The term “boxing videogame” conjured up little more than images of Soda Popinski and Mike Tyson until several years ago. Developers had largely ignored the genre until then, save for EA and its Knockout Kings series, but even that wasn’t nearly as memorable as playing as Little Mac in the Punch Out games. It was going to take something new to really re-capture gamers’ fascination with the genre. Enter Fight Night.
Fight Night was much more of a boxing simulator than previous boxing games, and it proved to be just the spark the genre needed. But if the first two games were a spark, the latest outing, Fight Night Round 3, is an old-fashioned fire. Although it starts out a little less-than-simulating, the game soon turns into a heavyweight contender in terms of simulating an everyday sport. People who have taken boxing classes will recognize this right away. But gamers looking for a mindless pugilistic title may be a bit disconcerted.
Fight Night Round 3 begins by creating a boxer, and the options here are just as deep as any of EA’s other sports games. Facial features, hairstyles, height and weight, tattoos, eye color and everything else you could want to customize is included. You can also determine your stance style, blocking style and punching style, with additional options in each of those categories becoming available after later victories.
As in previous Fight Night outings, the boxing mechanics are completely tied to the analog stick, although you can throw a few basic punches with a face button if you’re so inclined (it’s not recommended). The left thumbstick moves your fighter around the ring, while the right controls what type punch you want to throw. A jab, for instance, is as simple as moving the thumbstick either toward 10:00 or 2:00, depending on whether you want to throw it with the left or right hand. Likewise, a roundhouse is a quarter-circle turn on the appropriate side, an uppercut is a semicircle, and a full-on Haymaker is a combination of the two. Hold down the left trigger, and those punches all go to your opponent’s body instead.
But punching is only half of the sport, maybe even less, and that’s a lesson the game begins to teach after you earn your first belt. Some of this lesson comes into play when deciding what punch to take, as the more-powerful blows take more time to unleash and also leave your fighter vulnerable for a longer period of time after they’re thrown. Knowing when to punch and what type to throw is a critical lesson, much as it is in real-life boxing.
Unfortunately, it’s not until players have fought through eight or more fights that the consequences of not fighting strategically come into play. And at that point, bad habits will have already formed. The early boxers are timid, easily rankled, seldom dodge a punch and generally let you go in aggressively without needing to block. Then suddenly your opponents, most of whom are lower than your fighter statistically, will start knocking you out. They’ll start blocking. They’ll bob and weave, and they’ll make your fighter look foolish. In other words, they’ll expose all the bad habits that the game accommodated in your early fights and throw them unceremoniously to the virtual lions. There’s no learning curve, no warning, and no gradual increase in opponent difficulty. It’s a bit jarring, to say the least, and it will probably upset a few gamers who played through the first 10 fights or so thinking they’d cruise their way to the WBC heavyweight title.
If you’ve played the game from the beginning using the basic principles of boxing, if you’ve blocked, bobbed and weaved since your first fight in the gym, the awakening after the first eight or nine fights won’t be nearly as rude. That’s because as much as the early levels in Fight Night Round 3 might want to be accessible to more-casual gamers, the game is still a boxing sim, and you need to treat each fight as the real deal (no, not Holyfield). Even the between-fight minigames (combo dummy, heavy bag and weightlifting) echo reality, as they realistically add to or detract from your boxer’s statistics.
Ironically, certain other features are very anti-simulation, such as a new pair of boxing shorts adding 10 percent to your agility, or a new mouth guard boosting by 15 percent your ability to take head shots. Oh, and the prices for these things? Equally unrealistic. Honestly, who in their right mind would think a mouth guard would cost $720,000? Maybe the same developers who think you’ll pay $50,000 for a trainer…to train you for a single fight. Four weeks later. If trainers make 50K a month, we’re all in the wrong line of work.
It’s also a bit weird to face-off against famous boxers like Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Muhammad Ali before you even win your first belt, much less to scout them before the fight and realize they’re statistically lower than you. It would have been much more effective, not to mention more compelling from a single-player narrative point of view, to establish a rivalry or two in the early fights and face-off against those boxers repeatedly instead, gauging how you’ve both progressed in your respective careers. Honestly, the game’s introductory movie hints at a rivalry, so it would’ve been nice (and more immersive) to see this aspect explored rather than simply having players unrealistically face-off against some of the all-time greats early in their career.
“Realistic” is still the best way to describe the game’s graphics, though, because from the fighters to the environments to the crowds, it all looks remarkable. For context, the first time my wife saw the game, she asked what I was watching on TV. Each fighter bruises, swells and gets cut in real time. You can actually see them breathing heavier after a flurry of punches. Sweat flies off their heads after a quick jab, and they move their bodies in accordance with the stance you’ve chosen during character-creation. The downfall here is that the transitions between animations can be a bit stilted sometimes, making it obvious when the console has registered the fact that you want to throw an uppercut after a jab (then again, the controls seem slow to respond at times, so maybe that’s the problem). The animations also stall from time to time, probably in an attempt to indicate your vulnerability after throwing a hard punch, but it can still seem jarring.
The audio, on the other hand, is much like the gameplay: a mix of brutally realistic and frighteningly odd. The breathing, punches and overall noise from the fighters is perfect, and the ambient noise from the crowd is so effective that you’ll actually get caught-up in the cheers and catcalls after a rapid exchange or illegal blow. But the play-by-play announcer, for all of his attempts to sound informed, just plain stinks. His calls are late, you never know which “he” he’s referring to, he’ll indicate one fighter is just plan outmatched even when that fighter has easily lost the round…it’s just bad. For all the immersion of the game’s other audio, the announcer pulls you right back into an ugly reality. Mute the play-by-play, and this is a much more enjoyable audio experience.
Fight Night Round 3 is a fantastic boxing simulator, but only when it wants to be. Had the learning curve ramped up a bit more for casual players, it would do a better and arguably more realistic job of preparing them for later fights. The stat-building is also well balanced, although it seems odd that your boxer is statistically better than nearly every opponent yet can still be dominated in a fight. Fight Night Round 3 shows gamers just how strategic and tiring the sport of boxing can be. Maybe the next round will do so a bit more consistently and gradually.
- Gameplay: 8.8
- It does a great job simulating the sport, but it doesn’t start out that way. The controls can be slow to respond at times, too.
- Graphics: 9.5
- Outside of a little clipping and suddenly-bald-boxer errors, this game is absolutely incredible.
- Sound: 7
- The environmental and fighter-specific sounds are top-notch, but the announcer is absolutely horrid.
- Replay: 8
- Starting another career is doubtful, but online play will keep you going. A few more Xbox Live Achievements would’ve been nice.
- Overall: 8.8
- A mostly realistic boxing simulator that’s just a few sparring matches short of the title.