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In the field of boxing videogames, the Fight Night series is still the champ. It’s the polar opposite of Punch-Out!! thanks mostly to its authentic presentation and its novel control scheme, which has players throw punches with thumbstick gestures rather than button presses. The latest addition to the franchise, Fight Night Round 4, is smoother, faster and more realistic than any boxing game to date. But for these very reasons, and because of some other puzzling changes, Round 4 is actually inferior to its predecessor.

Anyone who’s watched a real boxing match will immediately see the resemblance in Round 4. That’s because the game doesn’t exaggerate. Instead of the canned beat-’em-up punching sound effects of the last game, the blows in Round 4 are distinctly muffled, staying true to the actual sound of a gloved impact. Visually, boxers in Round 4 absorb punches more than in Round 3, so it’s rare to see a torso contort in response to a sharp attack. And while the game lets the sweat fly, you’ll rarely see any blood.

A couple of visual tricks aide this subtler approach: When you avoid a punch with a well-timed parry or dodge, the camera zooms in slightly, cluing the player in to a counter-punch opportunity. The resulting blow sets off a bright camera flash, amplifying the impact without relying on extreme body language. All of this adds up to an aesthetic that is more ESPN than Rocky V, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The problem with Round 4 is that it can’t decide whether it wants to be an ultra-realistic boxing simulator or a dramatization, as evidenced by conflicting design decisions throughout the game.

The addition of status bars to convey health and stamina is among the game’s greatest missteps. While convenient, these meters remove guesswork at the expense of excitement. It’s no longer necessary to pay close attention to a boxer’s motions to determine if he’s tired when the status bars provide a cheap workaround.

This conventional thinking carries over to the rests between rounds. Where the previous game demanded manual healing of your boxer’s wounds, Round 4‘s healing system has you spend points, earned by performing well in a match, for health, stamina and cut recovery. You can prep your boxer to re-enter the ring in a matter of seconds, eliminating the frantic attempts at recovery that made Round 3‘s interludes so exciting.

Despite these drawbacks, Round 4‘s Legacy mode is an alluring feature – for offline players at least. After creating a boxer or choosing an existing one, you compete and train according to an actual schedule while the rest of the boxing world buzzes around you. Title belts constantly change hands regardless of your actions, and every year new phenoms replace old ones. It feels like your boxer is part of an actual ecosystem rather than simply grinding up to the title bout.

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This new format certainly captures the boxing world better than Round 3, which never presented a wider view of the league, but it also makes some concessions. Gone from the latest game is the “rival,” an often dishonorable computer opponent whose growth mirrored your fighter’s own. Instead, boxers of comparable skill will occasionally challenge you, but these random encounters lack the intensity of a true rivalry. Round 4 also ditches money, along with the perks that came with it, such as fancy clothing and better equipment. It seems like a minor omission, but it actually diminishes the feeling of fame and fortune that comes with a title belt. Superficial as this may sound, becoming a champion feels a little empty without the bling.

Nonetheless, there’s something inherently addictive about building a boxer in your own image and molding him into a fighting machine. There are lots of nice touches to the Create-A-Boxer feature, including a long list of common last names – it never gets old hearing announcer Joe Tessitore yell your surname during a match – and the ability to map photos onto faces by importing them through Xbox Live or using the Xbox Live Vision camera.

The new training games in Legacy mode are also worthwhile, despite their brutal difficulty, because they actually help players hone their fighting skills. Chaining combos together on the heavy bag or hitting high and low on a moving target don’t just build your boxer’s attributes; these abilities become vital in the ring, so it’s worth your while to work on them instead of auto-training.

But Legacy mode is also where Round 4‘s cracks begin to show. Winning a match is often just a matter of throwing more punches. Rare is the fight that can’t be won by landing a lot of jabs and avoiding the opponent’s big hits, though it helps to land some counter-punches along the way. As a middleweight, knockouts weren’t my thing, so most of my matches ended in a decision. The outcomes were usually no-brainers, given that I’d thrown twice the punches as my opponent.

Indeed, Round 4 suffers from a stamina problem. There’s just too much of it to go around, to the point that you hardly need to practice restraint. Nowhere is this more evident than in the slugfests of online play. There’s no need to size up your opponent here; it’s just punch after punch until someone gets knocked out, and rarely does either boxer become too tired to fight. More punches obviously makes for more excitement, but when the consequences for overthrowing are so minimal, strategy loses out to pure attrition. Besides, isn’t Round 4 trying to be more realistic?

Despite its flaws, there’s still a lot to like about Fight Night Round 4. Like its predecessor, Round 4 invites new and old players into the sweet science with deceptively simple play, and it gracefully executes the primal rage of a fistfight. But the game stumbles on the line between realism and fantasy, committing to neither. Round 4‘s not the same fighter it used to be, but its punches still pop.

Bottom Line: Round 4 feels enough like real boxing to ditch its predecessor’s movie-like thrills, but not enough to faithfully recreate an actual fight.

Recommendation: If you highly value graphics and presentation, Round 4 is for you. Otherwise, make a beeline for the bargain bin and check out Round 3 first.

Jared Newman watched ESPN Friday Night Fights recently and was pleased to learn that commentator Teddy Atlas’ metaphors are just as contrived as they are in the game.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

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