There was a lot of buzz and excitement swirling around the UFC's latest endeavor in the video game market, and fight fans across the globe were finally able to get their Octagon fix when EA Sports UFC hit shelves on June 17.
While the UFC and Electronic Arts had each previously ventured into the realm of digital mixed martial arts and produced successful offerings (EA Sports MMA, UFC Undisputed series by THQ), the first project to emerge from their highly anticipated collaboration figured to take the MMA genre to the next level. And the motivation behind the anticipation made perfect sense.
Throughout MMA's 20-year climb toward mainstream recognition, there has been no force more dominant than the UFC. The Las Vegas-based promotion and the fighters that have competed under its promotional banner have been the driving force behind the rise and global expansion of one of the most rapidly growing sports in the world. The UFC has become the most recognizable brand in MMA and the standard to which all other promotions are judged.
EA Sports certainly knows a thing or two about raising the bar in their respective realm.
The Vancouver-based company has produced several of the most successful video game franchises in the history of home entertainment and has shown no sign of slowing down any time soon. Their ultra-popular Madden NFL series is released on an annual basis and has remained one of the hottest sports titles on the market for nearly 20 years, while previous projects such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour and EA Sports NASCAR were quick to become fan favorites in their own right.
While it took several years before a collaboration between the two companies would become official, the release of EA Sports UFC had the potential to be the beginning of something special. Yet, rising to meet such lofty expectation can certainly prove to be a difficult task, and this writer was tapped on behalf of Bleacher Report MMA to see if the final product lived up to the hype.
Before we get into the finer details of slinging 4 ounces of digital leather inside the Octagon and whether or not Dana White's classic, "Do you want to be a f-----g fighter" speech pertained to yours truly; I believe there is one key piece of information that needs to be relayed.
While I have been covering MMA for several years now, my actual time competing inside the Octagon is still a crisp row of zeros. Furthermore, those numbers don't necessarily change much when the perspective is shifted to my time behind a video game controller. While I'm typically slow to pick up the lingo kids are using these days, I believe the term used to describe someone like myself in the gaming world is a "noob."
That said, if covering MMA full time in the real world has taught me anything, it is that hard work will yield results and a lot of heart can go a long way once the cage door closes.
Therefore, I found it incredibly appealing that EA Sports UFC's career mode begins as a fictional season of The Ultimate Fighter is set to get underway. Fans who have followed the show throughout its 19-season run will appreciate the initial process, as a pair of genuine rivals are dropped in as coaches and the hopefuls are selected one at a time.
With Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva manning the helm, and having won my fight to determine entry into the tournament, the stage was set to get things rolling. When the two coaches began to select their respective teams, I found myself at first hoping in muted tones that the "Gangster from West Linn" would pick me, but then I began to shout at the screen for someone to pick me as my fictional peers were getting snatched up left and right. Needless to say, I was able to find a shred of comfort in not being the last fighter selected, but being the penultimate choice set my course ahead to be one of redemption.
My run at the coveted six-figure contract was about to begin, and some of the most crucial and realistic elements of my fighter's development were right around the corner. Much like the real-life TUF series, fighters work through training sessions in between rounds of the tournament. In EA Sports UFC, these short training exercises are a great way to get an initial grasp on the game play inside the Octagon as you are drilled in three different areas before your next fight.
While fully completing each session can grow tiresome in quick fashion, those measured tutorials play a key factor in what I found to be the most appealing aspect of the game.
Throughout the extensive history of games where fighting is the primary function, those players who have come to grasp the technical side of launching attacks have grown to loathe those of us who revert to the "button mashing" approach. While the person sitting beside you is setting up what will surely be a spectacular offensive combination, a primal pounding on the control just so happens to unleash a form of wrath that levels your opposition. Granted, there is very little pride to be found in such moments, but winning is what matters most when bragging rights are on the line.
Although the example provided may seem to be a bit of a stretch, there are aspects that ring familiar in the world that exist under the UFC banner. While technical fighters that execute sharp game plans find success over opponents with inferior skill sets at a high-percentage clip, there have been plenty of examples of the "puncher's chance" phenomenon provided over the years. An MMA fight is an unpredictable and chaotic thing, and many competitors have used a "Hail Mary" right hand to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
That said, taking the slugger's approach isn't a great way to create job security inside the real Octagon. As it turns out, working behind the "button mashing" attack isn't the best method in EA Sports UFC either.
The controller is set up in a basic manner with buttons controlling punches and kicks, but using the analog sticks (PS4) and the four buttons placed on top of the controller allows your fighter to chain movements together. Fortunately for those of us who are green on the sticks, striking attacks and blocking are easy things to pick up, and it won't be long before your fighter starts to feel comfortable on the feet.
The Ultimate Fighter tournament—and the training sessions that accompany it—serve to be a great platform for the initial kinks to be worked out of your fighter's game as the caliber of competition faced is on the lower end of the spectrum. Therefore, a couple of wins and a dozen training sessions later, you arrive at your opportunity to become the next "Ultimate Fighter," which I'm happy to report I accomplished by salting a Cody McKenzie look-alike with knees from the clinch.
It was a glorious knockout, and the replay clips of your handy work sprinkle a touch of flavor to the already sweet taste of success.
Once the six-figure contract is under your belt, you will begin your journey through the ranks of whichever division you chose to place your fighter. Due to my affinity for lightweight ruckus, my created warrior set out to tame the "shark tank" that is the UFC's 155-pound collective. But before I would ever see names like Benson Henderson, Gray Maynard or Gilbert Melendez, I would have to start at the other end of the ladder and face wave upon wave of fictional, yet determined fellow lightweights.
The process begins with Joe Silva sending a message that contains the next fighter you will face. Once you accept the bout, the training sessions you first experienced on TUF will return on your option screen. Just as was stated earlier in the article, taking advantage of these opportunities will certainly play out in your favor as it allows you another platform to sharpen your moves instead of hoping things come together on fight night. This is important because rough performance inside the Octagon could prove far more costly in the long run than just a loss on your record.
One of the more interesting elements in "career mode" is the damage meter that continues to run as you make your climb up the divisional ranks. The more damage your fighter takes in a bout, the more damage points will be tallied after each fight. That number is then applied to a health bar that reflects your fighter's current physical state, and this process continues as long as your fighter's career does.
Where everyone with a pulse loves a gritty, three-round dust-up inside the cage, too many of those wars will serve to cut your fighter's career short. This element of the game makes taking a strategic approach on fight night all the more important, and things like working an a sound game plan, effectively fighting from the outside and developing a strong takedown game can make all the difference.
Nevertheless, a fight wouldn't be a fight without a nose getting twisted up or an eyebrow being flayed open with a counterstrike, and this is another element where EA Sports UFC shines. The graphic presentation is extraordinary and the aftermath of absorbing strikes is reflected in real time. This not only serves to boost the "realness" points up drastically, but the way a fighter reacts to how they are being battered truly brings the game to life.
If you are putting a Jose Aldo-inspired leg-kicking clinic on your opponent, they will reach a point where they are forced to switch stances in order to get their damaged lead leg out of danger. While switching stances is a subtle change where presentation is concerned, it would be a huge obstacle for a fighter to face mid-fight, and so is it when this occurs on EA Sports UFC.
An orthodox fighter's power hand becomes their jab when forced to switch to southpaw—and with the leg that was previously serving as the lead now busted up and bruised—your opponent will have a difficult time launching power shots with a flat tire to push off from. Again, these are subtle details in the game play, but they certainly add a touch of reality to the fight, and it doesn't take long to realize just how important adjusting to obstacles will be as you progress toward the title.
From the early bouts where you are an unknown fighter fleshing out the preliminary portion of a card to the showcase fights you will eventually earn on pay-per-view, progression in every facet of your fighter's MMA game is the primary focus. Failure to put in the gym time will limit your ability to lock in the guillotine choke when you need it, just as it will lead to your undoing when you don't know how to defend the arm triangle the fighter on top of you is hunting for.
As your fighter's skills progress and the victories over top-notch competition begin to stack up, the journey that began with being picked second to last on TUF, to standing within striking distance of UFC gold, begins to come into focus. The only thing standing in between you and your ultimate goal is a ninja-kicking phenom from Milwaukee, and the work you have put in on the road to earn your title shot will determine whether you become a highlight or get the spotlight once it is all said and done.
If you are a passionate fan of the sport, there's a good chance Anthony Pettis has been on your television screen and you've turned to a friend nearby and explained what his opponent needs to do in order to beat him. With EA Sports UFC, the chance to put up or shut up has come front and center, and if you've put in the hard work to prepare for the biggest moment of your career, there is a good chance you will rise to the occasion.
That said, if you chose to skip those training sessions.....
Did I mention how realistic the graphic on the knockout replays are?
On a final note, I wanted to take a look at a few of the things I didn't find appealing in the game play for EA Sports UFC. While the striking exchanges are action-packed, the recovery window for fighters on the receiving end of a rough exchange is unrealistic. Where many of its predecessors in the fighting genre have relied on a health meter, EA Sports UFC uses a HUD to indicate where damage has been amassed.
A few thundering hooks will cause your opponent to stagger, and his HUD will blink red in the head area that tells you a few more well-placed strikes will seal the deal. Yet, despite your opposition on wobbly legs, two seconds later that window is closed and they are back to full capacity. In a game that does a great job of bringing realistic elements to the screen in many ways, having a dazed fighter regain their senses in quick fashion is a rough turn.
There are also glitches that occur when two fighters are locked in various grappling exchanges. While the majority of these result in one of the fighters getting hung up in a certain position, videos have surfaced from across the gaming world that show some insane transitions where fighters are flung in the air across the cage. This is absolutely an issue EA will have to address as the franchise goes forward and a kink they will have to get worked out with a patch or in the next installment. Until those things come, take a quick look at the list of glitches MMAJunkie put together to see a few of the craziest examples.
The only other thing I found that took away from the experience was the inclusion of stagnant videos that arise throughout your fighter's climb up the ranks. While appearances from Dana White, B.J. Penn and a wide collection of recognizable UFC faces throwing you a few words of motivation is meant to enhance the feeling you are in the game, the end result was the furthest thing from it. The videos are tough to watch as fighters from all points of the stardom spectrum attempt to read scripted dialogue and try to convince you they care about the progress you are making in your MMA career.
Don't get me wrong. I think Ed Herman is a talented fighter, but he came up a bit stale on the sell when telling me to "keep up the good work."
While "Short Fuse" may never see the actual work my created fighter put in, EA Sports UFC did a good job of setting the tone for future rounds where there will be more chances to try. This offering was far from perfect, but the elements of the game they got right—they got it right in a big way.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.