March 07, 2006

Review: Fight Night Round 3 (Xbox 360)

The Fight Night boxing franchise has always been well received by both critics and gamers alike, but the fierce anticipation for Round 3 on Xbox 360 was unlike any boxing game that preceded it. The question of why can be answered easily: the stunningly realistic graphics, courtesy of next-generation hardware. As gamers, have we become so shallow that graphics alone can speed up our heart rate and open up our wallets? Not quite. Rather, the pairing of solid, established gameplay with the pinnacle of graphic achievement has created a new boxing experience. Where previous boxing games left us feeling like spectators, Fight Night Round 3 is as close as you’ll get to the real thing without putting on the gloves.

There’s no ignoring the graphical prowess of this game, so we might as well discuss that first. This is one of those ironic situations in which you’d use the word “unreal” to describe a game that looks as realistic as Fight Night. From the arenas to the boxers (and their various fluids), everything is meticulously detailed to create a visual experience like no other. Fluidly animated fighters fill your screen, eliminating the need for health or stamina meters. You can tell right away when a fighter is at the end of his rope: he’ll guard heavily, move slowly, and generally resemble a zombie. It’s fairly amusing, assuming you’re not the one in that state. The lack of on-screen indicators signals a new era of gaming, one in which characters are so life-like that we can draw on our own experiences to decide the best course of action, rather than being told when or what to do. Certainly Fight Night Round 3 isn’t the first game to show character damage, but it’s the first to make it a vital part of the gaming experience.

One constant I’ve noticed among everyone who has played this game is the reaction following the first time they see a fighter get knocked down: pure amazement. It’s not uncommon to find half a dozen people crowded around a demo unit at a gaming store, whooping and hollering when it happens. The game slows down, providing a close-up of the fighter taking a direct shot to the face. His cheeks ripple, sweat surrounds his head, and streams of blood and saliva emerge from between his lips. What’s worse is the sound of the hit: something akin to an animal being pummeled in a gravel parking lot. It’s terrible, yet exactly how I’d imagine a skull-crushing punch to sound.

Sound plays a huge role in Fight Night Round 3. The sound effects are excellent, though it’s the voice-overs that provide the info you’ll need to make it far in this game. The announcer not only details the events of the battle, but gives you clues as to where you should attack. If he says your opponent has heavy swelling around his left eye, you know exactly where to aim your next punch. While I found much of the announcing to be competent, there was too much repetition, not to mention some conflicting messages. I could be dominating a fight, and he would occasionally say that “training has become a real issue” for my fighter. On top of this, the announcer relies too heavily on pronouns to be effective. When there are two men in the ring, you need to specify who “he” is when it’s being said every couple of seconds. Still, the point generally gets across. Between rounds, listen to the advice of your manager to develop your strategy. The hip-hop soundtrack is a bit slim, but solid tracks from Atmosphere and Consequence are worth hearing over and over again.

The control scheme of Fight Night is solid, relying largely on the two analog sticks to empower your fighter. The left stick controls your movements, while the right stick guides your fists. The Total Punch Control system allows you to vary the type and power of your punch, which is more than you can say for most button-mashing brawlers. In addition, you’ll use the right trigger to block, while the left trigger allows you lean and throw body punches. Haymaker punches are super-powerful, though executed slower than in Round 2. Over-using them will drain your fighter’s stamina, but landing them will lead to a much quicker fight. Introduced in Round 3 is the Stun Punch, which if landed, sends your opponent into a daze. At that point, you have a few seconds to drop them, which you clearly want to do.

The meat of the game is in Career Mode, which allows you to create your own fighter and guide him to a title fight. While you can also choose an existing big-name boxer, it’s much more amusing to customize your own pugilist and give him a silly name like “Super Badass.” Though not as robust as other character creation schemes, your created fighter will look every bit as good as the professional boxers. Career Mode largely consists of you signing contracts, training, and fighting your battles. Early on, the battles can largely be won through sheer physical prowess. But as soon as you’ve won a few professional battles, the difficulty shoots up several levels, making it a game of blocking and choosing the right moment to punch. This may be the “sweet science” that they’ve advertised, but it’s not nearly as fun as pummeling your opponent into submission. At any point, you can change the difficulty of your opponents, which I’d recommend if constant blocking isn’t your thing.

While the game has nailed the general feeling of boxing, it fails to give the player much motivation to keep playing. Career mode is mostly menu-based, and could’ve benefited from in-game story sequences that could show you developing as a fighter. I actually felt less interested in the game after delivering twenty knock-outs than I did after two. Even the rivalries seem tacked on. The commentator mentions a previous battle that we had, but I don’t even recall it, as the fights are all pretty similar. That’s where the game is lacking the most, although training is also an issue. You can only train once before each fight, and this is done through simple mini-games that increase some stats and decrease others. There’s never a sense of accomplishment after training; even the before and after shots of your fighter have the same physical build. At the very least, there should be more opportunities to train, and I would recommend a system in which you divide earned points among your fighter’s various attributes.

While the single-player mode is lacking, the multi-player battles are a blast, online or off. I played several rounds via Xbox Live, and while the menu system was a little shaky, the battles were smooth and free of lag. There were times where my opponent and I could not hear each other, but it wasn’t a major issue. Even better is facing an opponent that’s sitting right next to you. Pick your fighters, pick your arena, and begin the trash-talking. I’ve always been more of a guy that’s interested in the story aspect of a game over the multiplayer, but the fighting is sharp enough in this game to reverse the order of quality. If you play a lot of multiplayer games, add Fight Night Round 3 to your collection.

Another game type that makes great use of the ESPN license is the ESPN Classic mode, which lets you relive classic rivalries from the world of boxing. From the old-school (Muhammad Ali v. Joe Frazier) to the recent past (Roy Jones Jr. v. Bernard Hopkins), these battles let you try to change history with fighters that even non-aficionados would know of. The fights are prefaced by in-game recreations of scenes from the battle, which offer background information and a look at the strengths of the fighters. An interesting aspect of this mode is the ability to use your created character from career mode. Once you’ve retired, you can battle your rival from career mode, though as I stated earlier, the “rivalries” aren’t terribly exciting or notable.

Fight Night Round 3 features strong presentation and stunning visuals, but missteps in the career mode keep it from being a must-buy for everyone. The game is a strong first step towards games that rely more on your own senses and experiences than meters and obvious indicators. It is highly recommended to those who spend a lot of time playing against others, and boxing fans should not hesitate to pick this up immediately. At the very least, this game demands a rental from anyone with an Xbox 360. If EA can strengthen the career mode for the next game, it could truly be a mass-market game for everyone to enjoy.

Grade: B


Anonymous said...

Solid review. Exactly how I would have described it if I could write as well as you. Way to big up Atmosphere and Consequence!

Anonymous said...

To be honest fight night diserves a little more credit, b/c of its uniqueness. More or less It did need to do better. I love your grading system for reviews. Is there like B+'s and stuff? Just a curious question. Andy your writing is the best i've ever read.

Andrew Hayward said...

Tim -

Yeah, I'll do +/- for games. I struggled with the score for this one. When I first got the game, and was just having a blast with it, I was thinking B+, with potential for A-. From there, it never really got any better. The things that it adds to the genre may very well be worth that +, but for me, the lack of a compelling reason to keep playing the story mode had to knock it down a bit. But I know what you're trying to say, for sure. The lack of the HUD and such really changes the dynamic of the game.

Here's what I was thinking about for the grades: I want to make use of the whole scale, except A+ and F-. There's no perfect game and there's no reason to call something the worst game ever (I haven't played every game out there, after all). However, if I give something an A, it's probably one of the best games I've ever played. For example, Resident Evil 4 gets an A. If I give something an A-/B+, it's going to be one of my favorite games of the year. So I was keeping that in mind when I scored Fight Night. I do think it's a great game, but it's probably not going to register as one of my favorite games of the year.

I'll make sure to explain the scale in a post before I write too many more reviews. It's similar to the one imposed by Gaming Age. I'm currently a fan of the grading system over a number score, though most magazines don't use it. But if I were giving Fight Night a score, I think an 8.5 would suffice.