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Let’s call it the next-generation difference. Nearly two weeks ago I sat down to play Fight Night Round 3 on the good old Playstation 2. It was a good boxing game, with tight controls, a decent career mode, some nice additional features and respectable graphics. I’m not a boxing fan, which always limits my interest in these things, but I could appreciate that, if you were into boxing it was a good game. Not fantastic, not astounding, but very good.
A few days later I sat down to play Fight Night Round 3 on the Xbox 360, and nearly suffered a dislocated jaw so fast did it drop open in amazement. Whereas you could appreciate that the character models in the PS2 version were accurate and realistic, in the Xbox 360 version they simply looked real. The skin glowed with sweat, trickles of perspiration worked their way down the fighter’s body during the fight, the camera seemed to move more dynamically, reacting to the action in the ring with astonishing focus. The ropey, two-dimensional background graphics of the PS2 version were a thing of the past, replaced by lifelike gyms and auditoriums. Photo-realistic? Sure, you can pick holes, but – unless you’re really looking to pick holes – you bet.
And here’s the thing: it’s not just eye candy. If you want an indication of where the next generation might be going, this is it. In the movement and positioning of the camera, and in the rendering and animation of the fighters – even in the sound – there are hundreds of cues designed to give the player a feeling of momentum, impact and pain. Look at the way the camera neatly shifts focus and position when you’re taking heavy blows, as if to show just how unsteady you are on your feet. When you’re about to go down, the sound drains out to reflect your steady loss of consciousness, and there’s a similar effect when your opponent is on the verge of losing it; you can feel time slowing down, waiting for you to land the killer punch.
You see, if the game defaults to a display with no onscreen health or stamina metres, it’s because you really don’t need them. You don’t need a gauge to tell you that your opponent is on the ropes – it’s there in his movement, his gait, the sound of his breathing and the sweat pouring down. You can see your own fighter’s confidence boosting as he steps cockily around the ring, or see him tiring as he lets out wave after wave of quickfire jabs to little effect. We’ve seen many of these cues before, but never so well orchestrated or combined in such a sophisticated manner. This is fantastic, cutting-edge stuff.