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Review: ‘Fight Night Round 4’ (XBox 360)


What's Hot: Looks terrific; Revamped controls; Somewhat slower load times; Greater emphasis on counter-punching.

What's Not: Slow pace (far too slow for the average gamer); Like all EA Sports games, there are some counterintuitive menus; Frustratingly difficult (even on the medium skill setting); Obscure training mini-games; Feels too random at times.

Crispy Gamer Says: Try It.

I play boxing videogames with the same kind of over-the-top obsessiveness that role-playing gamers put into the latest RPG. I craft -- I said "craft" -- my fighter from scratch, create him in my own likeness (strange as that sounds), and even hang my own name on him, which is a very significant act, if you think about it. Then I steep myself in the game. I get into it. Every fight is dramatic. Every punch is personal.

I don't throw haymakers at the opening bell; I don't go for quick knockouts. I know enough about boxing to work the jab, to see what I can get away with against my opponent. I typically don't start throwing the bigger punches -- the hooks, the uppercuts -- until two or three rounds into a fight.

Between fights, auto-training isn't an option for me. I train with intensity and focus, trying to squeeze every last stat point out of the exercise that I can.

Yes, I'm weird.

I have a cardboard box in my apartment filled with scratchy VHS tapes of classic boxing matches. I grew up watching boxing with my dad. I could always see the respect he had for boxers. He was very much into the one-man-against-another drama. I guess I am, too. Boxing is as naked a sport -- literally and figuratively -- as there is. It's so pure, and so simple, that it inevitably takes on the weight of metaphor.

As regulars to the site know, I'm a "Punch-Out!!" fanatic. I played the old (and, in retrospect, terrible) "Knockout Kings" series to death. The obscure PlayStation 2 game, "Victorious Boxers: Ippo's Road to Glory," is one of my all-time favorites. (Toss the used-games bin to find your copy.) And I've invested many hundreds of hours into each one of the previous "Fight Night" games.

If there's anyone more qualified to review "Fight Night Round 4" than I am, I'd very much like to meet that person.

"Fight Night Round 4" is not the leap forward that "Round 3" was for the series, or for the medium of videogames. How could it be? "Round 3" was a ridiculously impressive technical achievement back in 2006. It was one of the key landmark moments when we were shown -- not told -- what the term "next-gen" truly meant. Me, I'd never seen fighters move with such grace, and speed, and credibility, before.

What you'll find in "Round 4" are around 45 licensed boxers to fool with (including Jake LaMotta, Ray Robinson, Marvin Hagler, Pernell Whitaker and the incomparable Manny Pacquiao -- but no Joe Louis?), some tweaked right-stick controls, and the same fetishistic attention to detail -- the spray of sweat, the rippling facial muscles.

The emphasis in "Round 4" is on counter-punching. Block or slip an incoming punch, and your opponent is vulnerable for a split-second. Tag him in this moment for extra damage. The game lets you know that you've successfully counter-punched with a dramatic WHOMP sound and a brief flash of yellow. It's satisfying to get these audiovisual cues when you've dealt a counter-punch to your opponent. But whenever this happens to you -- and it will most assuredly happen to you -- it's impossible not to panic.

Height and reach are also bigger factors in "Round 4" than they have been previously. Fighting against a guy with longer arms and quicker feet? If you want a chance to win the fight, you'll have to get on the inside, work the body to slow him down.

In Round 4," you earn points during the round, depending on how well you're performing. Example: You're awarded five points for stunning an opponent, 12 points for landing more than 60 percent of your punches, etc. Between rounds, you can either spend those points replenishing your stamina, health or damage; or you can table them, saving them for the next round.

The cold-compress/cut-cleaning mini-game from "Round 3" has been replaced. This makes me sad. I miss having to decide if I should reduce swelling or patch up a cut. There was more immediacy in the previous game's mini-game. There was also a greater sense of consequence, of having to make a crucial decision.

Case in point: If I couldn't see out of my left eye -- because I'd neglected to heal it properly -- I'd not only have trouble throwing punches with my left hand; I'd also have trouble stopping my opponent's punches to my left side. Vice versa, if I peppered the left side of my opponent's face, I knew that by the later rounds his left eye would more than likely be closed up, and I'd be able to go to his left side to either start or finish combos.

It sounds gruesome, but it was exciting, and more credible. The corner is an important place during fights. There's an intimacy there between men that you don't often see. A man talking to his fighter, and the way he touches his face, almost always looks like a father talking to his son, advising him, telling him what to do to overcome adversity.

The new points-based healing system has none of that. It feels more removed and impersonal; it's one of those classic EA Sports moments where they've changed something, made it different only for the sake of being different.

Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore do a terrific job of calling the fights. But like a senile old man, Tessitore pronounces almost every fight a "classic." And Atlas keeps going back to the same metaphors again and again. If I hear the "At the end of the dark hallway is a room; you don't want to go into that room" story one more time, I'm going to start turning over furniture.

Less excusable is that after four iterations, the game's menus are still painfully counterintuitive. Do I Create A Boxer? Fight Now? Or, do I go directly to Legacy Mode? (Answer: Legacy Mode. Create A Boxer is a dead end, which I came to realize only after wasting 20 minutes fussing with stats for "Kid Jones." The fighter you build in Create A Boxer can't be used in Legacy Mode.) More clarity would be nice next time.

Legacy Mode is basically a more robust version of the original Career Mode. Create your unknown pugilist, then jab your way through the higher-ranked opponents. Pick your opponent, pick your fight date on the calendar, then schedule your training sessions. You're typically allowed one training session per month. If you want, or need, an extra session before your next fight, make sure the fight is at least two months off.

Overall, fights feel more exciting this year, mostly because the action constantly seesaws. Momentum is constantly shifting. The game has two gears: Either I'm getting hurt and I'm in trouble; or my opponent is getting hurt and he's in trouble. Usually both things happen multiple times each round.

This is exciting. But, unfortunately, it also feels terribly random. Sometimes I stun my opponent and have him reeling around the ring, and I won't understand why or how I accomplished what I did. Sometimes he stuns me, and I'll be reeling, and I won't understand why or how he did what he did.

It's that bit of gray area, that whiff of vagueness, that finally makes the action in "Fight Night Round 4" feel like you're watching a really great fight instead of fighting a really great fight. That occasional randomness takes me away from the game; it takes me out of the ring.

This pains me with a brand of hurt that all gamers are far too familiar with. I'm trying earnestly to participate and believe here; I'm working hard to be convinced by this fiction. And the fiction in "Fight Night Round 4," in small and large ways, winds up letting me down.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.


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