You know how time has a way of making some older games look sort of silly in retrospect? Certain games, no matter how much you loved them in the past, just can't measure up to modern standards of gameplay, presentation, and so on. After seeing Fight Night Round 4 in action today during the EA Sports Season Opener in San Francsico, you can chalk up the series' previous incarnation, Fight Night Round 3, as another casualty in the battle against time. The new game is doing so many things right, has fixed so many problems from the previous Fight Night, and is running so much crisper that it makes its predecessor look practically antiquated. In other words, this is Fight Night, but it's definitely changing the game.
Don't get us wrong. At the time, Fight Night Round 3 was a revelation on the Xbox 360 (and later on the PS3). A graphical powerhouse, the game showed the capabilities of the next-gen console in a way few games had even attempted. And while at first glance Fight Night 4 isn't going to blow you away, if you pay attention to what's happening underneath the hood, it's clear that the new game is improving on practically every aspect of its predecessor.
The most crucial improvement is the game's brand-new physics engine. The sweet science is represented in a much more true-to-life manner in FN4, and that's most plainly seen where the fist meets the face. Every punch in FN4 is procedurally animated on the fly, meaning that punches are nearly as varied as you would find in a real boxing match.
Perhaps more importantly, where and how a punch lands are also procedural. So you'll see everything from full-on face crunchers, to semisolid shots, to glancing blows that barely make contact, much less do any damage. In addition, you're not just striking a dude in the face; depending on the angle of the two boxers to one another, the stiffness of the shot, and many other factors, punches will land on noses, chins, cheeks, foreheads, necks, shoulders, and (occasionally) the back of the head. Follow that up with a damage system that can put a cut exactly where it has developed on your opponent's face (and not just in some preassigned location), and you'll see boxers swell, cut, and bleed like they never have before.
In addition to having better punch location, the new physics system has resulted in much faster gameplay, in terms of both frame rate and the movement of the boxers. We watched as a virtual Muhammad Ali and a young Mike Tyson slugged it out in the middle of the ring, and the speed at which both boxers were throwing jabs, hooks, and uppercuts was in a completely different league from previous Fight Night games.
Going hand in hand with that increased speed are control tweaks that make combos much easier to execute in the ring. As producers demonstrated for us, both head and body shots can easily be thrown with the right stick alone. For instance, a straight jab is still thrown by flicking up on the right stick, with hooks and uppercuts executed by rolling the stick out and up. Body shots, on the other hand, take up the "lower half" of the right stick. So if you move the stick out to the left or right, you'll throw a left or right hook to the body. If you flick the stick to the "4" or "7" position, you'll throw body uppercuts. The only normal body shot that uses a modifier are body jabs, which are thrown by using the LT "duck" button and then a straight jab motion with the right stick. The tweaked system looks to make body/head combos easier to pull off, making your fighter a much more effective force in the ring.
Player movement has also been tweaked. The left stick still controls your boxer's movements around the ring, but if you flick left or right, or do a "hook" motion left or right, you'll be able to perform effective bobbing and weaving as you look to get inside your opponent. In fact, these kinds of tactics are especially effective for "inside" fighters like Tyson; as producers explained to us, the fighting system is sophisticated enough that you can execute one of Tyson's patented weaving dives toward an opponent and come up out of the crouch with a deadly uppercut.
Another item of note: Inside fighting is possible in FN4. Unlike in the previous game, which had a strange invisible wall separating the fighters, you can get inside and really work your opponent, like the great inside fighters do. In fact, you'll have to, because the game's focus on realistic physics will force smaller guys to make up for their lack of reach with a powerful inside game, while taller, lankier fighters will want to work the jab--which actually looks like it hurts now--keeping their opponent at bay and making the most of their reach advantage.
Once you manage to peel your eyes from the meticulously rendered fighter models in FN4, you might notice a new HUD element--a trio of bars that represent each fighter's health, stamina, and blocking. While the health and stamina meters are self-explanatory, the blocking meter is new for the game and works in conjunction with your fighter's blocking ability (tied to the right trigger). As you hold the trigger, your blocking meter will decrease over time, and when your opponent punches you, it will decrease in larger chunks. Essentially this meter will prevent you from turtling all round, because if your blocking meter runs out, you won't be able to stop your opponent from landing a punch. This new blocking system replaces the awkward parry system from Fight Night 3, and while meters tend to go against the grain of the modern trend of relatively HUD-free games, it seems to be relatively unobtrusive. More to the point, it makes sense in the ring.
The between-round minigames of Fight Night 3, where you'd heal your wounds, aren't in FN4. Instead, you'll be able to spend points you've earned in a round (by doing things like knocking down your opponent, landing a good shot or two, or simply surviving to fight another three minutes) on replenishing your stamina, health, or blocking ability. In addition, you can bank points between rounds and spend them later in the fight. Visually, FN4 is hitting all the right notes, with amazingly detailed and articulated musculature and faces that bend and contort with every punch that lands flush. It isn't quite the visual revelation that the previous game was, but considering the speed this game moves at, and the amount of surrounding activity, including large crowds and realistic-looking environments, it's no less impressive upon close inspection.
With a combination of realistic fighting engine, tweaked controls, and deadly speed, the fourth Fight Night game looks to be upping the series' rep in a serious way. We can't wait to get our hands on the game to try it out for ourselves, as well as explore the other aspects of Fight Night Round 4's gameplay modes, including the new career mode. Stay tuned for much more on the game in the weeks leading up to its release in July.