EA Sports has always been known to produce some of the best sports simulation games in the world. They may face scrutiny for their NCAA titles and ferocity when it comes to monopolizing a market, but it’s undeniable that they can produce some fantastic games, particularly when it comes to realistic fighting games, as evidenced by the most well received boxing series in the industry, Fight Night.
The UFC shares a lot of this fervor and domination of the market when it comes to Mixed Martial Arts. Being one of the premier fighting organizations in the world came from lots of ingenious marketing and promotion from current President, Dana White, as well as a stable of fantastic fighters and popular personalities.
Whether you’ve ever seen a UFC fight or not, it’d be hard to separate real-life from this game. Its most impressive attribute was its photo-realism. With the help of current-gen hardware, EA was able to get every bead of sweat, eyebrow cut, and beard hair to look beautiful. It seemed that when it came to the graphics, the old saying “the Devil’s in the details” must have resonated throughout the halls of EA Canada.
In the second round of an intense under card fight in career mode, I caught a ferocious knee to the face while locked in a Thai clinch. My eye was cut worse than Rocky’s, and I was wobbling. I decided to shoot for a double-leg take-down, which was successful. After I threw my opponent down, I noticed some kind of liquid splashing around and staining the mat. It was my own blood.
Whether it was the sweat on my forehead or the swelling in my right eye, the game never missed a beat when it came to the little things. The fidelity of the fighters was some of the best I’ve seen in any game to date. Naturally though, not everyone could share that detail. Coaches in my corner, Bruce Buffer, the ring girls, they all paid a little bit of a price in beauty for the sake of the fighters. However, I can’t hold this against the game, as they’re not the focal point. The guys and gals standing in the octagon pummeling the hell out of each other needed the spotlight, and they certainly got it in spades.
After I caught my breath from the knee that nearly put my brain out the back of my skull, I could hear Joe Rogan yelling like a madman. Mike Goldberg chimed in on the action, and they were both as shocked at the gushing faucet of red liquid my head had become as I was. The crowd was eating up the violence like spectators at the coliseum.
One of the biggest parts of the UFC’s broadcasts is the ambiance placed around the fight, and the closeness to the action created from on-octagon mics. The walkout songs, crowd reactions, the crack of a hard leg kick, and of course the thump of a body slamming the ground like a sack of potatoes after catching Anderson Silva’s heel to the chin, they all make for a fantastic broadcast.
The audio was able to shake my emotions more than I thought possible in a sports game. I was able to pick my walkout song (I went with a riff from Linkin Park’s Guilty All The Same) and loved the oh-so-UFC pre-fight introductions. I found myself pushed on by the crowd after landing a powerful right hand, or taking down my opponent with a huge Suplex. Each time the momentum of a fight swung from me to my opponent, it was immediately recognized by the crowd. The depth and accuracy of the commentary mashed with the intensity of the crowd also spurned on some not-so-wise moves that I was hoping would appease the bloodthirsty masses, but only ended up causing my block to get knocked off, so to speak.
Mixed Martial Arts is a complicated sport. Different styles of footwork, different striking for each fighter, unique kicks and more ways to submit a person than you can shake a stick at. EA Sports UFC certainly didn’t skimp on the variety of moves or mixes of style. After completing the initial tutorial, I was pushed into a practice fight controlling Jon Jones. I won handily with a flurry of strikes to the head. The game seemed almost a bit too easy, but this wasn’t at all the case.
An intensely deep controller mapping scheme combined with a lack of teaching after the initial tutorial was a recipe for disaster. I lost all 5 of my first fights, thankfully only the last of these taking place in career mode. It wasn’t frustrating that I was bad at the game, but it seemed almost like the game didn’t want me to immediately succeed. I had to go searching for ways to make myself better, but even after finding the ‘practice’ modes, my blood pressure was further raised by a far-to-frequent lag in menus and during fights. Sometimes this lag occurred with what seemed to be no reason, and other times the screen broke for an instant, froze, or a miss in the hit detection system caused major issues.
In the interest of fairness, nothing occurred that was game-breaking, nor did anything outright cause me to lose any fights. However, it seemed to have a level of polish with the gameplay that was almost directly inverse to the quality of the aesthetics. The fight system was governed mostly by the fatigue of the player shown on a health-like bar on the top of the screen, next to a view of the player’s body that was very reminiscent to the health of a car in a racing simulation. Anything goes red, my fatigue level got high, or god forbid both happened at the same time, I was most likely toast – but they very fairly served the same purpose for my opponents, making it an easy indicator of how close or far I was from winning.
Most sports games prompt you to explore the new modes, or they at least make sure to mention the parts of the game that will make you better. Not EA Sports UFC though.
For some reason the menus, while not confusing, didn’t offer up a lot of clarity on where to start. Because of this, I jumped straight into career mode, which was a huge mistake. I was way over my head very fast.
The structure of career was much like the UFC itself, starting me at the bottom in the rankings for the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, and pushing me slowly through the ranks. A majority of the skill progression system of EA Sports UFC was built off of ‘Evolution Points’ with which I could add points to specific attributes like joint submission defense, or the strength of my right hand. I could also use these points to accrue different specialty moves, like a powerful spinning back fist.
On top of earning these points from three rounds of pre-fight ‘training,’ which was more attune to button mashing to grow muscle memory for controls, I could have specific game-plans unlocked by increasing my fighter’s rank through victories in the octagon. Each game-plan consisted of 5 available slots for what were essentially perks, boosting my strike damage, or allowing me to lose 50% less stamina when performing certain ground moves.
The biggest let-down of career mode, though, was the seemingly tossed in live-action messages from other fighters congratulating or giving me tips on my next fight. Many of them would repeat, or a fighter would send two messages back to back, introducing him or her-self as if I’d never seem them before. It was a nice touch, but one that fell flat with weird combinations of messages, and understandably un-motivated deliveries from actual UFC fighters. There were, however, some very interesting interview style videos that played after major career events, like my first knockout. They were true to a UFC style interlude, and showcased a passion from the fighters that just didn’t come though with the ‘personalized’ messages.
After powering through career, I eventually picked up through reading loading screens that I could try challenge mode to practice and test my skills, which was ultimately much more effective and pleasing than just training three times in between each match. Had it been suggested that I try the challenges mode first (I still don’t get why it wasn’t just called practice, with a structure that was nearly identical to FIFA, just more in depth) I would have fared much better, and frankly enjoyed the game a bit more early on than I actually did.
Mutliplayer though, is where the game really shows its addictive strength. Apart from some understandable lag, each fight was a journey to discover what style my opponent was using, and the violent game of chess that ensued each time was spectacular. It reminded me of the pleasure I got from sitting in the basement with my friends after watching that Saturday’s fights, throwing elbows in UFC Undisputed. By far multiplayer was the most pleasurable, rewarding and punishing mode in the game.
The UFC is an intense sport to say the least. The speed at which fights move, combined with the strategy of the match-ups can lead to some devastating and blood-soaked matches, or to long , drawn out mental battles just the same. Whenever I look at sports games, I expect the game to do whatever it needs to do in order to become an accurate, enjoyable and in-depth simulation of the real game. Although this game has its fair share of unclear motivations, jolting issues and frustrating elements, overall it is the most enjoyable version of an MMA game I’ve ever played, which is a big statement considering the surprisingly large number of MMA games that have been released over the years.
This game is far form perfect, but I’m more than excited to see what else EA Canada can come up with in the next iteration.
EA Sports UFC was reviewed with an Xbox One press copy provided by EA, after an initial title update was released.