Friday, March 18, 2005

Fight Night Round 2 (Xbox): The Sweet Science

When Fight Night came out last year, I remember writing that it was one of the best-designed sports games I'd ever played. Everything was absolutely first-rate, in fact, except the speed of the action. It was frantic, ridiculously so, and it was a deal-breaker. It made a great game into a waste of time very quickly.

So I had very low expectations for Fight Night Round 2. Not interested. Then I saw it at a PS2 kiosk in a local EB about a week before its release and played for a few minutes. Much to my surprise, the game was significantly slower and felt entirely playable. Now, thanks to Gamefly, I've put in about ten hours with the game and it is a superb sequel. The game design is even better than last year, the boxing is far more enjoyable, and there are a slew of new features that have been needed in a boxing game for a long, long time. So what makes this game so much better than last year's version?

1. Flash knockdowns
. I don't think these have ever been included in a graphics-based boxing game. Traditionally, you pound on your opponent, his health and stamina bars go down, and when they're empty he gets knocked down. Very, very linear. This year, FINALLY, there are flash knockdowns. One great punch can put your opponent (or you) on the canvas. They don't happen very often, but just the fact that they can makes the game more interesting.
2. Physical damage. It is incredible to see the fighter's faces and the damage they take in this game. Stunning, really. And, as part of the outstanding game design, you see this damage up close, because in-between rounds there is a mini-game that allows you to heal your boxer. The idea of taking an outstanding feature (realistic facial damage) and incorporating it into a mini-game to highlight it is sensational game design.
3. Uncertainty. Again, most boxing games are very linear. You're either better or you're not, and then it's an inevitable march to a conclusion and RSI. In this game, at the higher difficulty levels rounds ebb and flow in much more realistic fashion than I've ever seen before.
4. Knockdowns. For years I've been complaining that there is no drama in boxers recovering from knockdowns--they're either guaranteed to get up, or there's an animation very early in the count that tips off what's about to happen. Now, boxers sometimes get to their feet but can't stay standing, and there are enough different animations that it's impossible to know in advance.
5. Game speed. There's no question that the pace is still higher than real boxing, and sometimes significantly so, but it's so much slower and more manageable than last year. It's possible to stick and move with the jab this year. And there's no need to throw hundreds of punches a round.
6. Analog punching. A brilliant innovation last year, it works even better this year, and includes "Haymakers" with either hand. It's the best interface innovation in sports games since Headgate Studios invented the mouse swing for golf games.
7. Animation. Already very impressive last year, the quality of the animation this year is off the charts.
8. The clinch. Again, new for this year. It works extremely well and is another example of how the design team has captured far more of the complexity of boxing tactics this year.9. Getting off the canvas. Last year, you had to make two blurry images converge (clearing your head, in other words) to recover from a knockdown. Trying to line up two images using the analog stick was tremendously difficult, and there was no way to practice. This year, you still line up two images, but not with each other--there's a target in the center. It's much more fair and much more balanced.
9. A.I. Opponents understand how to cut off the ring. They know how to cover up when they're in trouble and they know how to clinch.
10. Corner men. You'll have one, and he'll talk to you about how the fight is going and what you need to do. The advice, impressively, is very context-sensitive in terms of how you've been performing.
11. Polish. This game is so polished, it gleams. It has the same level of polish as the NBA Street series, which is high praise.

I've seen several reviews that talk about "Haymaker" punches and how easy they are to throw. Since they do more damage than a regular punch, it unbalances the game, they say. This is a very easy way to tell how long the reviewer played the game, because that dynamic only exists on "Easy" difficulty. So if they say the Haymaker ruins the game, they played it for a few hours on Easy and wrote the review. And it's true that on Easy level, Haymakers unbalance the game to some degree. It's a good difficulty level for beginners, though, and Haymakers are fun to throw. As soon as you move up to even Medium difficulty, Haymakers are far more difficult to land and are likely to get you punched in the face. Fights on Medium difficulty last far longer, they're brutal, and they're draining. Seeing your fighter in the corner between rounds with his face all torn up, frantically trying to heal him via the mini-game so that he can continue, is just brilliant.

Without one unfortunate and significant flaw, Fight Night Round 2 would be a runaway candidate for Sports Game of the Year in 2005. And it still might be, but in spite of how near-perfect the design of this game is, there is one huge mistake: the camera angles. They suck. Just like NBA Street Vol. 3, it's remarkable how every single camera angle is inadequate. And it's also remarkable that, just as in the NBA Street series, the camera angles were fine in the last version. The awkward placement of the available cameras also means that moving around the ring may induce camera movement and rotation that's tremendously annoying. It's a ridiculous mistake to make with a game that otherwise features such uniformly excellent design.

Even with the camera issues, though, the game is remarkably compelling, a beautiful representation of the sweet science.

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