I proceed into the ring with great caution. Not because of nerves, not because the other guy is looking particularly threatening, but because UFC Undisputed has been my favourite sports series since 2009. Now EA have the license, since THQ sold it to them prior to going under, and their history of taking over things had me wary regarding future UFC games.
Naturally this means a change of developer to EA Canada who are responsible for, in addition to a huge amount of other games, Fight Night Round 4. Graphically the game lives up to this pedigree as it contains what are perhaps some of the most detailed fighter models I’ve ever seen. Their flesh ripples as they get hit, they sweat noticeably throughout the match until it’s dripping off of them, spittle punctuates your strikes before drying on the mat, and blood stains appear underfoot.
The amount of detail is astonishing which unfortunately serves to enhance the thing that is most at odds with the realism: the uncanny valley. Fighters’ faces don’t really do anything while you’re fighting. They can be stood still awaiting the opponent’s approach or lunging forward with a superman punch and their expression will barely change. A small detail, but one that nevertheless takes away from the immersion of the otherwise stellar graphical presentation.
Worse are the frame rate hiccups. The menus are particularly prone to stuttering, but it shows up in game from time to time too. There is really no excuse since they already decided to render in 30FPS with motion blur instead of 60FPS, which despite their insistence is absolutely a big change to gameplay. Not to mention that all that blur shows up in screenshots, occasionally rendering some useless because it looks a bit like hi-res ghosts in a fist fight.
Just like THQ’s UFC games, the ground game and takedowns are all a bit too robotic. When you watch UFC, it’s a kind of ordered chaos – you can see the positions, transitions, and submissions take place, but they are always off slightly. In the games it’s always a clear cut position and it could only look further from real MMA if it was taking place on the ceiling. Perhaps it is necessary to keep rigid positions so the player can quickly see what he needs to defend against, but UFC 3 did a good job of mitigating this problem (via lots and lots of animations) and it unfortunately isn’t present here. The result is grappling that looks like diagrams from a “Ground and Pound for Dummies” text book.
This isn’t to say the ground game is at all bad, just that it doesn’t look realistic at points. EA Canada chose to go with a simplified version of the system found in the previous UFC titles. Quarter rotations of the right stick are used to transition between positions while submissions are done via a mini-game that does a good job of presenting a skill-based struggle. Both this and the streamlined grappling makes things a little less impenetrable, but like the grappling in previous UFC games it’s frustrating for newcomers to pick up in a fight, especially when it comes to the kind of pick up and play scenario that local co-op demands.
When you’re on your feet, EA Sports UFC is the best I’ve experienced. Packed to the rafters with those explosive knockout moments, it’s also deeply tactical to an extent that is almost bewildering. A tap of a face button will throw a punch or kick, but there are four modifiers. L2 will attack the body while L1 and R1 will use techniques that aim for the head. Then the direction you are holding the left analogue also changes the strike you will use, so after some quick maths that’s – carry the one, convert to imperial – a hell of a lot of strikes to play with.
Then there’s defence with a similar wealth of options, from side steps and slips to parrying and counters. There are just so many moves available and once you master both striking and grappling you’re well on your way to being good at the game. Then there’s just a matter of positioning and timing, because a well timed jab is much more effective than a badly timed glancing head kick. True to the previous UFC games, this is not something you can just pick up and press buttons to play, it relies very heavily on timing, accuracy, and planning.
Perhaps the greatest inclusion to career isn’t even specific to the mode. Nowhere is the AI more obviously impressive than playing through the career. Combatants with different fighting styles actually fight very differently from each other and they adapt during matches too. The above video has me fighting a submission specialist who, true to form, tried to take me down every time I so much as took a breath.The second round saw me raining strikes on him in an attempt to stem the flow of takedowns, so he went for an ill-advised clinch.
Another addition to career are game plans. Once you’ve made a character and start levelling up, you unlock abilities that offer changes in gameplay to further specialise. They are very flexible and offer options to customise your character even further. They also significantly alter the gameplay perhaps a little further away from the simulation a serious UFC fan may be looking for, but you can always just not use them.
Other than game plans, the career is exactly what you might expect. You start in the reality series The Ultimate Fighter, eventually winning it and joining the UFC in undercard bouts, and so on. You view your next match, you do three short, repetitive training exercises, you spend all your attribute points on upgrading stats or unlocking moves, then you do the fight. Rinse, repeat, that’s career mode. Really it just gives you progressively more fights and lets you level your character, while expecting more from the career might sound a bit silly the way it stands it comes off as a little shallow.
It’s broken up by very nicely polished cutscenes highlighting whatever is relevant with footage from real fights and even voice-overs from real fighters, whether it’s your first UFC bout or you’ve got a shot at the title. You also get video calls from UFC fighters and Dana White before and after matches. They are there to encourage and congratulate you which is nice at first, but I had difficulty suspending disbelief after getting the exact same message from Forrest Griffin three matches in a row.
The worries I had regarding passing the reins over to another developer and publisher are laid to rest here. It is far from a perfect game but the fighting, particularly striking, is the best it has ever been. EA Canada has done a good job of showing that the UFC series is in good hands by delivering an excellent game.