When it comes to beat 'em ups I'm not an expert. I can throw a dragon punch and make Blanka electrocute people, but that's more or less it. Boxing games are different though. For whatever reason a boxing match feels more tactical - it's a sport not a video game. Of course, hardcore Street Fighter fans will argue that their game is far more tactical, but in Fight Night Round 4 one wrong move can see your fully fit brawler hitting the canvas as if he's just been sniped from the top tier. There's no Sonic Boom to the face, just a solid upper cut to the chin.
Fight Night Round 3 set a new visual benchmark on its release three years ago, but it was the total punch control, with your boxer's hooks, jabs, uppercuts and more all performed with a flick of the right analogue stick that made it stand out. It was far from perfect though, and many people switched to the more traditional button control scheme. EA has refined this system to make it far smoother in Round 4 and as a result there's no option to use buttons - it's total stick control or nothing.
Jabs are performed by flicking the right stick diagonally forward left or right, hooks are straight movements to the right or left then up, and uppercuts are diagonal down and then round to up. On top of this there's a full set of body punches, performed by holding down the Left Trigger/L2 and flicking the stick straight in one of six directions. Haymakers are now performed in combination with Right Bumper/R2, you can throw a signature punch with A/X, an illegal blow with B/Circle and clinch/push away with Y/Triangle.
It's all incredibly intuitive and rarely will you try to throw one punch and perform another. Perhaps more crucial to the gameplay is the defensive side of the controls. Your boxer's movement is mapped to the left stick, and it's essential to get into the optimal position for your fighter's style: up close if you want to get in your opponent's face, or from distance if you've got a long reach and want to control the fight with your jabs. Dodging is performed by holding Left Trigger/L1 and moving the left stick in the desired direction, blocking is Right Trigger/R1 and the right stick, and you can weave by moving the left stick down or up and then round and towards your opponent.
This is it as far as the basics are concerned, but simply throwing some punches and randomly moving your head about won't get you very far. The key to a successful fight is timing. Time a dodge so that your opponent swings and misses and you'll gain a split-second opening that will allow you to counter punch, potentially stunning him. The same is true for a well-timed block, again giving you a small window to counter punch in. A successful counter punch will cause a momentary yellow glow and if you're lucky will throw your opponent back in a dazed state.
When stunned your opponent won't regenerate health so they're highly susceptible to being knocked down. In this state your opponent's movement is also slower, their punches are less accurate and their blocks aren't as water tight. This makes a quick flurry of attacks essential, or in the reverse a quick retreat with your gloves raised the only viable strategy. A fight may be moving along completely in your favour, but the counter mechanic means that it only takes a small misjudgement to find yourself on the back foot and against the ropes.
A completely valid tactic is to play for points, slugging through round after round and playing it safe. It won't make for a classic (indeed, the best fights get added to a kind of virtual scrapbook), but a win's a win. In fact, during the game's Legacy Mode (the meat and bones of Fight Night Round 4) you'll often have to grind out results. The danger of a flash knockout or a sudden swing in momentum means that you'll naturally veer on the side of caution if you think you're on top, rather than taking some risks and opening yourself up to a counter. With your fighter's stamina to take into account, too, it pays to be smart.
Those disappointed by the career mode in Round 3 will be pleased to find that Legacy Mode in Round 4 is considerably more impressive. As well as trying to increase your rank you need to rise up the ladder of greatness, from Bum and Prospect to Ring Legend and Greatest of all Time. Each of these Legacy Ratings requires certain objectives to be completed, such as winning a Friday Night fight or getting below a certain rank. During your career, in which you schedule your own fights and take part in six varied training mini-games to increase your stats, you're essentially just fighting again and again, but the way it's structured is far better than the almost non-existent career mode in Round 3.
Despite the huge improvement in this area the career mode isn't nearly as engaging as that found in Don King's Prizefighter, but there's a decent sense of progression and towards the end of your career you'll likely genuinely regret a few mishaps during your early fights, which will probably be the difference between ending your fighting career as a plain old champion and not all-time great. The email system seems largely pointless, giving you vaguely important info between each fight, and the sense that you're actually becoming this superstar boxer could certainly have been greater - there are awards and better fighting venues, but Prize Fighter comes out way ahead in this area, even if it's more or less all it did right. The fighter roster is quite excellent, though, giving you a mix of current favourites and all-time greats, across all the weight classes, and the Create a Fighter tool is top of the class too - the face mapping is a must do activity, if only to see yourself as a ripped 6'8" goliath.
As well as the time consuming Legacy Mode there's the expected multiplayer functionality, including online play. This too has seen big improvements over Round 3, so now you've got an online world championship, boxer sharing, video uploading and rating and the ESPN online news ticker (even if it's sometimes a bit too American focused and a little out of date). Fighting with a friend (or enemy) is the best way to experience the game as you're more likely to be punished for sloppy fighting and the pay-off for landing a devastating punch is far greater. Thankfully the online performance was solid during our handful of fights, with little noticeable lag.
We've got this far without mentioning the presentation, but it's a highlight of the game. Fight Night Round 4 looks staggeringly good at times, with the illusion only being broken when the game registers a knockout blow for a punch that appeared to do little more than graze a cheek. The fighters look incredible, the physics-based animations are superb and the slow motion replays can be drooled over again and again. Fight Night Round 3 looked great for the time, but this takes it to another level. It all runs at a silky smooth frame rate too, which gives the fights a sense of speed that Round 3 simply didn't have. It's a shame that the commentary becomes repetitive after only a few hours, but I guess we can't have it all.
If you're into boxing you're going to love Fight Night Round 4. The physics-based fighting is simply brilliant, the career mode will last you an age and the online functionality is solid. If you're not into boxing Round 4 is simple to learn, so you could still become the next Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali with a little practice. It's not perfect, mainly down to a slightly soulless career mode, but it's still a significant step up over Round 3 and more or less an essential purchase.