So, what’s the actual fighting gameplay like in FNR4? After all, that is the most important part of any game. In my opinion, it is very good for a boxing game, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
The best parts
The best part is the new physics system, which allows a variety of punches from different angles creating different impacts. Some of the punches can still appear a teeny bit mechanical at times, but it’s hard to complain. Gone is the stupid parry system from FNR3. The computer AI is also quite good, especially on the higher difficulty levels. You can’t just keep throwing wild punches recklessly or else you’ll get countered all day. You really have to take your time, figure out your opponent’s weaknesses and then exploit them. It makes the game tactical – you can keep your distance and jab your way to an easy victory, or you can take risks and go for the KO – it really is a risk-reward system.
One aspect of the game that has been emphasized is the counterpunching. When you dodge or block an opponent’s punch with perfect timing, you’ll get the opportunity to connect with a counterpunch, which not only does more damage but has a chance of generating a critical punch or instant knockdown. I must say it is done very well in FNR4, where time feels like it slows down, and there is a flash of light and enhanced sound effects upon impact. It adds to the technical side of the game, requiring players to think before they throw. Head movement, accurate punches and well-timed blocks have all become highly important. This goes a long way towards making a realistic boxing simulation.
Too many punches
However, this is where FNR4’s biggest problem in terms of gameplay comes in – it still plays too much like an arcade game rather than a simulation. Due to the speed with which stamina and health replenishes, coupled with the lack of damage caused by ordinary (ie non-critical) punches, you’ll find a tendency to throw punches all round, every round. They are not reckless punches, but because you can throw a lot of punches without getting tired or hurting your opponent, you generally will. As a result, there is rarely a round where I end up throwing less than 100 punches. In a 12 round bout, even when using a boxer with punching power over 90 in both hands, I can easily end up throwing over 1,000 punches, connecting over 50%, and yet still not knock the opponent out. Even when you stun an opponent, they recover with amazing quickness. In real life the effect of a single punch can linger for an entire fight, but in FNR4, they only last for about 10 seconds, no matter how devastatingly hurt a fighter is. The lack of realism can be frustrating.
On the other hand, throwing a lot of punches almost always guarantees a unanimous decision victory. The only times when I have lost rounds were when my boxer got knocked down. Even against aggressive opponents, the AI doesn’t throw nearly as many punches as you would expect. It would have been better if the AI adjusts the opponent’s punch output according to your own.
Therefore, if you want a bit of excitement, you’ll have to take risks and throw haymakers (which cause more damage but are slow as hell). However, the chance of a haymaker causing a knockdown or critical punch seems to be rather random. And when they connect, they don’t necessarily do much damage, even though it looks powerful enough to knock anyone out cold (especially since the opponent staggers backwards). Yes, you can wear your opponent down and finish them off in the later rounds, but if you want a quick KO, you essentially have to keep throwing haymakers and hope for the best. Even then you might not succeed. I could land 4 or 5 of Iron Mike’s trademark crouching left hooks in quick succession on an opponent 2 weight classes below and still not do much damage. It can look like a Rocky movie sometimes.
The probability of the opponent getting up from a knockdown is also quite arbitrary. They usually will get up after an initial knockdown, and depending on their ‘Heart’ rating, may get up from a second. Few get up after a third. When a KO is coming, boxers will usually try to get up and then fall, prompting the referee to call an immediate halt, or they just get counted out after a little struggling. No one ever gets knocked out cold.
Again, this is disappointing. A bit more variety would not have hurt. It gets to a point where you can immediately tell after the first few seconds following a knockdown whether your opponent will get back up or not, and the way in which it will happen. The game-makers could have, for example, allowed referees to end a fight immediately after a brutal knockdown without administering a count, or call a fight when a boxer is seriously hurt but not knocked down, or when they are being battered defenselessly without fighting back. That’s the type of realism I was expecting.
Pushing and clinching
Pushing and clinching are integral to the sweet science, and FNR4 has implemented both adequately, but not exceptionally. Pushing is a button and clinching is another on the control pad, which makes it easy to execute.
Pushing can be valuable to free up some distance or pin your opponent against the ropes or in a corner, but it’s not as effective as you think it could be. It is best utilized offensively when your opponent is hurt but they are blocking all your punches; a push can mess up the accurate guard or cut off their escape route. Defensively, a push is effective when you are up against an inside fighter who has got you trapped. While these sound good on paper, you’ll find that they don’t appear much in actual gameplay.
Clinching, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. Anyone who has seen a real-life boxing match knows it happens a lot, particularly in the higher weight classes. However, in a boxing game, you don’t want to turn your fight into a bore, so clinching becomes a rarity. In FNR4, your opponent tends to only clinch when you have them hurt, and boy, are they good at it. You can hurt your opponent 4 or 5 times in a single round and yet be unable to administer a knockdown. It adds difficulty to a bout but not realism.
The big improvement in clinching is that it’s not always the same animation – the type of clinch you end up in depends on the positions of the boxers. It’s a little thing but it adds to the overall package. However, unfortunately you are unable to throw punches in a clinch like they often do in real life.
Special and illegal moves
Of course, no good boxing game would be complete without special and illegal moves. FNR4 allocates a button on the control pad for each.
You’ll now be able to execute Mike Tyson’s crouching left hook, or Muhammad Ali’s famous shuffle with ease whenever you want. However, it is a shame that each boxer only has one special move they can execute (to the head or to the body), and the variety is somewhat limited. Moreover, the damage a special punch can inflict is sometimes not worth the risk of throwing it. They take a long time to throw and are easy to counter.
Illegal blows, on the other hand, are the same as always. An obvious head butt or low blow will do some damage, but not enough to warrant continuous use. Once will earn a warning, twice a point deduction, and if you keep it up a disqualification loss. It’s all very arbitrary – the first one’s always a freebie, even though it’s probably obvious enough to earn an immediate DQ in real life. It’s rather pointless really. If they really wanted to spice it up they could have added illegal blows in clinches, and have signature ones such as the Tyson ear bite!
Cuts and swelling
The cuts and swelling in FNR4 is not as obvious visually. The commentator will mention it, but you don’t see much more than the odd bruise or trickle of blood on a fighter’s face. I would have liked it more if the damage on a fighter’s face is corresponds closer to the Damage meter. You won’t see any closed eyes, grotesque swelling or deep cuts caused by punches (or head butts) in the game like in real life. Darn.
The worst part about it all is how a fight can end due to cuts or swelling. If your boxer has a low cuts/swelling rating, it can all end in a hurry. No warning from the referee, no checks by the doctor – you can be dominating the fight or be in the middle of a heated exchange, and ‘poof’ – suddenly it’s all over and you’ve lost. On top of that, the fighter’s face doesn’t even look like it’s bad enough for the fight to be stopped at all. It’s probably the one thing that has been handled worst in the entire game.
The ‘mini-game’ in between rounds where you can distribute the points you earned in the previous round is both good and bad. It’s good because it rewards the user for being smart with both offense and defense. On the other hand, it’s bad because it’s unrealistic and it feels like a bit of a waste of time. In real life, you don’t get to choose whether you replenish your health, stamina or recover from damage. Besides, the computer generally does a pretty decent job of choosing which meter to use your points on, so I usually just choose ‘auto’ and let it do its thing.
I would have liked to have seen the trainer getting in your face and giving you some constructive advice, or the cutman working a cut, pressing down the swelling or applying Vaseline, the fighter spitting out blood and rinsing his mouth. Stuff like that to bring out the brutality of the sport and the pain and damage of the punches landed.
So at the end of the day, while the fighting in FNR4 is fun and can be addictive, there are still a lot of problems that can be fixed. Most of them are minor, but can really add to the realism of the game if EA just put a little more thought and effort into it.