Visually, Fight Night Round 3 is one of the most amazing games to hit the market. It's an odd place to start a review, but let's face it: The graphics in Fight Night Round 3 are incredible. So good, in fact, that on the Xbox 360 version of the game, EA Sports turned off the life meter, forcing gamers to instead rely on the physical appearance of their boxer to indicate his health and fatigue. This has not been possible until very recently, and Fight Night makes the most of its graphics to attract gamers. EA even released a demo version for download on the Xbox Live Marketplace, and that demo undoubtedly moved many units on release day.
But I begin the review with a discussion of the game's graphics not so much because I want to jump on the bandwagon lauding EA's visual achievements with the rest of the gaming press. Rather, the visuals in Fight Night Round 3 bring up an interesting issue that I think we'll see a lot more of in next-gen titles. See, the graphics in Fight Night are so good that if you squint you could swear it was real. However, I don't play my games all squinted up, and when you really examine the boxers you notice all the little flaws.
The boxers' backs don't heave and ripple as they should. It's odd – when you achieve a knockdown blow, the game goes into slow-motion and shows the boxer's jaw and cheeks deform with air-tunnel accuracy. However, this extreme detail is not carried to all of the other fleshy bits on the boxer. Biceps don't really pump, backs don't flex, bellies don't jiggle. These are the things that stand out, in large part because the textures and lighting and models are all so wonderful.
This shouldn't be seen as a direct criticism of the game, but more of an acknowledgment of the "Uncanny Valley". The uncanny valley is a term originated in robotics by Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori in 1970. Wikipedia
sums up the idea like this: "The principle states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathetic, until a point is reached at which the response suddenly becomes strongly repulsive."
Although originated in robotics, the term has come to be used extensively to describe certain kinds of computer graphics that look very, very close to reality, but also come nowhere near fooling us. Often, the disjunct between resembling the real object and the viewer's knowledge that the image in front of them is generated causes a "creepy" feeling that is described as the uncanny valley-- that place where even the most excellent graphics fall flat due to stilted movement, technical foibles, or any of a huge number of possible issues that might arise.
This is where Fight Night Round 3 falls: The Uncanny Valley. These boxers are realistic to such a level that they lose much of their life. Rather than playing Muhammed Ali, it's as if I'm playing with an Ali-style RealDoll (a truly creepy feeling). These are not living, breathing individuals; rather they are very well-done virtual action figures. They can be appreciated, and the new gameplay mechanics based on deforming and bruising the boxer's models are welcome, but they do not, in any way, seem "real."
Fortunately, the fact that Fight Night Round 3 finds itself in the uncanny valley does not ruin the game. In fact, if anything, the excellent quality models enhance the game (as I've mentioned throughout), and it is a boxing title built on solid foundations. Each of the previous Fight Night games have been well-received, and the elements that fans enjoyed from those games receive a polish and enhancement, but remain relatively unchanged.
The basic moves and commands are as one would expect: You have upper and lower jabs, hooks and uppercuts. You can throw a haymaker in any number of specialty styles, and there are the illegal moves like elbows and head butts. Boxers block, duck, and dodge, and in a tight situation you can clench up with your opponent to get a needed rest.
Fight Night does not focus on button-mashing or fast action. In fact, many of the fights go very slowly, and the strategy of the fight is the key focus here. Blows must be timed correctly, counterpunches are deadly maneuvers, and stamina is always an issue. Smart boxers generally prevail over sluggers who just want to get into a match an brawl.
Fight Night Round 3 also promotes the "Total Punch Control" feature, which means that you can control your punches using the right analog stick. This is the preferred method of control for the game, and after much training, I managed to get used to it. I never managed to enjoy it, though, so I switched the controls back to a face-button configuration and did much better at strategic punching. Total Punch Control led to chaotic fighting, and I don't think it's a good idea at all.
The career mode is the meaty part of Fight Night Round 3, allowing you to make a boxer from scratch or take control of a classic fighter like Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Joe Frazier, etc. You then move your boxer through the amateur rankings and into professional boxing. Complete a series of fights and you can take the belt in whatever weight division.
The career mode is long and offers a lot of options for building your boxer. Before each fight you play one of three training minigames: combo dummy, heavy bag, or weight lifting. You can hire different trainers to enhance different abilities, and carefully balancing your boxer's skills is tricky business: You don't want to give a speed fighter too much power, or a power fighter too much speed.
Career mode is fun, and the gameplay in all of Fight Night is excellent, but I would have really appreciated a story. Boxing movies are always popular, and the past year has seen films like Million Dollar Baby
and Cinderella Man
bring boxing into the forefront. It seems odd that EA Sports didn't add in a more developed story. In the case of the professional fighters you can control, they could have drawn directly from their real lives: Why not play the real career of Ali instead of fighting a dozen computer-generated boxers called "The Killer?" And in the case of created boxers, a bit of off-stage action and rivalry would have been nice. (And in all fairness I have to admit that at the very late stages of career mode there are a couple of out-of-the-ring events that come into play, but by that point it's far too little far too late.)
The other game modes are pretty stock. There is an online Xbox Live mode that works very well. Fighting on XBL is smooth and almost 100% issue-free. There is a classic mode, where you can play out classic bouts that pit professional boxers against each other. These are big-name fights, like the Ali-Frazier match-up, and they really bring home the history of the sport. In these fights the announcers take on a much more realistic role, informing players of the backstory that has led these two boxers to this point.
Overall, Fight Night Round 3 is a must-have for any boxing fan. It is a solid game with plenty of replay value, as long as you enjoy boxing. If you're looking for a boxing story, go rent a movie. And if you're skeptical, try out the Xbox 360 demo, or give it a rental. There is a lot to enjoy about Fight Night Round 3, and it is the kind of game that will attract new players to the genre.