Following the knockout success of EA's visual picnic of pugilism, Fight Night Round 3, the expectations for the successor to the title were great and absolutely no punches have been pulled for Round 4, as it delivers a devastating haymaker to any possible competition.
The Fight Night series has always been on the forefront of the boxing game genre, bringing with each new iteration improved physics, realism, collision detection and, of course, general graphical sweetness that brings a tear to the bruised, bloodied and battered eye of both you and your opponent. With anticipation for Round 4 building exponentially for a long time, it's fair to say that I was more than a little excited about being given the opportunity to give the title the official Console Monster weigh-in.
I'll have to admit, there was a definite pulse-pounding moment as I slid off the cellophane wrap and prepared to bury my fists into the sweat-dripping, amazingly detailed gut of the game I was about to play. As soon as the intro video stormed onto the screen, I knew that I would be in for a visual volley of jaw-dropping, face-pummelling graphics for the entire 12 rounds.
The aforementioned beauty of what are truly stunning graphics cannot be overstated; the skin is a particular highlight, with the boxers' sweat reflecting light in a realistic, believable manner. The body and face ripples following a punch just make those big hits that little bit more rewarding, empowering the player as their right hook turns their opponent's face into a sea of undulating flesh. The lighting is brilliant, making for some of the most atmospheric moments I've seen in a sports game, although a seemingly inane feature, form one of the many cogs that makes FNR4 into the machine it is; capable of taking a gamer from their living room straight into the ring.
Further supporting the intense atmosphere emplaced by the graphical aspects of the title, the audio provides an aural accompaniment which drags your ears and parks them firmly next to your eyes in the 'Deeply Immersed' seats of the gaming theatre. Each punch crunches into the boxers' bodies in its own way and the symphony of squelch makes for a pleasantly, albeit slightly disturbingly, rewarding hit.
The Fight Now mode offers a fast-track to boxing brilliance, getting you right into the ring with your favoured contender against one of a large and varied roster of possible fighters, which is one field where EA have improved over Round 3. This speedy action makes for a perfect time filler while you wait for the kettle to boil or for the real match to begin!
The gameplay changes made for this iteration have been the topic of much talk from the EA camp, having height and reach statistics for once affects the flow of the game and causes outcomes dependant on the styles of the respective contenders. While the back of the box screams that your man Muscles is just "one clean punch away from victory", many of my early fights became jab-scrabbles; the messy bludgeoning of the right analogue stick to pound the opposing combatant onto the mat. Where the game underlines the importance of tactical, conservative fighting, focused on good timing, you'd often be just as well spamming a hailstorm of punches into your enemy, firing the big guns until he hits the deck. This is not to undermine the gameplay, as Fight Night remains a fantastically satisfying title to play and enjoy, but I cannot help but feel that some of the changes that EA have tried to implement may have overcomplicated what was once a simple, blunt, punch-drunk party.
This needless over-complication spills over into the periods of time in-between fights. In Round 3, players merely chose one of a selection of fights to participate in, selected a trainer and one of a few training types and then got on with knocking seven bells into a sack of meat with eyes and ears. For Round 4, EA have brought in a calendar, a scheduling system, more (confusing) training modes, an inbox (?!?!) and just too many god-damn words on the screen! They've attempted to bring a much more FIFA-style aesthetic to something that was fine as it was. While these changes may appear to validate the shift up from Round 3, EA have in fact taken a little away from the simple pick-up-and-play enjoyability of the game.
Thankfully, these changes have been balanced out by the introduction of an online multiplayer mode that actually works, which is quite something for a fighting game. The intense rush of the single player game is amplified time and time again as the CPU becomes a real-life opponent, introducing some real rivalry and a deep set necessity to conquer. The immersion of the graphics and this need to win makes for what can be a very tiring multiplayer experience - but in a good way! Where in Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3, you may become tired of the constant drone of kill after kill after kill, a long, closely-matched bout on FNR4 leaves you drained, just as you might be if you were actually doing the fighting. That, kind readers, is real immersion.
The whole experience was a bit of a back-and-forth of opinions, but only because Round 3 set such a precedent. Some of the changes to gameplay that EA have employed have made the simple boxing fun more of a chore, but the graphics and sound set a brilliant standard for future games, and the online mode is a highly enjoyable new face in this iteration's crowd of new features. Looking at Fight Night Round 4 as a whole, it is definitely a great title, very worthy of a purchase. Good for when friends come round or for a quick burst of boxing action just as it suits as part of your normal gaming diet, FNR4 will offer many hours of fist-throwing fun-times.