a review of Fight Night Round 4
a videogame developed by ea canada
and published by ea sports
for the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by action button dot net
The other day someone tried to tell us that the English idiom “the whole nine yards” had its origins in American football. “The whole nine yards” means that it’s fourth down with nine yards to go — that you’ve only advanced one yard since your last first down, that your opponent has prevented you from proceeding a single yard, and even in the face of such opposition you decide to go for it. This person was a complete rube. Nine yards is the length of ammunition belts for old machine guns. “The whole nine yards” means to keep firing your machine gun until it’s completely empty.
In a situation like this, we’d like to be able to point out how the expression “stick to your guns” actually does have a meaning rooted in the sport of boxing. It doesn’t! In fact, “stick to your guns” isn’t an expression with any kind of meaning at all. It’s just kind of there, and one vaguely gets the idea that either it means something, they think it means something, or a little bit of both.
At any rate, sticking to one’s guns is not quite what Electronic Arts (affectionately referred to as “EA”) did with their latest outing in the Fight Night series. The “guns” of the previous game had been this Revolutionary New Game Play System in which “damage” done to your character was represented solely by the visual presentation. If your guy was taking a lot of blows to the head, maybe his eye would start getting puffed up or his face would start looking dopier even than it was when you started the fight. You’d see this, and you’d go, “Oh, man. I’d better start blocking my head.” This was a bold step forward. We use the word “forward” without any irony or sarcasm. Having no meters on the screen is not just a Pretty Good Idea — it’s The Right Idea. People will argue about this one all the way up and down the avenue. Some people will say that games need life meters because games have always had them and thus “people” expect to keep seeing them, or else they’ll say that life meters “make sense” or even “make more sense” to “newcomers” than visual representations. Well, maybe they’re right about that second one. Most people need a doctor to tell them when they have testicular cancer, for example. And here we were about to say that movies don’t generally have a sliding timeline on the bottom of the screen for their durations. Glad we didn’t drag that debate out again!
Well, what we’re trying to say is that Fight Night Round 3 was bold and interesting because it made the no-Heads-Up-Display presentation the default. You had to go into the options to change it, if you didn’t like it. We reckon EA did some focus testing, and the focus tests were loaded with forward-minded people like us here at Action Button Dot Net, and the decision came back unanimous in favor of the no-HUD mode. Then, some higher-up at EA was playing the game months after it was released to critical acclaim, and probably made some sneering remark about how he couldn’t tell “who’s winning.” Then, some glue-sniffing ass-kisser who had been opposed to the HUD-less mode all along probably told him, “You can turn on a life meter,” and that was the end of that. Fight Night Round 4 ships with the HUD as the default option.
The thing about boxing is that nobody watching or participating in a fight is thinking about numbers. Any self-respecting fighter doesn’t think about sticking in there and winning by decision; they think of knocking the other guy out. If you’re not going into a fight thinking about knocking the other guy out, then if, by some chance, the other guy is thinking of knocking you out, he’s already at an advantage, even if he’s two feet shorter than you. How many newcomers to the sport of boxing-spectating dare to ask about the score during a fight? You know, it’s pretty safe to say that if you put a boxing match on a television in front of someone who’s never watched a boxing match, they’re not even going to know that anyone is keeping score behind the scenes. However, they see someone get hit in the head, and they immediately think — or say — “Wow!”
The only reason we’re writing this review (aside from the thing about us having received a copy of Fight Night Round 4 and being in the process of enjoying it very much) is to point out the interesting irony of how watching boxing is actually somehow a more emotionally active entertainment than playing a video-boxing-game. When you’re watching the sport, you’re not sure what is really happening — just that you’ve got two guys who are trying to beat the hell out of each other, and that, by the end of twelve rounds, maybe one of them is going to have some success at that. When you’re playing a video boxing game, you control only one of the fighters, and you naturally want that fighter to win, because that would mean you win. If you wish that fighter had a life meter, it’s because it would make it easier for you to know where your interests stand. In a real boxing match, at about round eight, you see one man who is very tired and another man who is slightly more very tired, and the ponderous catharsis that something bad is going to end up happening to either of them flows into your body and makes all your muscles twitch. That the two men are real, live people engages us more even than the fact that we’re controlling one half of a video boxing match, that we might lose a little bit of virtual pride if we lose.
The game smiths at EA Sports tried real hard, nonetheless, to make Fight Night Round 4 a much more interesting game than doing absolutely nothing at all. The press releases say:
No fight will be the same with an all-new physics-based animation system that recreates the full spectrum of true-to-life punch impacts, giving boxers a devastating arsenal of punches, blocks and ring movement. The new physics system allows for missed punches, glancing punches, knockout blows and for the first time ever, rough and tumble inside fighting. Fatigue, adrenaline, footwork and timing all come into play as you hammer away at your opponents.
(Actually, we got that from IGN.com; they probably got it from a press release, though.)
A physics-based animation system? They’re probably referring to the inverse kinetics — “IK” — the as-of-yet unsung game animation programming technique that articulates player character limbs according to their physical position in the game world-space. (See also characters’ hands in Assassin’s Creed, main character’s limbs in Shadow of the Colossus.) Truly, this “system” is used to decent effect in Fight Night Round 4. You know what they say, though: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; if it ain’t perfect, maybe fix it a little. Fight Night Round 4 ain’t perfect when it comes to the visual presentation. Sometimes punches come up looking a little limp. Sometimes boxers jerk back a little too much when they get hit, their legs flying up off the ground maybe an inch or two. We understand that this is to better communicate to the player the hardness of the punch, though, really, we’ve got life meters for that (lol).
The fighting is sticky and addictive. The punches don’t crunch and splatter as juicily as they would in Our Perfect Game. However, they don’t have to. The sound of punches landing isn’t as drug-like as it would be in, say, a Bruce Lee film. It’s only halfway there. This is perfectly acceptable! We understand that boxing is a real-life sporting event that, unlike the WWE, always involves someone getting injured For Real.
The question we come to, then, is this: what does EA want to do with this series? Obviously, they want to sell millions of copies, though what about the goals beyond that one? Do they want to create a beautiful simulation of this sweet sport? Do they want to do like America’s Army, and produce a piece of software that, potentially, could train aspiring participants? We reckon they don’t. We don’t really blame them. They’re after a form of solid, playable, enjoyable entertainment, and they’ve done made that piece of entertainment. You can play this thing for sure with two players, both of you all hooting like you’d been sniffing something, just whapping each other back and forth in the head. The dodges and weaves feel like God Hand for two players; each blow landed, the sound effect triggered lacking ever-so-slightly in thwap, feels like a small, wet victory. You can make your own boxer and you can embark on a quest for the title. You can fight people online. You can choose Mike Tyson and have the computer play as Muhammad Ali, and you can see what happens. Sometimes he wins. Sometimes he doesn’t.
How great of an entertainment is Fight Night Round 4? We can’t really say without pissing someone off. Someone, then — prepare to be pissed off: you should probably just start watching boxing. Boxing is a rigorously constructed sport with many deep, strict, and reasonable rules. Though the faces either the winner or the loser of a Good Fight would likely be turned away from any classy restaurant, boxing is without a doubt a Gentleman’s Contest. It’s as civilized a fistfight as two men ever have fought with one another. Why, it’s so civilized that, for the most part, the two men fighting against one another seldom have any kind of quarrel. How beautiful is that? Pretty beautiful, we say.
For the past couple of decades, boxing has had characters like Don King “promoting” fights in such a way as to, really, only make one fighter say something about another fighter in a semi-public context, so as to make the other fighter a little bit angry at that other fighter. “Promoting” a fight means “escalating a feud,” and in the case of a feud not existing, it means creating a feud — just fabricating one out of nowhere. If the latter fails, they simply make the people believe a feud exists, even if one doesn’t. We don’t think it makes us jerks or fairies at all when we say that wanting to fight a guy because he looks bigger and stronger than you is the best reason to fight a guy, and it’s the purest kind of love humans, as animals, can experience. If you don’t know anything about the other guy wearing gloves, you shouldn’t. Well, people like “professional wrestling,” and they like soap operas, so nowadays you can’t see a fighter who doesn’t have personality. It used to be guys like Muhammad Ali would talk stuff about them being the greatest fighter ever lived, though people back then just thought he was either silly or a lunatic, and other fighters, you know, they couldn’t really argue, because there wasn’t no one who could beat Muhammad Ali, back then. Now we’ve got Mike Tyson threatening to eat another fighter’s children (we reckon he’s just an actual schizophrenic, God bless him.)
In some sort of way, fight promotion has become almost as important as the fighting itself. Promoters are the reason persons non-familiar with the sport of boxing end up paying for the Pay-Per-View broadcast. Many of these people watch the fight and claim that it was boring — that the boxers didn’t hit each other enough, or else that it was all over so fast. So the promoters work hard to ensure viewers that the next fight will be more action-packed and epic. And here we are, with a generation of boxing, as a real sport, where most of the young participants going in have some kind of vague notion that a fight has to be bombastic and entertaining.
People like us, on the other hand, just kind of want things like boxing to be about all of the technical, scientific details. We’re not alone, either. See, if the people who made Fight Night believed boxing should be as bombastic and/or entertaining as possible even if it meant eschewing “realism”, they’d have made another Facebreaker game, or maybe a wrestling game. They didn’t do that. They went for a gritty, “realistic” boxing semi-simulation, with hundreds of punches and neat, physics-based animations.
However — and this is a tenuous “argument” at best — it feels too stuck in the middle of “simulation” and “entertainment”. Can’t something naturally be both? EA made Facebreaker when they wanted to give the people a boxing game that “casual players” could enjoy. They assumed casual touchers of videogames were, by necessity, blood-crazed lunatics whose only pleasure came from watching cartoons mutilate one another. On the “simulation” side, they went so far, in recent years, as to make their Madden series — a series so powerful and blockbusting that they don’t even need to put the word “football” in the title, anymore — have a virtual reality training mode. Like, how much more realistic can you get than a virtual reality training mode? It’s a game within a game! If the reflection of the Real World in Madden until then had neglected to reference video games, now the world of Madden is at least as complete as the real Real World. In fact, it’s quite possible more people play Madden than watch real football. That’s hardly scary at all.
So Fight Night Round 4 isn’t a strict, hard-core simulation of boxing. It’s got plenty of fun little hook-like touches to keep “gamers” engaged. Meanwhile, it’s “easy” enough to “play” both for “people” who neither play video games, nor regularly watch boxing. And clear on the other side, it’s “simple” yet “deep” enough for people who enjoy watching boxing and do not play videogames. What about people who do both?
What are we driving at? Who the hell knows! All these fighting sports games are so middling and waffling and weird. Even in the ones where you can’t turn the life meters off, it feels like you never know who’s winning, or, much more importantly, why. There’s never been a good wrestling game, we dare say (only Fire Pro comes close), and with wrestling-game-monopolizers Yuke now controlling the MMA realm as well, we might never see a good MMA game, either (well, EA is making one for next year).
What’s the perfect sports game? Wow, what a question. Let’s go ahead and say it’s Virtua Tennis. The latest Virtua Tennis, to be precise. It looks gorgeous, it’s playable with two buttons, and it’s realistic as it can get. You only need minimal familiarity with the sport of tennis to absorb any of the entertainment factor from watching someone (including yourself) win or lose. You couldn’t show this game to an alien from another planet and have him grasp it right away. Eventually, though, you can maybe teach a dog to yelp whenever you score a point, and maybe even teach him to recognize when you’ve scored a point even after you’re serving on the top of the screen instead of the bottom. It’s a great game, sticky and thumpy and so to the point. It’s so good, in fact, that for the past two years, it’s been seeing increased play in Japanese arcades. People who normally waste their time playing Guilty Gear are enjoying the sharp, no-bullstuff thrill of video tennis. And not only is the game a perfect and beautiful competitive video game — it’s a damn sharp simulation, too. Nothing that ever happens in Virtua Tennis can’t happen in real tennis.
Both tennis and boxing are sports, essentially, about one person trying to prove mathematically that he’s better than the other person. That’s a beautiful kind of contest. In tennis, a net and several meters separate the competitors. They can only prove their worth from a distance. In boxing, it’s all about hitting the other guy so hard he can’t get up for ten seconds. You’d figure boxing would make for a more entertaining game than tennis.
How could you make a boxing game that’s better than any tennis game? Well, tennis is probably easier to make a game out of because of how it’s got points and all. Boxing, again, has a much more abstract goal. At the same time, the goal is so much rawer and purer. It’s a compelling question for game designers. We’re pretty sure that the “no HUD” mode of Fight Night, with all the damage indicators being on-screen graphical changes to the characters, is a step in the right direction. Fight Night has a thing about it, like in Gears of War, how if you go for a while without getting hit, eventually you’re not quite as hurt anymore, though, unlike Gears, some of the damage lingers. Maybe this is a good start. On the other hand, do we really need a Corner Mini-game to choose what part of our boxer our trainer heals between rounds? We could go on listing bullstuff, though that probably wouldn’t help anybody get anything done. The simple truth is that we need less of this filler bullstuff, this stuff that some guy, maybe in a suit, thought “someone out there would probably like.” The in-game tutorial actually calls it a “mini-game”, though the default option for the “mini-game” every time is “Auto”. To be honest, we never played the “corner mini-game” — we just choose “auto” every time to get back to the boxing. Sometimes you’ll finish the “corner mini-game,” and the other player is still playing the “corner mini-game,” so the message “waiting for opponent” appears at the bottom of the loading screen.
How would we personally make Fight Night Round 4 better? We’ve already said that we think the fist-smack sounds are just sensational enough, and that, sometimes, the punches look like they’re landing limply. Let’s pick on the overall graphic design, then. The fighters don’t quite look “real.” We understand that video games have had something of a massive impact on the way people — even normal ones — view the real world, and that, in some cases, sometimes video game graphics are regarded as the default point of reference for something that might exist in the real world. We can’t really think of a sparkling example of the latter, so let’s mention Virtua Tennis again: it doesn’t matter if the people in Virtua Tennis don’t look perfectly real because
a.) you don’t see their faces while they’re competing
b.) the lighting and overall graphic design of the game is so charismatic and charming that its visual presentation achieves a status of “better than real”.
“Better than real” is a notion with many spellings. We sometimes prefer to refer to it as “A More Delicious Reality”. AMDR is difficult to attain, however, without resorting to cliches such as cartoonish down-dumbing of character designs.
Truly, “better than real” is what happens when the line passes clear through the right side of the uncanny valley graph. We seldom talk about this concept in the Regular World, though we would like to argue that Virtua Tennis‘s stylized tennis presentation qualifies as better than real. Maybe Fight Night Round 5 could try to look Better Than Real.
As it is now, the characters are clearly Not Real. They’re maybe on the steadily ascending side of the uncanny valley line. They look enough like people to make someone walking past the television say “Oh, it’s a game about boxing,” though not nearly real enough to make someone think, “Oh, it’s a televised boxing match.” Do we really want that, anyway?
It’s going to be years before we see “perfectly real” people in games. For the meantime, the guys in Fight Night simply look weird. Still, if we’d released this game maybe twenty years ago, it would have freaked people out more than it would now, because People Have Changed. Have you seen what the average bodybuilder looked like in, say, the 1950s? They looked great. As human aesthetics evolved as a science, bodybuilders have inflated, and grown veiny as body-sized scrotums. As the visual definition of a strong man increased, so did the look of action movie heroes. This made younger bodybuilders work harder. Everyone is trying to one-up someone else. It’s a good thing that video game graphic designers are already so adept at making characters that look like grotesque musclebound caricatures of human beings, because, sooner or later, the gap is going to snap firmly shut, and nobody will need to go outside anymore.
If it had to be one thing, it’d be the eyes: the boxers don’t give us any reasons to like or dislike them. They don’t seem like they really exist, even in their invented world. They just float. Maybe something along the lines of a Street Fighter IV facial expression freak-out is in order. The “people” would “hate” that, though. They’d consider it “silly.” Maybe the best solution is to just make the lighting more dramatic. Maybe throw some HDR and bloom in there. Make the spotlights above the ring crispier. Sure, it would remove the experience, visually, further from the look of a “real” boxing match, though it would also keep people from getting depressed as they stare at the screen for the duration of a match.
Our final suggestion for what to do with the game is delivered with a sigh: make the hits harder. When you hit someone in Fight Night Round 4, you feel kind of like you just hit someone. When you score a really hard, impressive hit, the screen grinds into slow-motion for a split second. This dramatization right here is enough to send televised boxing purists into a stompy fury, probably. We say, with conviction (and feel appropriately stupid for saying this) that it needs to be a little more dramatic. Because you’re not watching this game, you’re participating. We’re not saying they need to go all Burnout-like on the presentation — just make it, yes, crunchier.
We understand and admire the challenge developers at EA Sports undertake constantly. Every year, they work harder toward the noble goal of making a closer-to-perfect, more entertaining, more “faithful” representation of a sporting event. Every year, the sporting events incorporate more video-game-like graphical splashes. Girls the world over expressed concern regarding the advent of HDTV: what would happen to female stars, now that everyone could see their wrinkles?! Japanese television dramas regularly apply a tacky, wholesale, airbrushing feature to any close-up of a female star. Do people really not want the truth in any form? Watch boxing in HD and you can see every bead of sweat on a fighter’s forehead. How many viewers consider this grotesque? How much longer until they start applying a fuzz filter to the NBA? In case you don’t understand what we’re tying to say: congratulations — you might possess an IQ as high as 200. Maybe we’re tying to say something about how the boxers in Fight Night don’t look “real,” though they still end up looking something like “boxers” (the bigger issue would be how grainy and muddy everything in the background looks. It’s un-sumptuous).
What this all skirts around is the ever-so-slightly dreadful notion that, to most humans, “televised sporting events” are closer to reality than live sports. Most people will only ever see sporting events on television, and maybe it’s not entirely their fault. Maybe they live in the country. It’s not even funny to start explaining that magnitudes more people watch sports regularly on TV than would ever try to participate in a sport.
This says nothing of the nature of boxing as a human contest of endurance. Boxing as a contest is bound by so many rules that to merely watch it is to stand in active awe of the fact that someone would surrender his self to such rules. Something with that many rules, though, doesn’t make for the most compelling simulated entertainment. Making a videogame out of boxing is like putting a clown suit on a chimpanzee: a chimpanzee on its own is hilarious enough. You put a clown suit on it, and people start to wonder more about the person who put the clown suit on the chimpanzee than the chimpanzee itself. What we’re saying is, you dilute the visceral thrill of a chimpanzee’s existence by making it wear a clown suit.
To end this thing, we’ll talk about the announcers: they’re still kind of weird and distracting. When are they going to make a game where the announcers interrupt one another? Announcers are always interrupting one another in real sporting events. One guy is going off on a tangent, and then Something Spectacular happens, and one guy cuts him off. In games, it’s like, one guy goes off on a weird, scripted tangent, and Something Spectacular starts to happen, and then the guy’s tangent ends and the other guy goes, “A great series of punches by Tyson!” No stuff, Sherlock! It was a hecking excellent series of punches, thank you very much.
You know what would sound really great in one of these games — especially in a boxing game — is if they gave you multiple commentator choices, and if several of them were just well-known sports voices exclaiming, screaming, hooting, or melting down. That way, you’d have someone maybe making a fairy-like sound when one guy dodged a punch, and the same guy screaming like someone had just stabbed him in the thigh with a screwdriver whenever one boxer landed a clean hit on the other boxer’s head. We’re pretty sure the true path of the game design would reveal itself not ten minutes after completion of a prototype of this system.