The road to championship gold in Fight Night Round 4 is a long one, and that's no more evident than in Legacy mode. Like the rest of this fourth entry in the Fight Night series, Legacy mode is a revamp and reimagining of the straightforward career mode found in earlier versions of the game. And while there's nothing here that will totally reinvent career modes from the ground up, Legacy mode has enough significant improvements to make it one of the highlights in a game that looks to be filled with them.
In fact, the nuts and bolts of Legacy mode are as clear-cut as can be: you create a boxer from scratch, train his skills on a periodic basis, enter him in as many fights as possible, and try to take his career from zero to hero. It's the refined presentation that tells the Legacy mode story--as well as the absolutely ludicrous amount of data the game records--that makes it so special.
I started off my Legacy career by creating a heavyweight who was close to my 6'1" frame (a big mistake, I later learned, and will discuss a bit later). While you can use an existing boxer in career mode, if you're anything like me, you'll want to dive into the create-a-boxer fun. The creation tools display the typically obsessive detail that you find in the best create-a-player features and you can use a camera like the XBL vision camera to import your face into the game. You'll be able to customize everything from the look of your fighter (including body style, eye color, and so on), to his demeanor when making his way to the ring, as well as his ring entrance music (choosing from a large list of provided tunes or from playlists you've created yourself).
If you like customizing your boxer's look, you'll love the gear customization options, which lets you choose everything from the exact color combination for your boxing gloves (the purple, pink and green monstrosities I created strike fear into my opponents' hearts) to the text that appears on the back of your trunks. Everything can be customized: gloves, trunks, socks, shoes, mouth guard, even your ring entrance robe--all of it can be tuned to your preferences.
The game has seven "style" options for customization as well. They are:
• Boxer Stance -- Orthodox, southpaw
• Boxer AI (controls what type of fighter he is when you simulate fights) -- Boxer, brawler, slugger, unconventional, counter puncher, boxer/puncher, infighter, outfighter.
• Boxer Style (controls how boxer holds hands and how he moves in his stance) -- Balanced, upright, textbook, peekaboo, power, wild, mummy, speed, slickster, smooth, hyper, crazy, easy, sniper, steady, high rise, old school,
• Block Style -- Textbook, Philly shell, cross,
• Punch Style -- Balanced, power, speed
• Best Punch -- Straight, left hook, right hook, left uppercut, right uppercut, jab
• Signature Punch -- Bolo lead hook, bolo lead uppercut, bolo rear hook, bolo rear uppercut, chinfake straight, ducking lead hook, ducking lead uppercut, head fake lead hook, head fake straight, shuffle straight
All of these style choices affect not just how your boxer controls in the ring, but how effective he is as well. For example, choosing a "balanced" Boxer Style offers slightly higher foot speed than if you choose the "upright" Boxer Style. Conversely, "upright" will give you slightly improved block strength over the "balanced" style.
Once your boxer has been created, you'll move on to the meat of Legacy mode: namely making a name for yourself in the boxing world. Unlike the Fight Night 3's relatively stale ladder system, Legacy mode in FN4 feels more like a proper boxing "world" that you are part of. You'll get e-mail from your trainer and manager, there are end of the year awards in all weight classes that you can be nominated for, and you always plenty of information at hand, both about your career and when scouting your next opponent.
The central component of Legacy mode is the calendar, which you'll use to schedule fights, training sessions, and your rest in between matches. Before you can start scheduling fights, you'll need to make your way through a series of fights in an amateur tournament. Luckily, most of the guys you face are tomato cans and you'll have little trouble getting through them. That said, the competition stiffens once you go pro, especially if you don't make the most of the few training opportunities you have.
Depending on the amount of time you have between fights, you'll typically have just one training session available to you so you'll want to make sure you make the most of it. There are six training minigames to play and, while you can simulate training, you'll only gain the maximum benefit by playing them and doing well. The six training games are:
• Open Sparring -- Box against a sparring partner. You score points by hitting your opponent, and avoiding his punches. Points are deducted for missing punches or getting hit. Sparring benefits head and body toughness, as well as your chin rating.
• Stay On Your Feet -- The goal here is to simulate keeping away from an opponent when you're dazed. You start the round with low health and stamina and must try and stay on your feet as long as possible, avoiding your opponent's punches. This training activity benefits your heart, chin, and head movement ratings.
• Heavy Bag Combos -- Hit the heavy bag with punches your trainer calls out (and are shown on screen). Not only does this activity boost your punch accuracy and block strength ratings, it also demands accuracy on the right analog stick and should improve your overall skills in the game as a result.
• Heavy Bag Push -- You move a heavy bag down a track by punching high or low and the further you move it down the track, you'll score more points. This one is great for your boxer's stamina, heart, and punch power ratings.
• Double End Bag -- As you circle around a bag, your goal is to move to specific zones indicated by the game and punching quickly. Hitting zones correctly in succession will earn you point modifiers as you go and this training activity boosts your punch accuracy, foot speed, and stamina ratings.
• Maize Bag -- My personal favorite of the bunch, the maize bag will put your bobbing and weaving to the test. You lean side to side as a maize bag swings back and forth, then throw punches at the correct moment. Stringing together successive combos will earn you point modifiers. This training activity boosts your head movement, block strength, and hand speed ratings.
Because you have so few chances to train, one bad training session can often be a significant factor in your next fight. String together a couple of bad training sessions together and you'll wish you had chosen a lower-rated fighter as your next opponent. The boxing AI in Fight Night 4 is one of the more underrated aspects of the game; the more time I spent with the game, the more it impressed me, even if I did find myself on the mat more than once as a result.
You see, my created heavyweight boxer is only a heavyweight in name. At 6'1" he's a bit short to be effective against the bigger guys in the weight class, often giving up a significant advantage in reach. This problem is compounded by the fact that I wanted him to be an outside, jab-first type fighter. If I'd been smart, I'd have done one of two things: 1) Moved him to light heavyweight where his height would be more in line with the top-tier competition or 2) Made him an inside fighter. When you compound his size problems with a bad training session or two, it's no wonder that I've lost as many fights as I have.
In the ring, the problem of a short outside fighter is compounded by the fact that jabs and straights actually do matter in this game. Not only can you score points just from landing the punch but, if you land a few combos, you'll be able to back the AI up, even with punches that don't seem to be doing that much damage individually.
The AI's willingness to change up its fight strategy as you continue into the later rounds is one of the game's most impressive strengths, and while knockdowns and KOs are certainly possible, you'll also frequently see your AI opponents go the full distance, changing their strategy from an offensive strategy early on, to a defensive one as the fight continues. Furthermore, any opening you give it will be exploited. I've had several fights where I was winning on points, got a little greedy towards the latter rounds and started looking for a knockout, only to have the CPU make the most of my sloppy punching and reverse the fight on me.
The second aspect of FN4's AI is one that's a bit more subtle but has a marked effect on each fight: fighter positioning. Blocking and head movement are absolutely essential skills in FN4, as they are the key to the counterpunching feature. If you dodge a punch with a head bob, or manage to block it at precisely the right moment, you'll get a small window of time where you can land a powerful counterpunch. The mechanic feels a bit forced--the action in the ring temporarily slows down, making it obvious that you have this counterpunch opportunity--but its effectiveness is undeniable. That said, the AI is adept at always positioning itself so as to make dodging a challenge.
For example, a typical strategy when you get in trouble is to take a small step backwards, looking to open up just enough space between you and your opponent to make leaning back to avoid a punch that much easier. The AI, however, is not fooled, and will close that distance to make sure your fighter is within range of its punches. And while the strategy of body positioning changes if you are playing as an inside fighter, the overall result is more jockeying for position in the ring than I initially gave the game credit for, and better fights to boot.
As you complete fights, you'll move up and down the rankings, depending on your results you're your reputation will increase and decrease accordingly. Eventually your goal will be to become the greatest of all time and there's a progression system that will judge your career based on factors like number of championship belts held, popularity ranking, and winning percentage. The game also records extremely detailed fight stats, showing the type of punches thrown, where they were aimed, and how successfully they landed. In the career hub, you can also check out your entire fight history (all the way down to a round-by-round basis) and see your average fight punch stats as compared to all of the rest of the fighters in your weight class.
Even if Fight Night Round 4's Legacy Mode isn't rewriting the rules of sports game career modes, it's certainly giving it a fresh coat of paint with slick presentation and an easy-to-use interface. I haven't seen much in the way of out-of-ring activities, such as press interviews, or trash-talking your opponent, and while those kinds of things would be welcome, their absence doesn't detract from the overall fun of Legacy Mode. Fight Night Round 4 is due for release next week.