As the first official UFC game handled by Electronic Arts, EA Sports UFC has a lot to prove. Comparisons to THQ's now defunct UFC Undisputed series are unavoidable. The final game in that series, UFC Undisputed 3, proved that Ultimate Fighting's brand of mixed martial arts isn't just about combat, but also celebrating the sport's history and giving players multiple ways to engage in it.
The good news is that EA Sports UFC is a good fighting game. The bad news is that its offerings outside the octagon are too lightweight.
The new foundation for UFC gaming is beautiful, marked by eerily-lifelike fighters. Fighters accumulate damage in the form of cuts and bruises, which appear both brutal and appropriate given the types of heavy strikes at play. The characters don't slide or snap into place very often, though animations still have a slight "video gamey" feel to them. At one point, I attempted a takedown while my opponent kicked at me, simultaneously knocking him to the mat as I staggered backward. Even if the result of the collision was accurate, it played out in a stiff, strange fashion. Beyond these occasional oddities, however, EA Sports UFC may just drop as many jaws as it breaks.
While EA Sports UFC looks and sounds good overall – commentary is enjoyable enough, and secondary elements like the crowd and cage-side characters look and behave realistically – other parts of the presentation are lacking. Bruce Buffer's introductions are often unenthusiastic, referee Herb Dean is nowhere to be found and post-fight animations and expressions become immensely repetitive, particularly in career mode.
That's a real shame, too, because UFC's combat does a good job of recreating the thrill of the sport, the feeling that you just dominated someone by crushing their face with a roundhouse kick. Past UFC games suffered from awkward cushions of space between fighters where there should be direct contact. EA Sports UFC closes that gap and creates a better sense of impact in strikes and tightness in grappling (though there could stand to be more of a reaction to punches and kicks to the head). It takes time to fully grasp the controls – though they're markedly similar to UFC Undisputed 3 – and the basic tutorial didn't do enough to earn me a win on easy mode against Clay Guida. It wasn't until I toured the stand-up, clinching and grappling challenge mode tasks that I learned the nuances and found success. Once you have the essentials down, however, there's a glorious fluidity involved in ducking and slipping your opponent's hooks, then countering with your own powerful uppercut.
EA Sports UFC also carries on the tradition of offering a brand new, uninspired submission system. Like UFC Undisputed 3 before it, entering a submission results in a large, translucent octagon appearing on the screen. Grappling at that point turns into a tug-of-war mini-game between fighters, pulling your attention away from the submission transitions. This cat-and-mouse approach is at least better than the last one from THQ, but it's hard to appreciate the technical functions of a submission while staring at an octagonal display.
Furthermore, the game feels a little light in its movesets. For instance, I found no way to jump into a submission from the clinch while both fighters are on their feet, taking away the opportunity for a personal favorite submission of mine (the standing rear naked choke). That alone would be troubling, but the shallowness of EA Sports UFC is more readily apparent in its modes.
Aside from unranked exhibition fights, offline players will spend the majority of their time in career mode, taking a created fighter through four fights in The Ultimate Fighter tournament (without the reality show bits), then on to a career in the UFC. Players engage in three training sessions between each fight, pulled almost directly from the challenge mode, using experience points to increase fighting attributes and purchase new moves. The mode is laced with excellent video packages of real-life fighting, as well as video messages from UFC President Dana White and fighters like Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, Urijah Faber, Forrest Griffin and more.
Careers in EA Sports UFC are enjoyable, but not very deep. The creation side of it is limited to presets, without room to fine tune your fighter's appearance or the placement of his sponsors on banners and shorts. Furthermore, you can't create female fighters at all. You don't commit to a fight camp, nor do you field offers for matches from multiple fighters. After roughly 23 professional wins, I haven't found a way to change weight classes to go after another belt. It took 18 wins to grab the gold, but only eight wins before some of the video messages from Faber and others began to repeat (mostly congratulating me on my umpteenth submission of the night award). Overall, career mode is a straight-forward affair that will run its course in a few days of intermittent play.
The pace picks up with online play, which includes its own championship mode in addition to unranked fights. Players can enter 10 fights in a "season" of play, during which time they must accumulate enough points via decisive wins or losses by decision (as opposed to being knocked out or submitted) in order to go up in a belt class. Starting out as a white belt and beating other players to a pulp to receive a championship belt and a promotion to the blue belt class is riveting, as each online fight has an extra sense of cost to it. Fail to reach the points threshold needed to stay in a belt ranking and you get relegated back to a lower tier. EA Sports UFC then opens occasional elimination round-style tournaments, divided by classes, in which players need to win four fights in a row to claim victory (Bruce Lee knocked me out in the fourth round of my second match, sadly).
It's a brilliant approach to online play that's hampered by its own competitive community: As it turns out, players can pause matches that aren't going their way and quit, provided they don't spam functions like head kicks and takedowns instead. I tapped out four players after I should have been KO'd thanks to a submission system that seems to favor the attacker. Constantly attempting a takedown and then repeatedly trying a submission is one of the cheaper, easier ways to win both online and off. Techniques like this, and dominating full guard stances, are overpowered enough that they'll require further tuning by the developer, as they mar an otherwise excellent online system.
EA has some work ahead of it to get MMA gaming back into fighting shape, but it's off to a good start. While previous UFC games included event creation, arcade-style title modes and offline tournaments, EA Sports UFC is a barebones fighting game with fun, face-busting combat that is certainly easy on the eyes. Just like its tutorial mode, it sets a solid foundation for the future, but doesn't do enough to keep you on your feet for very long. Its decent career mode wears thin a little too quickly, even with expertly-produced videos. The online championships mode is a fantastic addition, albeit somewhat dependent on whether your opponent is interested in a fair fight. Like any athlete with a thirst for victory, EA Sports has a great opportunity to create something special with this brand. It's just not quite ready for its title fight yet.
This review is based on a retail PS4 copy of EA Sports UFC, provided by Electronic Arts. Images: Electronic Arts.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.