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Fight Night Round 3 review for PlayStation 3 rating:
If you've been following the evolution of the PlayStation 3, then you'll probably remember the Fight Night Round 3 demo that EA producer Kudo Tsunoda gave at Sony's press conference in May 2005. In it, the enthusiastic spokesman raved about how the added power of the next-generation system would enable the series to benefit from realistic physics and facial expressions -- capturing the emotion and drama of boxing like its predecessors never had. Of course, those of us that played the Xbox 360 game earlier this year know that, while it's still very good, Round 3 isn't what was promised almost two years ago. The new PS3 edition isn't either.

But enough of what the game could have been, let's talk about what it is... and that's a pretty damn good boxing title. After all, EA Sports Fight Night Round 3 on the PlayStation 3 is nearly identical to its 360 counterpart. Ported over by the team at EA Canada, it looks and feels like the same code we threw punches at in February... with a couple of slight enhancements.

Obviously, the biggest new improvement comes with the addition of "Get in the Ring". Played exclusively in the first-person perspective, Get in the Ring mode actually changes player tactics because of how its affects your depth perception, timing, and reactions to offense. When looking through your own fighter's eyes, it becomes apparent that the jab is more important than it is from the third-person point-of-view (speed is everything here). Predicting an opponent's moves are more difficult to do too, and thanks to an onscreen damage system, your fighter's own level of damage makes a real difference in your ability (thanks to the creation of blind sports from prolonged facial blows).

Visually, Fight Night sees a few upgrades as well -- but they're so minimal when in motion that its hardly noticeable unless you're actively looking for them (re: the sweat looks more realistic and the lighting has been enhanced). Despite this better appearance, though, the PS3 version of Round 3 does suffer from slowdown (it gets particularly choppy during the close-up replays or fast multi-punch combos) and is has bizarrely-pixilated crowds as well. On the plus side, the amount of spaz-bounce (those random jittery reactions caused by a combination of rope and rag doll physics) has been minimized compared to other versions... but it's still there. Regardless, Round 3 is still a great looking game. Fighter animations, licensed faces, the physiques, and every single one of the fictional and actual areas are extremely well done (the Staples Center is spot on).

Fight Night 3 screenshot
A huge haymaker

All of these new improvements follow several award-winning years; years in which the Fight Night franchise has won praise for its mix of arcade and sim-based gameplay elements. Naturally, that kind of recognition has set expectations rather high. After all, Round 2 had doubled the performance of the previous season's game in almost every category, and other than the unbalanced Haymaker punch, it had fine-tuned its mechanics to create one of the most responsive and enjoyable boxing games around. But where can you go from there?

In EA's estimation, the first thing to do was to tone down the over-clocked haymaker and bring the game back to basics. This is a very good thing. In real boxing, the most important punch you'll ever throw is the jab -- it sets up your opponent for other punches, is an excellent range-finder, and is just as effective as a defensive tool as it is an offensive one. EA understood this concept for Fight Night Round 3 because the harm that a jab or a jab-straight combo can do is greatly improved.

More importantly, though, cocking back a haymaker for super damage is no longer possible. If you remember from last year, you could literally chase your opponent around the ring with your shotgun ready to blast, taking shots along the way before eventually unleashing all holy hell with little risk. But if you telegraph that same punch this season (which is more obvious since the move has been slowed down), your opponent can easily knock that animation right out of you. Of course, this means that when haymakers land they'll rock your enemy more than they did before, but you'll have to work harder to get it there. It's a much more effective risk / reward system brings Haymaker abuse down several notches.

But the Haymakers and Signature punches aren't the only special attacks that players have at their disposal this year. One of the biggest new additions is the ability to intentionally throw "Flash KO" shots and perform "Stun Punches." The first maneuver is pretty self-explanatory, but the stun punch is probably the most dramatic. Land one of these and the viewpoint shifts to a first-person mode similar to "Get in the Ring," only this time, it's shown through the eyes of your opponent. From there, the advantage is certainly in your favor as the altered viewpoint makes it hard for your adversary to defend, and thus, he becomes much easier to knock down.

The good news is, that just like the two previous years, Haymakers and other special punches can only be pulled off by shadowing their motions on the analog sticks (with the exception of signature punches, which are still tied to buttons). This means that if you're a stick user, you'll have a clear advantage over button mashers as long as you know what you're doing. The bad news is that using the buttons are still a much faster and easier way to fight. A mix of both the sticks and the buttons will bring the best results (you can use the SIXAXIS to foul now too).

Fight Night 3 screenshot
You gunna get knocked out

Fight Night Round 3 has also managed to include a couple of other little goodies that adds depth to the gameplay... the most obvious of which, is the inclusion of actual boxer styles to vary fighting techniques. Not only does this mean that you can expect to see different stances and animations such as "Mummy" and " Elusive," but that you'll also see different punching styles (Fast, Slugger, etc) and defensive maneuvers (Cross, Philly Shell, etc). No matter what style they use, though, players can switch from orthodox to the southpaw stance on the fly, as well as lean on the ropes, or even taunt their opponent while moving.

All these adjustments to the gameplay make Fight Night Round 3 an even better multiplayer experience than before. On the PS3, it mirrors the Xbox 360 setup with ranked and unranked matchmaking, complete stat tracking, headset support, and all the other bells and whistles one would come to expect. EA has even included an "Analog Players Only" room for those that don't like the button mashers. Despite where you play, though, gameplay on pre-release servers was smooth and fast. As a result, the amount of fun that two people can have is pretty high. Fight Night no longer boils down to two people engaging in slugfests or counter-parties. Now, the multiple styles and more realistic boxing mechanics make fights with humans play out better. In fact, it's probably one of the best two-player experiences on the PS3.

Unfortunately, the single-player experience isn't all backrubs and candy canes. Even at the hardest difficulty setting, most AI boxers are as dumb as they come and offer little strategy or defensive wisdom. To their credit, the more aggressive opponents will get overzealous with super-fast combos once you've won a title or two, but if you use regular head movement and frequently change defensive positions, it'll scare them into not throwing punches. Out of 50+ fights against the computer on "Hard", I never lost -- that should give you an idea of how well an advanced player will actually do. If you do fall into that category, you can handicap yourself a bit with "Get in the Ring," (which is harder) but not by much.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the entire game, though, is how substandard the career feature is. A lot different from last year, the career mode has taken some curious backward steps from last year. To start, players are now forced to complete an entire amateur career before going pro (unlike in Round 2, when you could skip it entirely). This forced direction is because EA has incorporated a new "Rival" feature and the amateurs are used to introduce you to your main foil. It's a great addition in concept, but the execution isn't very strong. I ended up fighting against two guys that were my "rivals" in a single career four times each, and destroyed them every time. Anyone who follows boxing can tell you, if one guy knocks out the other one-sidedly over and over again, the media hype and competition between the two isn't exactly heated.

Fight Night 3 screenshot
Thats gotta hurt

Another curious omission is the basic stuff that you'd expect to see in a game about boxing -- specifically ranking lists and current title holders. This time, players move up in opponent class by filling popularity meters that take them to their next sponsored event as they win. These sponsored events include specialty match-ups backed by real-world companies like Burger King, Under Armor, and EA itself. In addition to moving up the unseen ladder by winning these contests, you also unlock a number of new goodies like official attire sets and "The King" to serve as your promoter for a nice ratings boost. It's not a stretch in the least to say that EA Sports Fight Night Round 3 is one of the most commercial games I've ever played.

Fight Night's last big shortcoming is primarily related to its presentation. The EA Sports Cutman, for instance, is only half the size it used to be and moves along faster than before. Mid-round pauses that allowed you to stop the action and check out various angles or customize replays have been taken out as well, and now you can only replay specific moments following a knockdown or the vignettes at the end of a round. At least the goofy press conference fights (that flat out sucked) have, thankfully, been removed.

I do want to make it clear, though, that Fight Night Round 3 is still an entertaining game, and I don't want to overstate the negatives and underplay the positive ones. Unchallenging and less engaging that the career mode may be, there are still a number of ways to pass the time. The returning and popular Hard Hits "knockdown-only" action mode, for instance, is a fun alternative to the traditional boxing match (and in this context, is worth playing the CPU). The Rivalry mode is another little bonus worth mentioning too, as it recreates some of the greatest contentions in boxing history (Ali-Frazier, Robinson-Lamotta, etc). I will admit that I miss last year's legend Rocky Marciano, but I'll keep my fingers crossed for next year.

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