EA Sports’ UFC series faces the same problem as real-life MMA: How do you attract casual fans while keeping the hardcore audience satisfied? It’s a problem that developer EA Vancouver has tried to tackle head-on with UFC 4, but in doing so, the solid foundation built by 2018’s UFC 3 has been diluted.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stand-up game. MMA catches most people’s attention when there’s fast-paced action and highlight-reel knockouts; snippets that are easily shareable and don’t require you to know the difference between a gogoplata and omoplata to enjoy it.
Ask an occasional MMA watcher what their favourite submission victory is and they’ll likely not have an answer, but ask them about their favourite KO, and images of Jose Aldo tumbling to the ground are likely to emanate. The developers know this and have let it run through every decision made in UFC 4.
The tight, rewarding stand-up of UFC 3 isn’t quite at play here. Stamina doesn’t deplete as quickly as it used to, meaning there’s less punishment for players who like to spam high kicks and heavy attacks that would sap your energy in the last game. Fundamentally, this makes UFC 4 a different game, especially when taking to the multiplayer arena.
It’s not unusual for online fights to end with hundreds of strikes landing for both fighters, including multiple knockdowns and changes of momentum. It’s arcadey, and it’s meant to be exciting, but ceaseless gun-slinging eliminates the little moments that made UFC 3, and by extension MMA, so exciting.
Little slips and feints—which were a decent marker between good players and button-spammers in the last game—are now incredibly inconsistent. Sometimes you’ll slip a jab and land a shot to the ribs, but it’ll barely have any impact. Other times, the animation won’t play out at all and you’ll just be caught with your hands down. Feedback is inconsistent, and it feels like players who aim for anything other than the head are at a disadvantage.
Body shots feel like you’re swinging a potato in a sock at your opponent, while kicks to the gut take ages to wind up and often hit with no weight behind them. The exit animation is slow and makes them easily countered by the simplest flurry of motorised jabs and straights that are possible now stamina loss is lenient.
Use of range and timing isn’t rewarded like it used to be either; in UFC 3, stepping back at the right time and watching your opponent whiff a shot would open up room for punishment, but the window has now shortened. Timing doesn’t beat speed in UFC 4, but rather, relentlessness and button-bashing beats all.
Casual players may get a kick out of this for a short while, but the lack of depth ends up doing all levels of player a disservice. Shallow stand-up impacts other areas of the fight and has led to bad habits developing for those who want to win at all costs online.
Some players will spam clinches and single-collar ties to gain control. It’s also common to have to constantly defend standing guillotine chokes; a move that is overpowered and difficult to escape, despite being a rare submission for fighters to use effectively in real life.
Defending these manoeuvres, and indeed takedowns, feels so unresponsive that oftentimes it seems more effective to try to break the opponent’s rhythm with a punch rather than protecting against it the way the game wants you to.
Once on the ground, UFC 4’s simplified wrestling and jiu-jitsu will be a relief for any player who was put off by the difficult-to-master system of the last game, which required you to have a little knowledge of transitions to work effectively, especially when defending. This time, the default controls will let you pull off everything you need to survive, with useful commands clearly labelled in each situation.
Submissions boil down to two minigames that play out similarly. Sinking in a choke will bring a circle up on-screen and tasks the offensive fighter with putting their coloured bar over their opponent’s while the defender attempts to keep their bar out of reach.
The same concept is used for joint submissions, but instead of using the left stick, you’ll use the triggers to stay on top of (or escape) the opposition’s bar. Your bar gets bigger when you’re winning the duel, and eventually, the fight will finish or the submission attempt will end. It’s not any easier than the last game’s system, which did a better job of making you feel like a submission was getting progressively tighter as it went on.
There’s the option to return to "legacy" controls on the ground if you want to, which may help returning players feel more at home. A hybrid of the two is also useful and lets you take greater control while also having critical moves displayed for the toughest moments, when your brain might go fuzzy under the pressure.
Establishing top position is far more of a finishing move than it used to be, even if it doesn’t always seem like punches are registering. Players will do huge, often fight-ending damage from mount with just a few hits.
Even if your opponent is guarding properly, there’s no need to stop spamming punches, as stamina persists and accumulative damage rises quickly; more so than it does if you land consistent head kicks at full power. Perhaps the design aims to reward new players who learn something more than stand-up fighting, or perhaps UFC 4 has fallen victim to obvious balance issues that plague EA’s other sporting titles.
It’s telling that the game is most fun in the Stand & Bang format that eliminates any clinch or ground work. Most notably, the Kumite mode places fighters in a Mortal Kombat-style arena and brings up a beat ‘em up health bar that depletes as you hit your opponent.
Each successful attack is backed up with an over-the-top sound effect ripped straight from a kung-fu movie. The fights are meant to be fast and unrealistic, so a lot of UFC 4’s shortcomings suddenly disappear. It almost feels like this deliberately arcade-style mode is what the game is meant to be, especially when you consider the two-year development cycle has meant little in the way of progress.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in career mode. Bland training sessions prelude each fight. You’ll receive fight offers with little context, and aside from trying to get rowdy on Twitter, most contests have no spice to them at all. The opening cutscene suggests a decent story is going to play out, but for anyone who has UFC 3, there’s no reason to even try it.
Like FIFA’s career offering, EA haven’t bothered to improve a mode that is key to keeping casual fans interested. Once the dust settles and the inevitable patches begin to roll out to fix gameplay, it’s the hardcore players that are most likely to stick around.
It’s strange, then, that UFC 4 is currently aimed at new players but has little to hook them, while it actively drives seasoned veterans away. UFC 3 wasn’t perfect—far from it—but it was a much sharper game that gave players proper feedback for their actions.
If the previous release was Conor McGregor in his Aldo-folding pomp, UFC 4 is the version that faced Floyd Mayweather Jr.: It’ll grab new attention for a short while, but a limited, out-of-their-depth fighter stands where there was once huge potential.
Scariest of all, this year’s game is starting to tick the EA boxes—granular tweaks, lack of new modes and dying imagination—despite gestating for twice as long as FIFA and Madden.