To say that I am a casual UFC fan would be an overstatement. I would advise you to bet the under on the number of UFC fighters I can name. Terms like full-guard, half-mount, and Muay Thai clinch are not a part of my everyday vocabulary. However, phrases like beating the living piss out of each other are well within my vernacular range. This alone makes EA’s inaugural UFC game extremely appealing to me and ironically is also it’s greatest weakness.
Graphically, EA UFC is one of the best looking games on the new consoles. The player models are incredibly detailed with rippling skin and muscles as well as realistic bruising, blushing, and cuts. Blood pours out of cuts and finds it’s way onto gloves, bodies and even the octagon mat. Just one shot of the mat after a 3 round fight would be enough to make Dexter blush. Framerate runs relatively consistent but I did notice a few dips during fights although they were brief. The Ignite Engine also shines as animations are fluid and life-like with only the occasional hiccup. I did notice some inconsistent visual representation of strike damage. Punches that look damaging aren’t and ones that look benign end in knockouts. Sometimes you don’t realize how hurt you are until it’s too late, which I believe leads to a higher number of KO’s. There can also be some wonkiness in the hit detection which can be jarring when it occurs. I can confirm that I did not experience any of the these glitches, although after watching that video I wish I would have!
Presentation wise, EA UFC is top-notch. The overlay of the UFC TV assets add to the photo-realistic look, coupled with the play-by-play of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg. It truly feels like you are watching a Pay-Per-View event. The only real sore spot here is with ring announcer Bruce Buffer. Although his audio isn’t bad, his animations during introductions are downright dreadful. Thankfully that is offset by the inclusion of the ring side girls who also look identical to their real-life counterparts. I also wanted to highlight the menu system. It follows the tiled look of previous EA sports titles and is very slick, quick and easy to navigate.
Mixed Martial Arts is an extremely complex sport, with a multitude of strategies and subtle nuances. If boxing is checkers, then MMA is the bloodsport version of chess. EA UFC knows this and launches you into a lengthy tutorial before letting you set foot in the octagon. I was appreciative of this as it is a necessary evil, but I found it odd that you couldn’t skip it voluntarily. Also they cover so much in the tutorial that it is impossible to absorb everything prior to your first fight. Thankfully they also offer a Challenge Mode that allows you to focus on improving your knowledge of the controls in bite size morsels. Here you can focus on standing strikes, clinching, takedowns, ground game, wrestling, and submissions. I recommend spending time here if you are new to the game or MMA games in general. Sometimes animations and button pushes seem sluggish especially when using the Heavyweights. This can lead to instances where you either don’t throw a punch or you throw multiple punches on accident. Overall I was pleased with the control scheme and feel EA did a great job corralling all the layers of MMA by making the controls approachable and intuitive.
Once I had a basic idea of the controls I was ready to take the next step and try my luck at career mode. The create-a-fighter options are your standard affair allowing you to pick a nickname, apparel, as well as ring entrance music. A few notable omissions are the ability to pick my fighter’s handedness as well as the inability to create a woman fighter which I found extremely odd considering Ronda Rousey’s skyrocketing popularity. The size and weight of my fighter placed me in the Light Heavyweight Division which put me on a collision course with current champion, Jon “Bones” Jones.
The first step in my journey was to qualify for The Ultimate Fighter TV show. I thought this was a great touch and executed brilliantly through live cut scenes taken directly from the show. it also added a ton of personality and immersion to the mode and was an unexpected bonus. After winning TUF it placed me at the bottom of the Light Heavyweight ladder with 39 other fighters (over half of which were fake) between me and my title shot. One by one I climbed that ladder slowly building my fighter’s skills by earning points through quick training sessions and overall fight performance. You can allocate these points to improve your attributes including striking, submissions, and stamina as well as purchase new moves for your fighter. You will also gain experience which unlock perk slots as you level up. The perks allow you to alter gameplans buffing up certain aspects of your fighting style leading into your next match-up. The more you win, the more fans you will gain which allows you access to additional sponsorship opportunities. There’s no real benefit to this other than the different gear you can equip on your fighter to promote those sponsorships. Spoiler Alert, I ended up ascending the Light Heavyweight ladder and winning the title in an epic 55 second slug-fest. However my title reign was short-lived as I lost my first and only title defense match. Overall I had fun in career mode but it also increased my awareness of the many issues that are preventing this game from being truly great.
First issue is the training aspect of the game. At first they were fun and helped me understand the button layouts and how to perform certain moves. Unfortunately they turn into a waste of time and more importantly a wasted opportunity. There is no feedback during the sessions making it extremely hard to improve my skills as a player. I only felt like I was getting better at pushing buttons, nothing else. In the blocking and parrying training there were times when I would miss, but I never knew why. My guess is that I was either too late or too early, but I was never told. As a result this turned into a button mashing exercise while hoping for the best. Listing what move I am performing on-screen would also be extremely helpful. That way I could better understand what I am doing and also increase my knowledge of the sport. During ground training, for example, you move around to different ground positions, but they never tell you which position you are currently in or what positions you can move to. They don’t even explain the advantages or disadvantages these positions offer. For a casual fan like me this is a missed opportunity to educate me on the strategy and nuances of MMA, which would not only make it more enjoyable in game, but more enjoyable when I watch UFC on TV. There also is no rhyme or reason behind why you’re training. You would think that your next opponent would dictate what you should work on, but it seems to be completely random. Also your fighter has different move sets during training than he does in the ring which is confusing. Now, I don’t have an issue with this if they would utilize it and give you the ability to learn moves, or since you buy the moves, get a discount for training a particular move. They do neither of these. One other training note is having a UFC celebrity sparring partner. In theory this is a cool idea, I was pretty excited when I learned that B.J. Penn was stopping by my gym for a sparring session. Unfortunately this brought nothing new to the table except a different skin on my sparring partner. Might as well have been Sean Penn who came in, would have made no difference. After 40 plus fights and countless training sessions, I can honestly say my knowledge for the sport and skills for the game are only slightly ahead of where they were when I first booted it up.
Next area of concern for me is what happens in the ring. Hard strikes and combos are great and knockouts are a sight to behold. The issue is, just about every fight ends this way. Not once during my career did a fight end with anything other than a KO or a TKO. I understand that some of this was due to me choosing to play on my feet, but also the opponents I faced were primarily strike heavy fighters. Most of the fighters utilized the same fighting style which isn’t a true representation of how UFC matches are. It took me 20 matches to fight my first submission specialist. It was one of the most enjoyable matches because it made me play the game differently and alter my overall strategy. It still ended in a knockout but the journey to get there was much more enjoyable. When it comes to submissions, I actually thought the mechanic they use is creative but the execution of it needs some refining. And why can’t I do a flash submission the way I can do a flash knockout? This would make submissions more enticing especially if you got rewarded for countering a move or leveraging a certain ground position. It’s funny because the arcade-like play style of the game is what drew me in but I found myself falling out of love with it the more I played the game. I wanted to learn more about the strategy and utilize the clinching, ground game, and submissions but the game stunted my growth in these areas and caters to being on your feet. I wanted to play chess but a game of checkers broke out with over the top superman punches and flying knees that can be spammed with no real negative effects.
The lone saving grace to this game is the online play. I didn’t spend a ton of time online but my experience there was very satisfying. Playing against a human doesn’t cover all of the blemishes but it does add more strategy and you will encounter much more chess playing with people utilizing all facets of gameplay. I had one match that encapsulated everything that is good about the game. It had great cat and mouse striking, followed by strategic clinching after I got rocked by an uppercut. Then we took it to the ground where I got some nice body shots in only to have him reverse position and put me in an Arm-Bar submission. He got a few stages in but I was able to get loose and get back to my feet. After exchanging some heavy strikes the bell rang and the first round was over. It was one of the most gratifying rounds I had been involved in. The fight went the distance and I lost the decision but it was the most fun I had playing the game.
With it’s gorgeous visuals, entertaining knockouts and excellent online play EA UFC has built a great foundation. Unfortunately it’s emphasis on arcade focused gameplay and half-baked career mode keeps it from being the heavyweight champion we were all hoping for.
*Review based on PS4 version, Also Available on Xbox One