It seemed fitting that EA got the UFC license after THQ went bankrupt since the UFC had gone to EA first about making a game after their deals with Crave and smaller publishers had ended. Once it saw how successful the games were under THQ, EA fought back with EA Sports MMA, a title that had some affiliation with Strikeforce, which was eventually purchased by UFC. After some public spats with Dana White and a bevy of quotable remarks, the two companies made up, and EA Sports UFC is the first result of that new partnership. Headed by EA Canada, it marks the first game in the franchise to debut exclusively on the newer consoles.
When you boot up the game after a rather quick install, you're ushered into the quick tutorial mode, where you discover the title has abandoned its predecessor's reliance on the right analog stick for basic moves and gone with the heavier use of face buttons for striking, just like the UFC Undisputed series. Punches and kicks are laid out Tekken-style, with each face button representing the left and right sectors of the body. The shoulder buttons become modifiers for these basic strikes, and the positioning of the left analog stick also contributes to the delivery of strike types. R2 is your blocking button, and while it does fine on its own, using it in combination with a face button provides a more specialized but tougher defense for the player.
The right analog stick handles clinching and takedowns, and like the striking system, the shoulder buttons handle modifications and give you a wide variety of moves. Unlike the strikes, both simple directional movements and quarter-circle movements unleash the more devastating takedowns. Those moves also perform transitions between clinching and takedowns in addition to different positions on the ground. The analog sticks have also been incorporated into the submission system, so the attacker flicks in any one of four cardinal directions to tighten the hold while those on defense do the same (though more accelerated) to get out of the hold.
The tutorial session is an indicator of how the controls are designed for those who are serious about learning the game rather than those who just want to play it casually. That isn't to say that casual players won't be able to play; those who stick exclusively to strikes can hold their own against the CPU and similarly skilled players. Once you bump up the CPU difficulty beyond "Easy" or go against someone who knows how to grapple, you'll be woefully outclassed. There's depth in the fighting system, though the control scheme may match that of some of the older wrestling titles in their complexity.
If you can learn a good chunk of the controls, the fighting is very satisfying. The game moves away from health bars in favor of stamina bars and a body damage indicator, so matches are no longer contests to determine who can run out of life first. Fights are slower and more methodical as fighters choose their hits and try not to go wild to avoid getting gassed. There's no "killer blow" you can use for a flash knockout, but seeing good combinations produce blood and sweat is just as satisfying. The same can be said for seeing your opponent stagger from a particularly hard hit or combo or seeing them get knocked down. Getting into the clinch in standing position and on the ground gets exciting once you have the fighters jockeying for dominance. Knowing that any hit could end things makes each encounter tense — right up to the point that the match is over.
Where the combat system begins to falter is in the submission system. Past MMA games have toyed around with the mechanics regarding this aspect, and this entry is no different. Once you enter a submission move, you'll flick your right analog stick in four cardinal directions as quickly as possible to either break the move or slow down your opponent's escape. Occasionally, you'll see the prompt to flick the left analog stick in a direction, and successfully performing this causes the move to squeeze in tighter, boosting the submission meter until it reaches its peak and causes the opponent to tap. In the end, this is nothing more than a modified version of button-mashing, and when you consider how the game tries to emphasize strategic fighting, it's odd to see such an important part of the sport be boiled down to a frantic panic.
Most players immediately gravitate toward the online mode, and while it isn't as deep as EA Sports' previous effort, it can still be satisfying. Regular bouts have the roster separated by weight class, and for the first time, the game lets you play as female fighters. There's no open weight class, though, so those looking to pit the likes of Ian McCall against Chan Sung Jung will be disappointed. You can, however, get your fight's highlight reel posted online, where it's visible to every interested party. For those looking for some structure, there are also online belt tournaments where you can try to become the online champion of your weight class.
For a game that's so dependent on timing, the online performance of EA Sports UFC is pretty good. There's still some stuttering during matches with flaky connections, but nothing is extremely detrimental to the overall experience. It doesn't get to the point where you need to button-mash until simple commands register. It is also much better than most of the previous UFC experiences, where servers would refuse connections or go down for long periods of time. A few weeks have passed since the release, and it is still easy to find matches, so if your main focus is online fighting, then you're assured a healthy gaming community for now.
For the offline player, you have one main mode outside of the standard versus mode: campaign. You create your character and determine which weight class he belongs to. You can create a decent number of combinations with the available parts, but for some reason, the facial hair doesn't look very natural. There's also no chance to create a female fighter despite the inclusion of that class in the game, so those who want to climb the ladder to take out Ronda Rousey are out of luck. Once the character has been created, you'll go through a more detailed tutorial before going through The Ultimate Fighter TV show. From there, you'll get in the UFC and fight your way through the roster in your weight class until you win the belt.
The mode will keep you pretty busy, since it can take more than an afternoon to get through it. It's also the only way to unlock Bruce Lee if you didn't pre-order the game or don't feel like buying the DLC. With the exception of having UFC personalities giving you video messages between a few matches, it really isn't that different from the campaign modes you've played in the past. Some parts of the mode can be annoying, though. The frequent cuts to pre-recorded video are fine, even if you have to watch some of the fighters blatantly reading from teleprompters instead of saying their lines naturally, but the cuts happen so often that they lose their charm. The same can be said for the video clips that are meant to establish mood in training sessions but end up being derivative since they are so short.
For the PS4 specifically, the frequent videos prevent the video sharing feature from being used until it goes back to actual gameplay. Given how frequently videos are displayed, you'll be bombarded with the notice that you can and can't use sharing. The option to automatically perform the training exercises between matches is gone, so you'll have to play through each training session to earn anything or skip it and earn nothing. Finally, the mode has a ton of loading screens to get through. None of them are lengthy on their own, but as a whole, you'll spend a significant amount of the career mode looking at quotes from notable UFC fighters rather than interacting with anything.
That is perhaps the biggest blow to the game. Of all of the major MMA games in the last few years, EA Sports UFC is extremely light on modes on both the online and offline fronts. You can't share any fighter you created with the rest of the world, which is tough since this title offers one of the smaller UFC rosters in recent years, and you certainly can't form clubs of your own with other players. You can't really edit the highlight reel of your last online fight, and there's no way to simply record a fight to analyze it. There's no practice mode to learn the fighting system mechanics. There's no way to relive pay-per-view or televised events, and there's no way to have offline tournaments. There's also no way to dig into UFC's past and relive big moments. At least a few of those things have been highlights of both EA's own MMA game and past UFC games, and while the scaling back of features and modes is almost always expected when a game kicks off a new console generation, the scarcity of features makes the final product feel incomplete.
One thing that few can deny is that the game looks really good. The fighters are meticulously detailed, and things like reddening, cuts and sweat show up nicely on their faces and bodies. Hard blows cause a good amount of rippling that you can see especially well on body shots, and the sway of the loose shorts is nice despite the apparent clipping during submissions and clinches. They match their real-life counterparts quite well as far as looks are concerned, but having all of the fighters share the same winning and losing animations is a bit off-putting. The arenas look good even though their differences are very minimal, but sweat and blood staying on the mat for the entire match is a nice touch. The crowd models and animations also look fine, and the sweat and blood spray is quite good, but you won't see more detailed things like mouthpieces flying out after a particularly good hit. The frame rate has improved greatly since the demo, with things like the fly-by of the octagon and the crowd pans holding up better than before. The transitions between scenes are where the frame rate drops significantly, showing that more tweaking can be done here.
The sound in all of THQ's UFC games was great, and that hasn't changed much now that EA is at the helm. Most of that can be attributed to the voice work. Bruce Buffer is flawless in his role, with each line said with the same enthusiasm he shows for the actual live events. Announcers Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan might not be as robust as they were in UFC Undisputed 3, and there seems to be more instances where their dialogue runs over each other, but their enthusiasm is still infectious and they're still the best commentary team in sports games. The crowd is lively, but the only time you hear actual callouts from them is during the Ultimate Fighter segments of campaign mode. For the rest of the matches, they react appropriately to important fight moments, but the transition from rowdy to silent is abrupt. The sound effects, like strikes and slams to the mat, are enhanced due to the announcers and the crowd, but they don't sound too bad when those elements aren't present. The music is a good mix of licensed material and original orchestral stuff that was created specifically for the game. Though the licensed songs aren't necessarily the real themes of the fighters, they're (mostly) good replacements.
EA Sports UFC is like EA Sports MMA in that they represent good starts to a franchise but need lots of work in their current state. If you can get past the new submission system, the overall fighting is very solid and satisfying once you learn all of the nuances. Online matches perform well for the most part, and the presentation is great despite a few issues here and there. Career mode can drag on at times, and the character creation system could benefit from some improvements. More importantly, the lack of modes when compared to older titles hurts the game, especially if you prefer to have a few offline solo modes to accompany the online fighting. UFC fans who live and breathe online or local multiplayer will easily have a ton of fun with this game, but those who'd rather play solo are best served by renting the title first or picking it up if it gets cheaper later on.
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