The sport of mixed martial arts, or MMA, has become rather big in a short amount of time. While it may have started out as a curious spectacle for American audiences, MMA quickly grew in popularity, and a slew of personalities emerged — some as popular as athletes in major organized sports leagues. Games representing the sport of MMA have been dominated by UFC-branded titles. EA Sports doesn't have the rights to the UFC license and is, for one of the few times in its history, the underdog. Despite not having access to the most popular MMA license, EA proves that it has enough in EA Sports MMA to make be a serious challenger.
Compared to its direct competitor, UFC Undisputed 2010, EA Sports MMA doesn't feature too many modes, but what is there has some depth. Fight Now, the game's equivalent of Quick Play mode, demonstrates how much EA has put into most of the game modes. You start off by choosing the weight class in which you want to fight and then which rule set you want to use. There are four different rule sets based on Vale Tudo, Japanese, US MMA, and Strikeforce rules with preset variations on time limits, number of rounds, and whether or not certain strikes on the ground are allowed. From here, you can choose one of 59 available fighters, depending on your selected weight class, as well as the arena. Unlike most games, where arena changes are purely cosmetic, these arenas make a difference, as rings with ropes tend to be more forgiving for players than arenas with cages.
Career mode serves as the main single-player campaign and provides a considerable amount of depth that's equal to what was seen in UFC Undisputed 2010. After picking your primary discipline, you start training in Bas Rutten's gym and fight against amateur MMA opponents. Training lasts for eight weeks at a time, and stats in various categories like clinching, health and striking can be improved in the various training sessions.
After some time spent with the amateurs, you can move into one of two minor leagues where the purses are higher and the opponents are tougher. Moving into other leagues also unlocks the ability to go to other gyms to learn new moves for your character and specialize in the improvement of specific stats. You visit organizations in three different tiers, and because you can choose which organization you go to, you'll never be able to do complete visits of all of the leagues in each weight class. This gives you some incentive to go through the sizable campaign twice to conquer every available league. While you will be gaining stats, you're never in danger of losing them should you stop concentrating on one attribute in favor of another.
The fighting engine is strong in EA Sports MMA, but a few game mechanics can leave people confused. As EA has been doing for some time, punching strikes are mapped to the right analog stick, with each direction and motion determining which hand strikes and how the strike is delivered. Using the analog stick in conjunction with the left trigger will generate kicks, while the face buttons handle clinches, reversals and takedowns. This is meant to help boxing fans ease into MMA, and it works out since it makes the game feel more technical and less like a button-mashing affair. You still have the option to use the buttons for striking, so that should please both camps of the argument. Submissions work fine, as you use the X button to initiate them and mash on it — without draining all of your stamina — to get the win. It works in a bit of strategy since an empty stamina meter almost always means the opponent will make you tap or get out of the hold, depending on your position.
To apply a choke, you need to rotate the left analog stick to find the vibrating spot and then do it over and over again. Not only does it take a good amount of time to understand the mechanic when compared to the other offensive and defensive moves, but it's simply not fun to use, especially when you're struggling to win against CPU fighters at the easiest difficulty level. While wins can be obtained with various methods in MMA, the difficulty of the choke mechanic ensures that it won't be used often.
Character creation has always been a strong point with EA's Fight Night series, and that tradition is mostly captured here. None of that is more evidenced than with the presence of a character download system, where players can share their creations with the community and download other fighters to significantly expand the 59-fighter roster. As expected, there have been many re-creations of big UFC stars like Rampage Jackson, Brock Lesnar and Chuck Liddell, and the system allows for these creations to look just as good as what was featured in the UFC titles. The game also features photo face, where online pictures and pictures taken from the Xbox Live Vision Cam can be translated on to the created character's body. The process still requires some good lighting if you're using the camera in order to avoid missing facial features or getting the skin tone wrong, but the results are generated much faster now, so it's more enjoyable to use.
MMA 101 is the game's tutorial mode, and it's easily the weakest mode in terms of functionality. The mode is supposed to give you the basic breakdown of how the controls work by placing you in a real match between two random fighters. As the match progresses, the controls are supposed to pop up on-screen to instruct you on what should be done next. However, because of the nature of most MMA fights, the match could very well end before you learn about clinching, much less takedowns and defense. While the idea is noble enough, newcomers would learn much more in the career mode than they would here.
EA Sports MMA's multiplayer mode is home to some of the game's most exciting features — and the source of some very interesting bugs. Your standard match rules are here, along with the ability to use professional or created characters in each of the five weight classes. Along with the matches comes your own ranking system, which is defined by colored belts that represent how much experience you've had in the ring. While the belts cover overall experience, each weight class has its own experience meter, which fills up with each match fought, whether you win or lose. Gathering enough wins in a weight class puts you up for championship contention and, ultimately, a championship. Reaching that milestone, or getting close to it, can also make you eligible for one of the more exciting aspects of the game: live fight broadcasts.
Every week, match-ups are made at EA where selected participants can fight in front of everyone who's logged in to the game, pretty much like a normal pay-per-view event. Fights are sponsored, and a few prizes are given out for the higher-stakes matches. There's even the ability to create your own hype video, though that has to take place outside of the game. It's a large hook for the community, and it is fairly successful thus far, with a few events already recorded and available for replay. Of course, you can also create your own fight card to play with among friends if you don't want EA doing it for you. The online performance is good, with only the worst connections revealing any sort of lag for the game. Most of the time, connections are smooth and button inputs are read instantaneously for an experience similar to playing against someone locally. Overall, the online experience is a huge part of EA Sports MMA, and when it plays well, it makes the game that much more exciting and robust.
The big problems with the multiplayer occur when the online connection isn't performing well and interferes with the rest of the offline game modes. Connecting to someone with a bad connection usually results in stuttering gameplay. However, after the match, the game tries to save a replay and locks up, causing a reboot to occur. Watching a recorded live fight went smoothly, but when transitioning from here to MMA 101, it caused the arena announcers to merge into one being. You'd see the Strikeforce announcer, but the announcer from your early MMA matches says most of the spiel, and then the Mystic announcer names each fighter. It also caused the user to go through all bouts of the live event for the mode, complete with users' gamertags. Finally, there was another incident where, after several online bouts had concluded, the user could no longer access any of the created fighters for download. The easy way to avoid these incidents would be to make sure that online play is the last thing you do before switching to another title or turning off the console, but even with that solution in place, these issues hurt the game until EA issues a patch.
Graphically, EA Sports MMA is excellent. The character models look great, and little details like the cauliflower ear on some fighters are just as visible as the tattoos are readable. Every fighter is instantly recognizable, as are the ring announcers and refs. The animations are great and unlike the competitor, there is plenty of impact seen when getting hit on the ground or during a clinch. Blood also features prominently in the game, and while you'll see it on the faces of those who've been beaten badly, you'll also see it smeared on the attackers after engaging in the ground game. (It's a nice little touch.)
The environments also look great, with the arenas and the gyms providing plenty of little details as well as other inhabitants using the equipment. The graphical package looks great, but there's a flaw in the post-match celebration. There is one in particular that has you climbing the cage and sitting on top, your arms raised in victory. However, because of the varied environments and the fact that not all arenas have cages, you'll sometimes see fighters with this win animation jump to the rim of an invisible cage and place their hands on that same invisible railing when dismounting. The game tries to cover this up with a closer zoom, but it is apparent and laughable nonetheless.
The sound is exactly what you'd expect in any good sports title. The hits come through with some deep thuds, and the crowd gets worked up into a frenzy at the right moments. The music is the typical assortment of rap and rock tunes that you'd hear in most EA Sports titles, but there are a few modern instrumental tracks thrown in to serve as entrances for the bigger fighters. The voice work is also a big highlight. Strikeforce announcers Mauro Ranullo and Frank Shamrock call every match no matter which league you end up in, and they do a great job of getting excited at big hits and victories just like they do for actual Strikeforce events. They also do a good job of bringing up incidental data for each fighter during a fight (as well as your created fighter during the career mode), mentioning things like recent losses and win streaks. Each arena has its own set of ring announcers and refs, which are nice and does well to make each arena feel different. However, the game has a bad habit of the play-by-play announcers talking over the arena announcers at the end of each match.
As far as voice work goes, the big surprise comes from the trainers in career mode. Even through the most mundane activities, trainers like Randy Couture and Pat Miletich never sound like they're phoning in their lines. Each word comes through with just the right amount of intensity. The real audio highlight comes from Rutten, who serves as your first trainer and mentor through career mode. The first time you hear his voice coming through the speakers, you feel motivated to fight, and he continues to be an engaging personality to the end, from pre- and post-fight phone messages to the simple monitoring of your progress. His presence alone makes you want to go through career mode multiple times just so you can hear him say things over and over again.
Does EA Sports MMA take the crown away from UFC Undisputed 2010 as the definitive mixed martial arts video game experience? Not quite, but it comes very close. The career mode is excellent, and the overall presentation is well done. The fighting engine is solid, though there are a few odd mechanical choices in play, and the career mode is very deep and time-consuming in a good way. As great as the online segment is, it would have been much better had there not been some interesting and painful bugs. MMA fans and fighting fans alike will enjoy the game, and hopefully EA continues to patch the game and support the online community.
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