Those of you who follow mixed martial arts would probably be aware of the history behind EA Sports UFC. The Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit has had a rather controversial relationship with Electronic Arts; back in 2009, UFC president Dana White was widely reported to have been openly badmouthing EA Sports and declaring that his organization would never work with the publisher.
Of course, this was during the heyday of THQ’s UFC Undisputed series. Fast forward to 2014, and things have changed. With THQ’s dissolution, EA Sports has acquired the license to the dominant MMA franchise, and former rivals are now working together in a dramatic turn of events. Launching on a new console generation as EA’s sophomore MMA title, does EA Sports UFC live up to it’s pedigree?
EA Sports has a track record of delivering competent, yet somewhat insubstantial titles whenever a franchise makes its debut on new hardware. Fans of EA’s other sports titles will know what I’m talking about. FIFA and Madden’s initial offerings on the Xbox360/PS3 were lackluster, and it took a couple of years before those franchises hit their stride. I can’t help but feel the same way here with EA Sports UFC, for reasons that I will touch on in this review.
The game certainly makes a great first impression. Developed exclusively for next-gen consoles, EA Sports UFC looks stunning. All available fighters in the UFC roster have been painstakingly rendered with some of the best character models I have ever seen in a video game, with animations reflecting their personality to match.
And it’s not just window dressing either. The game brings across the brutality of mixed martial arts well enough that the more squeamish players might find themselves wincing whenever a particularly damaging strike hits home. Bruises form, blood spurts, and flesh ripples convincingly whenever an onscreen fighter is subjected to violent trauma.
Much like how Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of the graphic novel 300 was a visual celebration of over-the-top graphic violence, the depiction of the up-close-and-personal fisticuffs in EA Sports UFC is quite the feast for the senses. The developers at EA Canada have successfully captured the sheer physicality of MMA; the impact from every punch, kick, knee or elbow can and will be felt by the player in one way or another.
Fighting games live and die by their control scheme, and the most popular fighting games of all time have one thing in common: They have simple and intuitive control schemes that are easy to learn, yet allow advanced players to pull off some amazing stuff as long as they have the capacity for it. Unfortunately, this is precisely where EA Sports UFC falls apart.
I understand that MMA is a sophisticated exercise, and I give EA Sports credit for not taking the easy way out and dumbing it down. Still, there is a sweet spot between complexity and intuitiveness, and the developers have evidently missed that spot by a mile.
It’s almost as if zero attempt was made to streamline the control scheme. Having to hold a bumper, a trigger, an analog stick AND hit a face button on the controller simultaneously to perform relatively basic maneuvers is just downright excessive!
There are just so many possible combinations and modifiers that it would be difficult even for advanced players to remember (and apply) most of them, yet the game does a pretty poor job of explaining it all. On top of that, the controls tend to defy logic and human instinct; for instance, why am I clicking down on the analog stick in order to stand up? It just feels so counter-intuitive and unnatural to do so.
While there are limited practice opportunities, performing a complicated takedown maneuver against a dummy opponent who doesn’t fight back doesn’t quite feel the same as doing it in a real match. It doesn’t help that the in-game tutorials are extremely bare-bones to begin with and don’t really provide much in the way of useful information.
By The Numbers… Or Not?
There seems to be a disconnect between the finger acrobatics and the game’s number crunching beneath the hood. This is especially apparent when it comes to the grappling mechanics. Whenever I failed to get out of a clinch, I could never really tell if it was due to me inputting the commands incorrectly, mistiming the inputs, or if it was because my chosen fighter simply didn’t have the necessary aptitude to pull it off against a statistically superior opponent.
Some form of visual or auditory feedback with regards to this would have been extremely helpful, but it is sadly not present and players are often left second-guessing themselves. As a game developer, this is obviously not the kind of emotion you ever want to evoke in the player, yet it happens all too frequently in EA Sports UFC.
Still, when you’re not too wrapped up in figuring out which button to push, the game is pretty enjoyable. A game is after all the sum of it’s parts, and while the controls can be absolutely maddening at times, it would be unfair to judge EA Sports UFC based on that alone. In spite of the steep learning curve, fights always feel appropriately visceral, and the hundredth punch landed on an opponent feels just as satisfying as the first.
The game offers a solo career mode in which you could create your own fighter and put him (sorry ladies, no female option here) through the paces of the UFC circuit, but it does feel rather limited and repetitive. After what EA Sports were able to achieve in Fight Night Champion, I was expecting a little more personality in a single-player game mode.
The UFC roster is populated in real-life by some colorful individuals, and it should have been easy to inject a little more heart into the career mode. I’m guessing that this is something that the developers are putting on the backburner for a follow-up release, which knowing Electronic Arts is probably coming in a year or two.
The Final Verdict
EA Sports UFC is a mechanically sound title that unfortunately needed a little more time on the drawing board. If you can get past the obnoxious control scheme, you will find that the game is actually pretty deep, appropriately befitting the sport which it seeks to replicate in digital form. Light on extras but heavy on the technicality, EA Sports UFC is not for everyone, but casual and hardcore MMA fans alike will appreciate what it has to offer.