Fight Night Champion looks the balls. Individual beads of sweat roll down foreheads and torsos textured so astonishingly well that, even close up, they're indistinguishable from those of a real human being. The cloth of a fighter's shorts hangs off his waist with the kind of frightening authenticity that would make fabric-master Nathan Drake himself swoon with jealousy. If you find yourself bullied to the side of the ring, be sure to check out the individual threads of fabric weaving together to form the rope. When you're sat exhausted in the corner of the ring, grimace at the blood trickling from the corner of a clobbered boxer's mouth. Gasp at the purplish hues of a swollen black eye. Marvel at the shadows under those chiselled six-packs. Cautiously observe the rings of hair that circle a nipple. The attention to detail on each boxer really is incredible.
But then the series has always been a looker. While other games have to render countless enemies, architecture and vegetation, Fight Night only has to worry about two boxers, a referee, a ring and an audience. I don't intend that to sound derogatory; the simple nature of the sport has allowed phenomenal technical achievement. "We're competing against ourselves" says Mike Mahar, the game's producer, who spoke of superior lighting, improved textures and new real-time physics, making this the best looking entry in the series to date. The game might drip with a thick new layer of varnish, but boxing aficionados are going to want more than a bit of polish to warrant splashing out another 40 notes on a better looking Fight Night Round 4. Good news then, because the fifth iteration of the series is the biggest departure from the formula yet.
True, repeatedly punching somebody in the face is great fun, but Fight Night Champion aims to give all that violence some context. Take 1977's Oscar winnning Rocky for example; a classic rags-to-riches yarn dressed in nylon shorts and big red gloves. Behind each punch is reason, purpose and character, the exact traits EA Sports is looking to bring into Fight Night Champion. In addition to a more traditional Legacy mode, the new game will include a narrative driven campaign penned by Academy award nominated writer Will Rokos - who wrote the screenplay for Monster's Ball. Champion mode, as it is known, puts players in the gloves of Andre Bishop, following him as he journeys to the top of the heavy-weight circuit. This is not something the sports simulation genre is used to and certainly a first for EA. It could ruffle a few feathers amongst more serious boxing fans, but with a renowned script writer and Hollywood actors lending their combined talents, there's every hope it'll do the boxing film shtick justice. Mahar assured me the game would be mature rated, allowing the brutal nature of the boxing scene to shine through.
I didn't get to see any of this first-hand, unfortunately, as the preview code was set up primarily for multiplayer matches. As I exchanged blows with other journos, however, I got the opportunity to check out the tweaked control scheme. Like Top Spin 4, Fight Night Champion aims to refine and simplify its well established control system with the intention of enticing new players. It's yet another example of the industry's ongoing obsession with accessibility, but don't be too quick to dismiss it. The Total Control punch system used in previous games might have been dropped, but the alternative is by no means inferior. Each type of punch is now mapped to a different direction on the stick; Skate-esque dexterity is no longer required to be any good. Taking that precision away from the player is risky stuff, but I certainly didn't find this hampered my chances in the ring. Using the streamlined set up, I was able to slip into a rhythm fairly quickly, and found it easier to react to my opponent's attacks than in previous games.
The omission of the number five in the title reflects some fairly fundamental changes the sequel has over its predecessors. The last boxing game with any sense of narrative was the ultimately disappointing Don King presents: Prizefighter from 2K, so it's nice to see EA Sports having a stab too. Whether serious boxing fans will be interested in this remains to be seen, but it certainly seems like a good idea to me. This, in combination with a 50-strong roster of boxers (including Tyson and Ali, who were both introduced in Fight Night 4), tweaked controls and a host of graphical improvements could make Champion the definitive entry in the series. Let's just hope the emphasis on accessibility doesn't put off long term fans of the series.
Fight Night Champion is available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 4.