It could be argued that mixed martial arts has become the most popular combat sport in the world. That might explain why EA Sports has chosen to create a UFC game and not a boxing title despite it being three years since the well-received Fight Night Champion was released.
Back in 2010, the company released EA MMA, its first foray into the world of caged combat. While it was devoid of the popular UFC license, it had its qualities.
Equipped with the license from the big company with the little name, EA Sports UFC released on Tuesday, and it aims to build on the successes of EA MMA and improve upon its shortcomings.
As a connoisseur of combat sports and video games, it was my duty to turn this one inside out to determine the best and worst it has to offer.
So in my Mike Goldberg voice…”Here weeee go!”
Graphics and Animation
If you’ve seen the pre-release screenshots and the demo, you’ve already caught a glimpse of how beautiful this game looks. As athlete renders go, you won’t find anything better on any platform or in any other re-creation of a sport.
Fighters are almost to a man—and woman—spot-on, virtual duplicates of themselves.
Everything from accessories to tattoos are superbly recreated. The body styles are especially diverse and accurate.
Check out this image of Travis “Hapa” Browne and Roy “Big Country” Nelson.
Browne stands 6’7” and Nelson is a six-footer. You can easily see the drastic height difference and distinct body types. This gives you a realistic perspective while competing with or without a huge size advantage.
The arenas look fabulous as well. You don’t get a chance to really appreciate them outside of the walkouts and during cutscenes between the rounds, but the lighting effects are stellar and immersing.
Even during this aspect of the game you can see just how big some of the heavyweights are as they tower above their entourage on their way to the Octagon.
There’s also a natural flow to the equipment. The shorts flow, which is a nice subtle detail considering many fighters in the game wear the athletic garb that doesn’t move. One of the most awesome aspects of the visuals is the full-body deformation from strikes, grapples and facial damage.
It is insanely realistic and layered.
The cuts and their locations were very predictable in other video game re-creations of combat sports. In EA Sports UFC, you really don’t know the type, size or location the cut will appear, but it always seems to fit the action in the Octagon. Even shots to the midsection and leg kicks show noticeable effects on the recipient's body.
This is easily the best anatomical damage system ever created in a video game. To be honest, there’s almost no fault to point out when it comes to stationary visuals.
For the most part, animations are sharp as well, but there are some instances that you want to forget you saw. The game does a good job in recognizing simultaneous strikes between the two combatants, but there are times where a leg will appear to be misplaced when an attack is finishing or when the reaction from a strike doesn’t quite match up with what you saw on the screen.
On the ground, the collision detection is almost perfect, but ground strikes should potentially have a little more visual impact. You can use modifiers to throw bigger strikes, but the more regular attacks should probably look a little rougher.
Even with those minor issues, this game features the type of jaw-dropping visuals that will cause anyone—even non-gamers—to stop and stare. If all of the animations were as flawless as the graphics themselves, this would be a perfect 10.
Graphics and Animation - 9 out of 10
Gameplay and Realism
Learning curves are a big deal with combat sports games. Many people can be deterred from playing them for fear of being thrashed online if they aren’t the quickest learners on the sticks.
While this game isn’t rocket science, it isn’t elementary math either.
There are five difficulty settings: Beginner, Easy, Normal, Hard and Pro. They are oddly arranged in the menu. In most cases, the last setting listed would be the hardest, but considering the fact that the instructions for unlocking Bruce Lee are to conquer career mode on Pro difficulty or higher, you have to assume Pro is just a little harder than normal.
From playing the game on different settings, it seems that Pro gives the most realistic experience. There will be much discussion about the game's realism, but what about the fun factor?
Your level of enjoyment with the gameplay will depend on your expectations. The game does not play like a pure simulation—at least not in the stand-up game.
Some rather spectacular strikes don’t have the type of result that they would if landed in a real fight. Tornado kicks and such are indeed heavy attacks that can do major damage and even score the occasional flash knockdown in the game. However, in the real UFC, these types of shots almost always result in the end of the fight. At the very least, it takes the victim an entire round to gain his or her wherewithal after the shot lands.
Therein lies the compromise gamers make when playing fighting sports or any combat games based on realistic human capacities for damage. How much realism is too much?
Are there any games that have ever tried to make characters in games like real human beings when it comes to combat? There’s an old-school fighting game called Bushido Blade (I’m showing my age) that comes to mind.
That game featured perhaps the most realistic damage system ever in a fighting game. The combatants fought with swords and sledgehammers, and if a character was hit square, the fight was over because, well, they were fighting with swords and sledgehammers.
For all its realism, it was not a game made for everyone’s taste. EA Sports UFC creative director Brian Hayes and I talked about this dynamic during the interview below.
Part of the reason people play video games is to live in a fantasy world. Too much realism can be bad for some. Hardcore fans might really appreciate the fact that one big left hand from Johny Hendricks will end the night for any opponent, no matter what his energy bar reads. Others would get frustrated by how quickly their fights are over.
It would take a ton of time to master the game to a point where you could have realistic bouts. The fact of the matter is that most people simply don’t have that kind of time.
Fatigue is another potential dilemma. In reality, if a fighter threw as many strikes as you probably will when you play this game, he or she would be gassed by the second round. That said, the game might not be fun if you had to play with a real human being's cardio limitations.
Game developers knows this, and that’s why EA Sports UFC is what I’d call an arcade-sim hybrid akin to Fight Night Champion.
There are very realistic aspects of the game but some clearly arcade-like details. For what it’s worth, it seems that’s by design. If you understand and are OK with that concept, you’ll enjoy the stand-up battles quite a bit in this game.
Parrying shots and timing counters is the key to success. Want to really knock an opponent off their feet? Time your block, guess the location and then quickly counter with a power shot of your own. That’s when the beautiful brutality of mixed martial arts shines through the most in EA Sports UFC. It’s a fun chess match that features a good but not overwhelming amount of variables.
Reach and height matter in a big way. If your guy has a huge height advantage like the Browne-Nelson example, then it is really a factor in the fight. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. However, if you face someone who really knows how to use their height and has good takedown defense, it’s going to be a tough fight.
Clinches and off-the-cage maneuvers add a bit of spice to the stand-up game. The latter are simply about style more than substance. The high-risk moves look good, but in my experience, they rarely landed. That could have been user error.
The ability to stuff takedowns is another cool variable that exists in the real world of MMA and in the game. Like in real life, fighters who excel in grappling will look for takedowns often. The game's artificial intelligence accurately mimics this behavior nicely. Also, when a fighter is stunned, they may look for a takedown to buy him or herself some time to recover.
It became quite clear to me through my time with the game that if I didn’t tighten up my takedown defense, I’d be frustrated on a regular basis as opponents continued to establish or kill my momentum by shooting my legs. This is realistic, so anyone familiar with the sport shouldn’t be upset with this aspect of the game.
Once the fight goes to the ground, the action is simple, but the strategy is a bit complex. Like the real sport, it’s all about positioning and taking advantage of opportunities. Defending your opponent's maneuvers is anchored by the right trigger/R2 button on your controller.
While holding the right trigger/R2 button, you must time movements of the right analog stick to stifle a fighter trying to move from the full mount to a less compromising position. This also stops an opponent in control of the ground position from advancing through progression into a full mount.
All of this can easily be the difference between winning and losing. As is the case with takedown defense, if you don’t master this aspect of the game, you’ll be in trouble against an experienced and skilled player or computer opponent on the higher difficulty settings.
Submissions are another vital piece of the ground game. This is always a tricky deal for mixed martial arts games. Determining what’s too complex and too simplistic is a tough line to walk. Overall, I think EA Sports UFC does it as well as can be expected. Submissions are a mini-game in itself that is a test of reflexes, execution and strategy.
If you’re the fighter trying not to get submitted, you first have to try and stay out of positions on the ground where submissions are easier for your opponent to attempt. Ground repositioning is the name of the game.
Once a submission attempt is underway, the player who is fighting off the submission has to strategically attempt to extend their mark to the edge of the submission octagon. It’s just complex enough to require skill but not complicated enough to be a turnoff.
Even though most of what is present within EA Sports UFC’s gameplay is positive, it would have been nice to have slider options. Gamers play differently, and sliders give consumers an opportunity to optimize their gaming experience.
There’s a great base here, but it would be perfect if there was a pure-sim difficulty setting that played like a hand-to-hand combat version of Bushido Blade.
Gameplay 8.5 out of 10
Sound and Presentation
The crowd, music and overall Octagon atmosphere are stellar, but Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg’s commentary are not up to par with the best in the world of sports video games. There’s little to no conversation between the two and not nearly enough referencing of the fighter names.
This is an example of the old-school way of plugging in phrases and trying to fit them around scenarios in the game. With games like NBA 2K, FIFA and even MLB The Show taking steps in the right direction when it comes to commentary, this aspect of the game is lacking a bit.
Music is nice, but the positive effect of a few hot tracks wears thin after a while. Many might argue there’s only so much depth in-game commentary can provide, but referencing specific details in a fight would provide much more longevity in the minds of gamers.
The overlays and television-quality broadcast are exceptional. Pair them with the ultra-realistic graphics and even a real gamer could mistake EA Sports UFC for a pay-per-view or Fight Night event easily.
There’s even nice references to stats like significant strikes during the bouts. It would be awesome if the commentators actually referenced them as they appear on the screen.
Much like the gameplay options, there isn’t enough customization with the presentation. There are pre-set presentation profiles, but you can’t individually alter the effects, music, commentary and crowd like you can in most sports games.
This isn’t a game-breaking omission, but it’s a little bewildering why the game wouldn’t allow this type of standard option.
While the visual presentation further displays just how great the game looks, the audio side is a bit lacking.
Sound and Presentation: 6.75 out of 10
Game Modes and Options
First and foremost, the online play was nearly seamless. Taking into account that the servers weren't full, there was lag in just one of the eight fights I had. Even in that match, the interference wasn’t enough to ruin the experience.
There are three ways to play online. You can go with championships, which branches off into online tournaments, and there is a season mode that allows the gamer to level up from a white belt to black belt with victories.
Because the game is a blast to play head-to-head, these modes can become very addictive. In fact, I’m generally a career-franchise mode kind of gamer, but the awesomeness of the online setup kept me from the single-player experience for a time.
YouTube personality Dman was also taken by the online experience.
You can also play quick, unranked matches online, and you can also set up rivalries against gamers on your friends list. The UFC Spotlight option showed news within the real-life promotion, but it also features the best uploaded highlights from gamers throughout the UFC gaming community.
The roster of fighters is large but not all-inclusive. With a game like this, it would be impossible to please everyone. That said, it’s hard to accept that the new bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw isn’t in the game. The roster was finalized far before Dillashaw dethroned Renan Barao, but he was obviously still a top contender.
The good thing is that the game will feature routine roster updates and fighters will be added to the game at no extra charge to gamers. Free is always great.
The only additional DLC that would incur a cost are special versions of fighters who did make the roster.
In the way of offline options, there’s the standard Fight Now, Challenges (which is a recommended extension of the tutorial) and the Career mode. The Ultimate Fighter is incorporated into the career mode experience. It fits in well and adds some intrigue to the beginning of your journey to earn UFC gold.
You can utilize EA Sports GameFace option to create yourself in the game. The application has been around for a while and has been used in conjunction with several EA games. It has come a long way, but the accuracy of the renders are still hit or miss.
I created myself in the video below, and it didn’t come out very accurate.
I did get a chance to create James Te Huna, a fighter who isn’t yet on the roster. He came out great, so it’s hard to say what my issue was.
Aside from the TUF inclusion and GameFace adventures, there’s not much more than a standard single-player experience here. You must upgrade your fighter’s move set, manage the cumulative damage of their career and attain goals all while going through training sessions to hone your skills.
The mode does incorporate a realistic calendar of UFC events. Once you get to 2015, you see the number of UFC pay-per-view events hit 200-plus. You can see the simulated results of the other fights on the card.
One omission from this title is an event mode. UFC Undisputed 3 allowed gamers to build their own pay-per-view events, and it kept up with which fighters currently held the titles in your own personal MMA universe.
It was awesome for multi-player and party situations. It was even a blast for single-players who simply wanted to play back-to-back matches. The absence of that mode is the only real major setback.
Modes and Options - 7.5
The Bottom Line
This is an exciting entry to a new sports gaming series, but it is far from perfect. Most of the issues are related to options, not gameplay, which is a great thing. EA Sports UFC is hardcore enough for fans of MMA but enough of a fighting game to grab the attention of casual fans.
Overall - 8