EA Sports UFC Review
A lot of people have been excited for the next MMA product, and it's been a long two-year wait as EA has secured the UFC license and drip-fed information to the public. Most of the info about EA Sports UFC has come rushing out in the last few months, so a lot of people didn't really know what to expect when it came to EA's first foray into the world of UFC. All things considered, THQ was a decent steward of the brand, and they managed to implement some decent systems for their UFC games. Still, everything never quite came together in one cohesive package, and the online play in their games wasn't up to snuff.
Like them or not, EA generally does right by a lot of their franchises. Some of the non-simulation elements for certain sports will always bug a portion of the user base, but on the whole they know how to flex their development and marketing muscle to bring forward a solid product (NBA Live excluded). I'd say that's the case here, as their first effort for UFC-branded MMA is a good one, providing a solid fighting system that creates some varied and entertaining fights. A lot of the hoopla around this game was centred on the visuals — and those are good, to be sure — but I was actually surprised that the matches allow for a lot of variety and adaptation. This isn't to say there aren't some annoyances with stamina and move-spamming, but the game engine does allow all aspects of MMA (striking, grappling, submissions) to have a use in the game, which is no small feat.
All of the current UFC divisions are represented in EA Sports UFC, including the women's bantamweight division. Each weight class only has about 10-12 fighters, which is a bit of a letdown, but most fighters of note are included. The main omissions include the likes of Matt Brown, Stipe Miocic, Hector Lombard and Josh Barnett, as well as recent bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. Hopefully some of these can be remedied by DLC, but it is understandable that EA's first attempt was going to have some holes in the roster.
Once you start up the game, there is a primer on the controls. The big takeaway here is that EA Sports UFC serves as almost a hybrid of EA Sports MMA and THQ's Undisputed games. Some of the right stick quarter-circle transitions and strike modifiers have carried over from the THQ games, but the pace and flow of some of the ground fighting — and the matches, for that matter — hue more towards the EA Sports MMA side of the ledger. That said, even if you have some familiarity with these previous games, learning the timing on transitions, how stamina works, when to go for submissions and how to parry will take some time.
The nice thing for experienced MMA players is that a lot of mastery can be found within this game's systems. The parrying, for instance, has a specific timing window for high and low strikes, but if timed correctly, a fighter can parry someone who has just parried them, opening up an even more deadly window to counter-attack. Just the same, the submission system (which I initially thought seemed kind of gimmicky) has a lot of cat-and-mouse going on in it, and escaping a submission late in a match can be a tense and satisfying moment.
That said, EA probably hasn't done the best job of bringing some mid-level or casual users along for the ride. Sure, there are tutorials and a challenge mode to sharpen your skills (I'd recommend doing this), but none of these complicated controls are contextualized. Other fighting games, like the non-sports release Killer Instinct, actually have tutorials that explain “why” you're doing what you're doing. It's important to know what the most dangerous positions and attacks are and how you should game plan. EA Sports UFC just kind of gives all of its information in a big info dump, and it lacks context for the fighters you might be facing and the situations you could find yourself in. To be fair, there are difficulty settings and fighters that will be geared more towards casual brawlers and button-mashers, but EA will need to do a better job moving forward in terms of bringing everyone along for the ride.
With this said, the action on offer in this game is quite robust. I was quite surprised with the amount of variety that I saw in matches, including characters working body damage, leg kicks and clinch work. There are more paths to victory than in something like the THQ games, where damage to the head didn't regenerate, meaning once a character got to 97 percent damage, the next shot would put the lights out. Here, a fighter can be knocked down several times but still survive. If you give him (or her) the time to recover, the fight can continue, and this makes for some exciting battles. The judging even comes into play, as there are actually a good number of decision fights, complete with split decisions and 10-8 rounds. I was pretty stoked to see some matches go to the cards and win 29-28, especially when I knew I'd “played the game” by scoring some takedowns and landing enough strikes to steal a round.
Even the clinch and ground game provide some great opportunities for wild scrambles and patient battles, and it looks a lot better than the wind-up transitions that were seen in THQ's games. This doesn't mean that the timing window for escaping situations isn't tough, and the stamina in these scenarios is a bit jacked up, but there is a method to the madness. If you take the time to learn the strengths of your character, you will succeed in attacking or defending in these positions.
Striking is obviously going to take up the bulk of most matches, and it generally flows well. The parry system from Fight Night makes its way over here, and a well-timed block high or low will open up a window to land a hard counter. There are all sorts of strike modifiers for punches and kicks, and these allow you to set up some good combinations. Sidestepping a shot and landing one of your own is really satisfying, and I like that you can work the body and the legs to meaningful effect in most matches.
The complaints I have for the striking (and for some of the grappling) are twofold: (1) characters can throw too many techniques without stamina penalty, and (2) fighters can throw techniques they normally can't (or rarely do) in real life. And while I'm at it, a couple of other unfortunate annoyances: no doctor stoppages, a few too many glancing or missed strikes, and the referee doesn't jump in to break up a TKO.
This issue of too many strikes bumps up against my concession that videogames are videogames and not reality. What is “fun” or “real” in the actual sport doesn't necessarily translate into a game. Just the same, having the ability for user input means someone can throw five spinning back kicks in a row. My issues is that some of these types of high-level techniques should be gated or limited in some way so that someone can't just spam kicks with Jon Jones, an already deadly fighter, and basically be an annoyance to fight. He's hard enough with all of the skills he has, and giving him minimal stamina penalty for throwing so many goofy kicks just ends up marring some of the matches.
The same goes for the issues of the fighters all kind of blending together and sharing some moves. I understand that this is EA's first effort and that some of the real fighter-specific moves and detail are going to come in later iterations of the series, but Roy Nelson shouldn't have back suplexes (in fact, almost no one should). This doesn't bother me as much as it seems to bother others, but it's a problem that needs to be addressed in future versions.
Even with these caveats, putting all of the systems together results in some great wars and competitive fights, especially if the action is brought online or if the difficulty is set to one of the higher levels. The CPU will actually bully you when you are low on stamina, and they will attempt takedowns to try and secure round wins. They are pretty damn good at parrying too, so it's worth working on strike diversity so things don't get too predictable. I found the initial couple of difficulty settings to be quite easy, but the “hard” setting (second-highest) provided a good challenge, where I could beat the CPU often but could still lose. It is unfortunate that there isn't a simulation setting like the THQ games had, as I think that would mitigate some of my issues with the stamina and overused strikes.
What else can be said about this game's presentation? It looks great. The living world around the Octagon has all of the details that should be there, including cameramen, ring girls, raucous fans, Bruce Buffer and even coaches and team members. It's cool that all of the lighting treatment and graphics packages have been leveraged here, as it really brings the proceedings to life when the fight gets going.
The character models, on the whole, look tremendous, with freakish amounts of detail on the hair, skin and octagon attire. It's so cool to see a game finally do collision detection right, as there is skin-on-skin contact for the fighters and actual exertion when they're throwing a punch or going for a submission. Even the damage modelling is terrific, and there are all sorts of cuts and bruises that dynamically spring up on a fighter over the course of a match. EA actually toned it down from what they showed at E3 2013, but it still looks great. Sure, some of the hair is a bit aliased in certain lights, and the eyes aren't perfect, but this is fantastic tech that I hope to see in many other EA Sports products (and it looks like NHL 15 will be the next).
The audio package is generally solid, with a decent commentary presentation from Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan. It's probably on par with what the THQ games provided, and they both certainly get excited at the right points of the match. It has the usual problems of falling behind and not really sounding organic at times, but I did find it to be “in the background” enough to sort of work in its own way. The music for fighter walkouts is pretty good, with some licensed tracks thrown in there, and the sound effects for strikes and the like are reasonably varied. I don't think there's quite enough impact on specific strikes, but it does the job overall. It is cool having corner and fan chatter in the background.
The main single-player experience for EA Sports UFC is the career mode, and the conceit is that your fighter has to go through the Ultimate Fighter reality show to become a part of the UFC. Since this is the first release for EA and they only had so much time, the career mode ends up being a bit sparse in areas, but it is functional and fun enough that it's worth noodling around with. The action on the Ultimate Fighter and through your career is peppered with full-motion video clips, so much so that I thought I was in a Sega CD game or something. It is a bit unfortunate that they relied on this so much, as they just end up repeating themselves or sounding kind of stupid (at least Forrest Griffin seemed to get how dumb they were).
It is kind of fun to see the walkouts on the Ultimate Fighter, including your created fighter. As for created fighters specifically, that feature is also kind of bare bones, with no options for females, limited creation slots and no ability to share with friends online. Pretty weak, actually. Still, once you're on the show, you'll be training in between fights (a few short minigames) and then going through the elimination tournament. Once you've graduated into the UFC, you'll fight all sorts of no-name dudes until you start fighting the real fighters. Occasionally, UFC fighters will come and train with you, but this mainly involves them standing in for the normal sparring partner. Even all of them don't necessarily have video intros when they show up, which is sort of goofy as well.
Probably the coolest thing the career mode does is allow you to pick several perks for your fighter. Essentially, the mode provides three game plans that can be set up, and each of these supports five perks to be selected. Some of these modifiers will increase damage. Others allow you to survive dire situations a bit better. It's a neat little wrinkle that allows your character to feel powerful after some initial struggles on the reality show. Quite frankly, I have just been able to spam body kicks with my kickboxer guy, and this has let me blow past a lot of the competition. Still, the high-level guys can actually take you down, so that provides some challenge.
For me, the game shines brightest in the online arena. There are unranked matches, championship matches (taking the form of FIFA and NHL's seasons concept) and rivalries (friends only). There is also a UFC Spotlight feature, and this lets users upload highlight clips for all to see, which is a nice touch. Playing against the thousands of users online has already been a blast for me, especially since the game has very little latency. A handful of matches have had some minor hitching, but on the whole they are quite smooth. It's been really fun to see all of the ways people like to try and bring the fight, and I've had some epic battles and competitive fights that have ended in all sorts of ways.
There are still a few problems, as the strike-spamming and stamina issues of offline play do infect the online experience somewhat. Even more annoying is when you're playing championship mode, where you can't see who your opponent is going to fight with. In some ways, this makes sense. In others, it just means people are just going to pick the best guys in the division. At least they've sort of combined some of the divisions for matchmaking purposes, and you can filter some of them out if certain fighters are annoying to see. Also a problem is the fact that users leaving championship matches does not give you a win, which is super annoying. I've honestly only had a couple of people do this, but it's an oversight EA's part.
Even with these caveats, the online provides great fun and challenge to those looking to step their game up to the next level. I've had fights I thought I had won slip away in the blink of an eye, and I've had close judges decisions that have gone both ways. There have been liver-shot knockouts, split-decisions, late-round submissions, devastating knockouts and crucifix-position TKOs. All of this is good stuff. Win or lose, I find myself coming back, and that's a good thing.
I'm of the opinion that EA Sports UFC does a lot more right than it does wrong, and it certainly stands ahead of some of the first efforts of THQ. I don't think the game makes the best argument for a single-player only experience, but if you plan on taking the action online, there is certainly a lot to like. My hope would be that EA supports this game with DLC and new content as best they can over the next while, as not committing to an annual release for this franchise could force some users to drift away. Still, I'll be enjoying this one for a good while. See you online.
Learning Curve: Even if you come into this game with some experience of the THQ games or EA Sports MMA, there will be a reasonable learning curve for getting the timing down on transitions and parries. For newcomers, the tutorial and challenge modes are absolutely essential to getting a foothold (and hopefully you have some friends to help, too).
Control Scheme: The sport of MMA is complicated, so it stands to reason that any control scheme replicating it is going to be complicated too. That said, EA should have done a better job of contextualizing game plans and “why” you should be defending a certain way or “when” you should be dealing counter-attacks, etc.
Visuals: This game definitely sets the bar for EA titles to come, as it's got some of the best character models you'll see. An insane amount of detail (skin, hair, blood), and the surroundings set the mood well.
Audio: The commentary is about on par with the THQ games (not bad), and the music selections are pretty good. There is some decent sound design too, but some of the impact sould've been emphasized a bit more.
Value: While the feature set is somewhat limited here, the awesome online play should keep many folks playing for quite a while. If you're coming into this game hoping the single-player offerings will hold you over, there might be some disappointment.
Score: 7.5 (Good)
Scoring Note: I took into account what the previous MMA games of the last 5 years had brought to the table as well as how well I thought this game executed on its vision. I don't review games like this as a straight-up simulation experience, as I don't feel that's what they're entirely going for. That said, some of the elements in this game would likely benefit from some added realism, so that hurt the score to a degree.