Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fight Night Round 3

Electronic Arts is an interesting company.

I forget all the time that people get to work for Electronic Arts because they're good. It's not the low minor leagues of software developers. It's the majors.

When it comes to EA Sports, they have assembled some of the absolutely top developers in the world. Most of whom wind up looking like absolute shit. Madden? A franchise totally adrift, a kluge on top of a kluge on top of years-old code. NBA Live? Nice engine, bad gameplay choices. NHL? It's been so long that I can't even remember the last decent version. FIFA? An absolutely joke compared to Winning Eleven.

MLB? MVP had a beautiful new engine with an absolutely outstanding design and they never really finished the game. Then they lost the MLB license. I hear good things about the college game, so maybe they transitioned it successfully.

Do you see a common theme here? These sports franchises are like battleships--they're almost impossible to manuever. And it's impossible for one person on a battleship to be seen. All you see is the battleship.

That's EA sports. Individual accomplishment are not recognized. Personalities do not emerge. EA wants us to see the battleship, not the sailors.

Tiger Woods? Different, to some degree, mostly because of Headgate, I believe. It's uniformly of higher quality each year than the team sports games, and some years it's not even close.

Here's the other problem that seems to plague EA Sports: their games don't improve from year to year, at least not as often as they should. The graphics do, but not the gameplay. Winning Eleven gets better every single time. Konami is able to evalute their game and generally correctly identify what needs to be improved. EA is almost totally unable to do that. Madden does things like add recordings of actual NFL quarterbacks barking the signals (which is absolute, complete fluff) and totally ignores basic gameplay issues--year after year after year.

It's incredibly disappointing, really. Which brings us to Fight Night.

Fight Night Round 2 was a huge improvement over the previous version. More than any game EA Sports has released in years, it made logical improvements. Not perfect, but a terrific game.

So what was wrong with it? The Haymaker system was unbalanced, and on the lower difficulty levels, too powerful. The rise through the ranks was somewhat generic--guys had different styles, but only a limited number, and the fights started to feel very familiar. And it didn't convey the desperation of the sport very well--flash knockdowns, one-punch knockouts, those kinds of stunning momentum-changing events we occasionally see just didn't seem to exist. So there was a linear, grinding aspect to the game. Every boxing game ever made has had this problem, really, so it's always been endemic to the genre, really.

One more thing: I've been arguing for years that sports games need to get rid of all the HUD crap on the screen: kicking meters, shot meters, swing meters, "radar"--and in boxing, all the damage and fatigue indicators. I shouldn't be looking at meters to tell me if I'm getting my ass kicked or I'm tired--I should be seeing it on my fighter's face and how he moves.

So overall, Round 2 had some issues, but at its heart, it was a fun, excellent game.

So yesterday I saw an interview with Kudo Tsunoda, the Executive Producer of the upcoming Fight Night Round 3, in Official Xbox Magazine. Look at these excerpts:
...we have created 3 "Impact Punches"--punches that can change the course of the fight if they land. The haymaker this year is a much slower punch, so it is harder to land--but it does more damage. Our new Flash KO punch will devastate your opponent with one shot...Our new stun punch triggers a new first-person perspective mode in the ring where you can drop your opponent with one big punch. These are all extremely high reward--but high risk as well.

...in the last two versions of the game...you had to fight nearly 50 fights to win a title belt--which took a long time. And there was nothing to keep you motivated during your career to fight the people you were fighting. It was a series of nameless drones you had to beat to get your title belt. For Fight Night Round 3, we have a purpose behind your fights, a purpose behind every punch by building rivalries in your career. There are other boxers in your weight class that you develop as rivals...beating you early on, and then facing you in rematches--epic three-fight trilogies like Ali vs. Frazier--this all going on in your career mode.

...With Fight Night Round 3's new HUD-less gameplay, there are so many in-the-ring indicators as to what is going on...A boxer's health is reflected by the expression on their face when a punch lands, how hurt their facial expression looks...how much damage they have (cuts, bruises, swelling), and their body langugage. For how tired they are, we developed procedural animations to cause all of a boxer's body movements to be affected. Punches get thrown slower and at different trajectories...And you can even see them breathing harder and their faces huffing and puffing.

Hell has frozen over.

Somebody at EA Sports totally, absolutely gets it--maybe not this guy, specifically, but somebody on his team sure does. I'm going to go buy a baton and parade up and down my driveway. Right now.

Shipping for the Xbox 360 on February 20, if you're interested.

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