It's no secret that I love my fighting sports and the games translations will always interest me, so here we have Fight Night Round 4 the follow up to the quite splendid Fight Night Round 3 that was in it's own right a complete masterpiece. While I'll be happy to sing the praises of Round 3 until the cows come home, it's quite clear that, like with any games genre, evolution and progression are key to a sequel and even though I fully expect this title to sell like hot cakes after a hundred years hotcakes drought what I'm going to think about is if this game is a good progression from the excellent Fight Night Round 3.
The answer is: "Sort of."
This game to play is a joy, the innovate and intuitive "Analogue stick only" system is still in place to give a feel of elegance and control that'll have the better players being able to out-perform the average button mashing dingbat that you often come across on-line that always has the punchers change of knocking you out and making you feel like all the hard hours of practice have resulted in you just feeling worse after you lose to someone who is in their first fight on-line. The game also features superior graphics to the predecessor, anyone who played FNR3 will know that it was a visual treat of wonderful textures and physics on display beating the living snot out of each other, in Round 4 there is a marked improvement visually. Also in terms of the commentary there's a lot more going on so you're far less likely to run into the standard phrases over and over as well improvements to the game play mechanics.
In FNR4 it's far easier to knock someone out in the opening moments, one of my big gripes previously in the FN series was the fact that your chances of just walking up and knocking the crap out of your opponent and have him kissing canvas in the opening moments were near on impossible. In Round 4 there's not only the possibility of catching the fellow and knocking him out cold in the opening moments, there's even an achievement for it. Oh, oh, oh! And while we're on the subject of achievements, the implementation of them is far better then in Round 3. While previously to get your full 1000 gamer score, all you would need was to finish the career mode, in Round 4 it's put together with far more thought with achievements for actually achieving things other then...well...just playing asnormal.
There's also a very interesting set of customisation improvements that are what you would expect. This time around the sliders don't only effect the standard height/weight/bagginess of shorts statistics as is the standard, but you also get far more control over reach and even able to tweak your characters robes and ring entrance music, this may seem as little more then padding but in all honesty it's really satisfying to see your custom made fellow swagger to the ring in his bright pink robes and shorts covered with rhinestones.
While with any follow up there's always pressure to evolve the game and make it better and this is where FNR4 gets interesting, the box art has Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson on the front and this is actually very symbolic of the way the game mechanics are playing worked out. The emphases here is clearly on counter punching and the inside/outside fighter. To but it simply the "inside fighter" stays close and hits with hard explosive punches, the outside fighter is more elusive and prefers to stay away from their opponent by using their superior reach. Hence the reason Tyson and Ali are on the covering being so symbolic, this is in fact where the crux of the game play change is as the game play very much depends on one of these two styles to dictate how you go about your face punching past-time.
Also another interesting change is the counter-punch system. In FNR3 it was always satisfying to pull off one big power splatting punch after ducking out of the way of an opponents big heymaker. In FNR4 the counter-punch system is a huge part of the game, there's a massive (Possibly over powered) benefit to counter punching your opponent. The later you either block or duck out of the way of a large blow time slows down allowing you to hit back to a pretty array of sparks. Now this is where I hold a slight annoyance as I always felt that the the idea behind the Fight Night series was the air of realism that it held that other games had to sacrifice in order to fit in the fun little game mechanics and I held a bit of respect for the series for sitting back and making sure they made the realism fun. This spark flying and slowing down of time does break that a little bit for me and while it's not a massive problem in the grand scheme it did serve as a slight irritation.
A really nice little touch is that you can put your own face to the custom fighter and when I mean your own face I mean you can have your front and side photos taken with your handy little console mounted camera and after two photos you'll place your likeness onto your fighter. Then you'll promptly get out your regular camera, take the photos again in better light and then upload them to the EA website where you'll then be able to download it to your console and after matching up a few dots you'll have your own oddly soulless visage getting pounded in the face by the finest pugilists in the world! To be honest this is a very fun function, but the sad part is that the eyes will not be put on the little eye-like spheres that other characters have the benefit of. Instead they will stare out like the walking electronic cadavers they are.
Up until this point it's pretty clear that they've thought long and hard about how to improve the game from it's past versions and for the most part I found the improvements they have made the the basic game to be a little unnecessary compared to what -does- need improvement. That, to me, would be that accursed career mode's calendar. Most games of this kind have some sort of calendar in the career mode, it's where you book your fights, sort your training and deal with insipid generic E-Mails with stuff like "Yo, Champ, that last fight was off the hook!" or "Hey, Kid, better luck next time" the issue I have with this is that it's really meaning that when you play the game your spending more time pressing,the "Advance" button rather then fighting, since nearly everything has at least one load screen associated with it. But my big problem is the training mini-games, in a recent sports game release (That would be UFC Undisputed 2009) they made sparring and practising things in fights the main way to up your characters fighting statistics while things like speed, cardio and power were just a button push to "Get better at this". In FNR4 this stands as a tedious and annoying splat on an otherwise great game play experience. It's just a shame that with all the different angles they took for development, this is the one area where they seemed to completely sit back and treat as business as usual.
But it's not all doom and gloom, there's a very basic, simple and genuinely great solution to an age old problem with playing fighting games online, the curse of the rage-quitter, those tricky little buggers that will just switch off their console if they're either losing or if the game registers the loss after the game session has finished. It can cause people to give up altogether since it normally takes quite the time investment per fight. In FNR4 you see someone's disconnect ratio before you enter into it, so even if they have a bad connection or are a "rage-quitter" you can can opt out of even bothering with them. It's simple, basic and you have to wonder why nobody came up with this before.
Overall "Fight Night Round 4" makes some good improvements and falls down on others, but at the heart of this is a very fine game that I would recommend to anyone that's a fan of boxing or the Fight Night series as a whole.