Nearly four years have passed since Electronic Arts’ initial foray into mixed martial arts, aptly entitled EA Sports MMA. With the UFC license under THQ’s control, however, the game lacked star power and fell by the wayside despite offering good, accessible gameplay. Fast forward and THQ has tapped out to bankruptcy, allowing EA to swoop in, grab the license and create EA Sports UFC for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles. Let’s cue Bruce Buffer because… it’s time!
Arguably the single greatest thing about MMA was how it took THQ’s control scheme, which always had a steep learning curve, and streamlined it by employing Fight Night’s analog striking and turning the more complex ground/clinch aspects over to single face buttons. For whatever reason, EA has abandoned its original vision in lieu of something much more reminiscent of the Undisputed series.
How complex is it? Well, suffice to say there’s a lengthy tutorial the first time you load up the game and there’s also a 90-level “challenge” mode that’s essentially a longer “how to.” Basic strikes are mapped to the face buttons, but they can be modified with the left trigger (low) or either bumper (more powerful blows) as well as moving the left analog stick forward or backward. Pulling the right trigger blocks, and when held down the various face buttons can be used to block high/low and parry.
Compared to the clinch and ground games, though, striking is the most straightforward part as you’ll be doing all kinds of ambiguous rotating to try to execute/block takedowns, passes and submissions. The highlight is probably the submission mini game, which has you move the right stick to escape if you’re being submitted or to block an opponent’s attempts to break free if you’re the aggressor. Periodically you’ll be given the chance to cinch the hold in deeper with the left stick.
Even after many hours with EA Sports UFC, the end result of all this complexity still feels like a case of paralysis by analysis as we almost invariably resort to employing the tactics we feel comfortable executing, even when they don’t play to our fighter’s strengths or their opponent’s weaknesses.
If you were underwhelmed by the next-gen debuts of Madden or FIFA, EA Sports UFC looks every bit the part. Everything looks and moves in a very lifelike fashion with detailed character models that maintain their quality regardless of the speed or camera angle. Fans of the sport will find the rendered fighters to be spot on from pre-fight introductions through the final moments. It’s a testament to the game being built exclusively for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Commentary comes across as energized, though there are moments when it doesn’t really feel in step with the action, and there’s a disappointing amount of repetition when calling specific moves. Pre-fight introductions from Bruce Buffer are great for real fighters, but not so inspiring for your created charges. The soundtrack is a decent mix of original and licensed tracks.
Career mode is the primary single-player offering, allowing you to create and guide a would-be UFC fighter through the reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, and then into the promotion itself. You’ve seen the basic setup here countless times — start at the bottom, develop your skills and climb the ladder — and EA Sports UFC does little to differentiate itself.
Each fight is handled the same way with three random training activities (culled from the previously referenced challenge mode) preceding the matchup. At the conclusion of the fight you’ll earn points to spend on improving your attributes or purchasing new moves. Rinse and repeat. Adding to the linear feel is the fact that you have no control over what path you take — each opponent is selected for you, so you can’t fatten up your record on lesser talents or pit yourself against more dangerous opponents in hopes of reaching a title bout earlier.
Everything feels like it takes place in a vacuum with a basic news feed your only connection to the world of UFC. Even vital information like your current ranking is located in a sub-menu. The game sprinkles in brief recorded messages from the likes of Dana White and a number of real fighters, but they don’t add anything, and by the time we’d logged 10 or so fights, we were actively skipping them to save time.
Although the mode itself is a rather dry affair, the variety found in the actual fights immensely helps to make it worth your time. This is especially true the further you advance when the game stops feeding you created fighters and starts matching you up with legitimate MMA stars. Some of the multi-round wars we waged were tense affairs, and we still vividly remember the fourth-round submission that brought us our first UFC Championship.
That’s due in no small part to the lack of a health bar and presence of flash knockouts, which means you (and your opponent) are never out of a fight as a well-timed knee or uppercut can (and does) change a match in an instant. Sure, it can be frustrating to dominate a match only to catch one on the chin, but that happens, and it’s well represented here.
Online fighting is decent, assuming you can find a match with a good connection. With so much of the gameplay built on precision and timing, however, any notable latency is a killer, leading to unfair submissions or knockout punches that seemed to have been ably brushed aside on your side of things.
While EA Sports UFC surpasses past MMA titles in some respects, it feels like a step backwards in others — most notably accessibility. If you’re a fan of the sport and have the patience to sink enough time into the game’s intricacies it’s worth getting. If you frustrate easily, however, it may not be for you.