The first mixed martial arts game, simply Ultimate Fighting Championship, was released way back in 2000, but it took nine years (including a five-year hiatus) for the sport to emerge as a successful video game sub-genre. THQ's UFC Undisputed series has enjoyed two years of positive critical and commercial reception. Now, EA is reaching for its own slice of the pie, introducing its UFC competitor, EA Sports MMA.
In the back of EA's E3 booth, I spent some time with MMA -- I even fought a few random show floor attendees, mostly in the game -- and discovered that while EA Sports' offering is still a ways away from being a lifelike recreation of the sport, from a gameplay standpoint, it's a pretty decent game.
So the way the controls break down on Xbox 360, the face buttons (X, Y, B and A) each correspond to an arm or a leg, while the right bumper handles blocking duty and the left bumper is your position modifier -- a way to switch stances during grapples. Using the face buttons allows you to create combos -- it's all very free-form feeling and I was able to mix and match punches and kicks in a highly effective manner. Being someone relatively new to the sport (and not having seen The Karate Kid in, like, four months), it was surprising how capable I seemed.
The same could not be said for my ground game. Once you manage to get your opponent on the mat, a much deeper system opens up. You can use the face buttons to apply body or face blows or, by employing the position modifier, you can then work your way into more advantageous positions. Personally, my favorite stance was the one where I was sitting on a guy's chest and punching his face mercilessly.
Even though the combat itself was very easy for me to get into overall, one thing kept taking me out of it: the animations. Some of them seemed downright janky. For example, when throwing a straight, every now and then my fighter would extend his arm so far, it looked like his shoulder popped out of its socket. On top of that, fighters' faces looked stone cold, whether they were getting pummeled or beating their opponent into oblivion. There was no emotion there. It might as well have been two robots with rubber skin going at it.
For its first offering, EA Sports has created a very competent brawler. It has issues with the animations and, once it's released, we'll likely discover balance tweaks that need addressing, but for the most part, fight fans should be satisfied with what's on offer here in EA Sports MMA. Of course, the real question is whether or not fight fans will stick with THQ's UFC Undisputed or go with EA's game. We'll find out this October, when EA Sports MMA steps inside the retail ring.