilists. That won't necessarily be the case in Round 3--you'll still be able to build up your boxer's skills, but along with the style considerations that we mentioned earlier, the team is aiming to tie your online success much more tightly in to your boxer's offline career. Only by completing certain elements in the offline game, for example, will you be able to earn certain features that will benefit your game online. Like the single-player game, Round 3's online game will see the creation of rivalries between online players, and along with a host of as-yet-unspecified achievements and stat tracking, this should provide folks with plenty of incentive to keep punching their way through the single-player game.
While we were watching and playing the game during EA's recent Fight Night press event, it was difficult to take our eyes off the game's sumptuous visuals, but once our eyes had adjusted to the visual splendor, another interesting feature took hold--the game's audio. The fighters seem much more audible this go-around, yelling as they throw punches and grunting powerfully when they are struck. If anything, it sounds a bit too over the top, at least based on the bouts we're used to seeing on ESPN and Pay-Per-View.
While the Xbox 360 version of the game was the star of the press event, the current-gen and PSP versions of Fight Night Round 3 were on hand as well, all of them playable. For Xbox and PS2 owners, many of the same features found in the 360 version will be playable, including the stun-punch moments; the flash KO punch, unfortunately, will not be part of the current-gen feature set. The PSP game lacks the second analog stick of the consoles, and as a result, it feels similar to an updated version of the Knockout Kings series, only sped up dramatically. The PSP game will include a situation mode, where you'll be presented with a number of different bout circumstances from which you'll need to rise up and prevail. For example, you might be placed in the third round of a fight with a nasty cut above one eye, and your job will be to beat your opponent despite this handicap.
With 32 playable boxers (we're awaiting the final roster), some new control tweaks, and some of the most impressive looking graphics yet seen on the Xbox 360, Fight Night Round 3 is certainly shaping up to be an impressive next-gen debut. While many launch sports games had to cut features to make it to release when the 360 launched, Round 3 aims to be full-featured right out of the gate. Since it's heading our way in just a few short months--spring 2006 is the current release window--it won't be too much longer before we get to see exactly how well all these features pan out. We'll have much more on Fight Night Round 3 in the coming weeks, so be sure to stay tuned.