Once Upon A Time...
The story of FNR3 began on the Xbox 360 Marketplace when, in early January, Microsoft posted "the demo," a 486.44 MB masterpiece of sampling. The widespread availability of this demo instantly transformed the potential of FNR3's selling power. What was once the pinnacle of a niche sports genre, was now the poster child for the next-generation.
Contender or Pretender?
We'll spare you the "unparalleled visuals" rhetoric, anyone that's played the demo or just paid attention to the word on the street knows that FNR3 offers spectacular detail when it comes to trading blows between some of history's finest fighters. If for some reason you've been living under a rock, we do apologize, but doting on the finer points of virtual sweat and blood is something we'll leave up to HD Beat. We will say that we've played the game on both an HDTV (LCD) and a standard-def tube, and while the latter is no eyesore, FNR3 may end up being motivation alone to splurge on that overdue upgrade.
Shall we nitpick? If you say so. FNR3's crowds do suffer from the white-suburban-mom syndrome. But who knows, maybe boxing is the new soccer. And what's with the synchronized fist pumping? Didn't anyone tell EA that died with the Arsenio Hall Show? Still, if you're spending a lot of time critiquing the onlookers than you're also spending a lot of time on the canvas. In reality, the shallow depth of field and smooth crowd animations make for a satisfying background when you're focused on the fight.
The arenas come in all shapes and sizes, from the local gym, to a low-key warehouse, to Madison Square (and apparently, the same trio of ring hotties works all of these venues). If you've grown accustomed to the gym's low lighting (featured in demo), you'll be stunned the first time you step into the ring at The Staples Center. You feel the spotlights and the thousands of eyes watching as your body shimmers from the intense light reflecting off of your sweat. The gradation of these effects really stands out, and left us wanting more. It may be wishful thinking, but we'd love to see EA release some additional fighting environments-the outdoor stadium used for the "Rumble in the Jungle" (Ali vs. Foreman) comes to mind.
The corporate sponsorship that litters the arenas isn't necessarily distracting, but it is wack. For example, the Aragon Ballroom is plastered with Burger King logos. Thankfully, most of the fight is contained in a tight frame and the ads are hardly noticeable (it's not like they dance across screen), but we would have welcomed a price drop in light of all the BK, Dodge, and Under Armor inserts, which have been incorporated into everything from the backgrounds, to the boxing gloves, to the achievements ("Win The BK® Invitational Fight"), and even the trainers-yes, like Ma-Ti of the Planeteers, the Burger King mascot is all about tapping the power of Heart. Like we said, wack.
Let's Get Ready To Rumble
Despite these misgivings, FNR3 is simply a joy to play. It's obvious that the development team has poured a lot of energy into the gameplay. The controls are tight and the use of the right analog stick to throw all of your punches is (still) genius, lending itself well to devastating combo strings. While there are moments of awkward clipping (usually in replays), punches generally land how and where you want them to. Players used to FNR3's current-gen predecessors might notice a dip in overall game speed, but once you get a feel for it, you'll likely appreciate the realism here. And don't be fooled, a fighter with a shot of adrenaline can fire off a series of brutal punches that's as fast as it is deadly.
FNR3 is best with a room full of friends, but Xbox Live is a suitable substitute. The Live menu presentation is extremely dull compared to the offline offering and is not user-friendly. However, once you've done some poking around you'll be able to customize a match how you like or simply jump into a standard or ranked match. We never experienced any problems with lag and had little trouble finding opponents that proved to be challenging, but still in our league. Curiously, there are a series of online achievements that can be earned, but don't contribute to your gamer score. Is the gamer point concept really that hard for EA to figure out?
If you'll be playing solo, you'll inevitably dive into Career Mode. This is the most disappointing aspect of FNR3, and what prevents the game from earning an outstanding score. There is simply no narrative to capture your imagination. The process is as dry as signing a contract, completing one of three training mini-games, and then fighting. That's it. You repeat this again and again, sometimes unlocking pricey equipment, or achievements (limited to winning sponsored fights), or title belts.
There is some vague notion that there are AI-controlled rivals that are shadowing your career, but, if you mute the dull commentators as we did, you'll likely miss out on this fact all together. Despite facing these opponents multiple times throughout your career, you'll never know anything about them. And to be honest, without using your imagination, you'll never know anything about your own fighter. At the least, EA could have included some Punch Out-esque cut-scenes.
It's impossible to know where you rank in relationship to the other fighters. Rather than featuring a ladder system, EA has opted to display your fighter's status via a popularity meter. Every once in a while the meter will fill up and you'll be forced to compete in a title fight.
We also found the mixture of real-life and EA-created fighters to be a bit disorienting. Early on in your career you might find yourself beating the piss outta Sugar Ray. That just doesn't seem right. As for the EA-created opponents, they range from generic to absurd, like Sven Fleming, a lanky white boy with spiked hair and blue-flamed shorts. Curiously, at least one of the EA-created characters is trademarked. We came across one "Ko Rey Mo," a pin-headed bear of a man, covered in tribal tatts with a giant crown inked on his chest. Was Rey Mo an artifact of some deserted attempt to develop fictional characters? Sadly, we will never know. Rey Mo met his end with a crushing right hook to the nose. His eyes rolled back, his knees buckled, and he crumpled backwards into the ropes, slowly tipping over onto the canvas as we returned to our corner. KO.
FNR3's lack of story arc is forgotten in moments like these. The art of boxing is so satisfyingly portrayed (and exaggerated) in FNR3 that, whether it's being practiced with an old friend or an opponent as shallow as Rey Mo, it's pure fun. It's reign might be as short as Buster Douglas', but for now, FNR3 is the undisputed champ of the Xbox 360.
Overall Rating: 8.5 / 10
[Note: Joystiq Review and Overall Rating apply only to the Xbox 360 version of Fight Night Round 3]