I’ll start with a disclosure: I’m an enormous boxing fan and I loved Fight Night Round 4 so much it was my game of 2009.
As you can imagine, I’ve really been looking forward to Fight Night Champion. Granted, I didn’t really care about the addition of extra blood and gore, which I assumed was just a sop to the MMA crowd, but the addition of a story mode really appealed: I’ve played through the legacy mode of Fight Night Round 4 several times, and my head is always writing my boxer’s biography as I do, so the idea of seeing what sort of story someone else would tell about my fighter had a natural appeal.
Ok, I was aware that there was going to be a tweak to the punch control, but between my love of the existing game and my curiosity about the new mode, I didn’t really give it much thought. Well, I’ve since downloaded the demo and played a match as all four fighters and I’ve never been quite so disappointed by a game. I’ve had one of those moments where I think that if gaming’s going to do this to me, I might just sell my Xbox and buy a Monopoly board.
Now there’s an obvious caveat here, which is that I’m forming my opinion from the demo rather than the full game. Nevertheless, I have two major complaints here, one that comes from the gamer part of me, and the other from the boxing fan. The first of them is to do with the new Total Punch Control system which is clearly a design choice rather than something due to be fixed between demo and release. I’m not alone in whinging about this, so I’ll get it out of the way first.
As a boxing fan, I loved the way the old Total Punch Control mimicked the difficulty of getting off certain shots. Jabs and crosses are comparatively easy to throw, hooks require slightly more precise timing, uppercuts require precision movements and timing, and adding all your leverage to turn your shot into a haymaker is the most difficult of all. As an admittedly sweatless, blood and brain-damage free mirror to real boxing, Fight Night Round Four got it just right. In fact, I’ve even heard ex-World Champions talk about deliberately throwing their uppercuts at an opponent’s chest rather than chin: the thinking being that it’s possible to adjust mid-throw to land on the chin if the odds look good, but that the chances of the odds looking good are slim enough that it’s better to set out with the intention of getting a body blow in the bank.
If you’re still awake after that bit of boxing apocrypha you’ve probably discerned my point-the fact that the old Total Punch Control made certain shots trickier to pull off was part of what made the game so good.
And what do we have now? A new Total Punch Control that simply assigns each blow to a direction on the stick. No looping arcs of the thumb to be mirrored on the screen if you get it right, just a simple flick in a given direction. It’s less like a fighting game and more like one of those tedious turn-based JRPGs where you simply choose which moves you think will work best and see how they play out.
Worst of all, it takes the game away from the stylists, those who like to play with a certain fluency, who like to work behind a jab, dancing an intricate stutter-step, circling away from those big right hands as they probe the guard, slip some wicked shots in under the ribs, dragging the guard down and setting up a clean, clinical finish. It gives it instead to the haymaker spammers, the meatheads who throw nothing but RB-modified hooks and gigglingly yell ‘Hadouken’ into their microphone as they do so. That’s not a pretty picture is it?
My second complaint is the biggy, the potential game-destroyer for me, and it’s one that I’m desperately hoping is going to be fixed before release, although given the size of the problem and the proximity of the on-sale date, I’m doubtful.
In Fight Night Round Four the dimensions of the fighters, the way their bodies were animated, and the game’s underlying physics engine came together to create a perfect storm of boxing variety: every possible combination of fighters opened up a different tactical can of worms based on their respective hand and foot speed, height and reach. You had to figure out what worked not for a given fighter, but for a given fighter against a given opponent. As the old boxing adage goes, styles make fights. (On the subject of which, I’m sorry to all those XBL Mike Tyson’s who lost incredibly long and boring matches to my perpetually jabbing and retreating Roy Jones Jr, but hey, it’s your own fault for being so obvious.)
In Fight Night Champion, this beautiful merger of physics, geometry and animation appears to have turned its toes up. Check out Ali vs Tyson. Ali, a 6ft 3in stylist with an 80inch reach, fast hands and jab that struck out like a cobra, long and straight. Tyson, 5ft 10in at best if you believe his publicist, which no one does, 71in reach, best known for his short, devastating hooks. In Fight Night Round 4 a match up between these two fighters would be an exhilarating display of contrasting styles. In Fight Night Champion, Ali throws butt ugly ‘chicken-wing’ jabs with a range that can barely be distinguished from Tyson’s hooks, let alone representing the 9inch reach differential between them. The result is that Tyson fights like Tyson, but Ali doesn’t fight like Ali. In fact, he fights like Tyson. Another sop to the power-punchers over the stylists.
There are other minor niggles. The desaturated colours and film grain make Fight Night Champion look like a grindhouse movie for no apparent reason, and the corner game that made you work to balance power, resilience and durability seems to be gone as well. From the demo it’s hard to see what’s actually left in the game.
Despite all of this, I’m still actually looking forward to Fight Night Champion. I’m enough of an optimist to think that the full game will be infinitely more polished and nuanced than the demo, and enough of a boxing fan to buy the game regardless. But where the £40 I spent on Fight Night Round Four were among the best I’ve ever spent on gaming, I suspect the outlay on Champion will leave me feeling stung.