Repeat after me: This is a sport simulation. This is a sport simulation. This is a sport simulation.
If you come to EA Sports MMA for a button-mashing brawl, you're sure to be disappointed. However, if you want to test your fighting skills in a surprisingly deep and precise recreation of the sport of mixed martial arts, you're in for a treat.
Despite the complexity of the sport, EA Tiburon delivers an accessible sim that combines explosive action with a satisfying career mode, clever online play and plenty of tutorials if you need them.
MMA uses controls similar to the Fight Night franchise, with punches and kicks dealt by making motions with the right analog stick. For those not comfortable fiddling with an analog stick to throw a punch, a traditional button scheme is available as an alternative, but the result feels a bit clunky and far less smooth. Meanwhile, submission holds and chokes are handled with minigames that require finessing the controller rather than frantically mashing the buttons, an approach that feels very much in line with the methodical, inch-by-inch pace of Jiu-Jitsu.
Love for the sport's many facets is on full display. You can opt to abandon the three five-minute rounds of American rules for, say, Brazil's Vale Tudo -- a single, grueling, 20-minute, anything-goes round that's more a war than a fight. You can leave the hexagonal cage for the more traditional square ring used in England (be careful not to get caught in the corners or some quick kicks will finish you off fast). Every variation brings with it a distinct feeling of novelty and authenticity.
The most impressive parts of the game, however, are the tiniest details in the fights themselves.
Rutten's unfailingly positive voiceover work is such an effective motivator he almost becomes a digital life coach. You can do it!
When you leap onto a stunned opponent to finish them off with some tried and true ground-and-pound, your fighter may grab his opponent's wrist and pin it to the mat in order to reduce his ability to defend himself. In the battle for domination on the ground, you may strike to pass only to find that a slightly raised knee has blocked your fighter from obtaining a full mount. These touches, and dozens more, illustrate the lengths EA Tiburon have gone to instill the game with a sense of consistent realism.
That realism carries over to career mode, in which players can create their own custom fighter, train hard and try to become the champ of the six federations in the game (America's Strikeforce, Weapons of Destruction and Renegade Fighting League, England's United Fighting League, Japan's Mystic and Brazil's Liga De Combate). It judiciously provides just enough context and narrative to keep punching strangers in the face from getting old -- not that it ever would.
Character creation is well-balanced, providing broad control over all aspects of fighters without having to get into tedious fine-tuning. Of special note is the appearance customization, which allows you to import photos of yourself to use as your fighter's face. The result is good enough to be recognizable and funny when you create yourself, but it has the potential to get weird when players inevitably start using photos of, say, 70-year-old Aunt Myrtle or Abraham Lincoln.
Career mode itself is a well thought out mix of tutorial, drilling and fighting led by MMA star Bas Rutten. Players will travel all over the world to train with the masters of hand-to-hand combat while climbing the federation rankings. Rutten's unfailingly positive voiceover work is such an effective motivator he almost becomes a digital life coach. You can do it!
The training ground of career mode is the perfect place to prepare yourself for online combat. MMA offers some novel online play, from basic match making to live fight cards with digital belts and championships at stake. Players are even encouraged to make and upload their own hype videos to show before their fights.
The main drawback of MMA, its underwhelming roster, is perhaps understandable considering the behind-the-scenes feuding between EA and UFC bosses. While it is great to be able to finally see Randy Couture square off against Fedor Emelianenko, the lack of even a handful of high-profile names from the UFC feels like a glaring omission in what is an otherwise all-encompassing game.
Comparisons between MMA and THQ's UFC Undisputed franchise are inevitable, but the two games offer up very different experiences that are, for the most part, complementary. MMA is a fuller game that celebrates the broadest scope of the sport with a loving precision, while UFC brings out a roster of more recognizable fighters for a more casual, beer-and-buddies experience.
It remains to be seen if there is enough interest to support both franchises, but with the series' first outing, EA Sports MMA provides not only a must-play experience for fans, but a compelling argument for a two-MMA-game world.
This review is based on early review code of EA Sports MMA provided by EA. Stu Horvath is the videogame critic for the New York Daily News and founder of the geek culture website Unwinnable.