Before even playing it, EA Sports UFC earns its share of respect. EA took a risk by making the game exclusive to PS4 and Xbox One, and putting the Fight Night crew at EA Canada on it is a smart choice. While the game itself is not a total knockout, EA Sports UFC is an endearing game capable of nailing at least a few crucial blows.
For those out of the loop, Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) is the largest mixed martial arts (MMA) organization in the world. As opposed to something like boxing that is focused strictly on regulated punching, MMA is a more improvisational sport where people are expected to fight it out however you want so long as you perform using your own body, the octagon-shaped cage, and nothing else. Some focus on certain martial arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, while others are focused on more traditional western fighting forms like boxing. In other words, MMA (and UFC) represent fighting at its purest form. You can knock people out, you can get the referee to stop the fight (usually when it’s clear one fighter is unable to defend), and you can use grapples to make your opponent give up through submission (or “tapping out”).
If nothing else, EA Canada did a great job of making this combat look, sound, and feel really, really good. The visuals are among the best these new consoles have to offer, with skin that looks like real skin and fleshy, slightly-jiggly bodies that react realistically upon getting hit. And when one fighter kicks another in the face, the game combines the sound of human meat punching other human meat with some extremely careful, dynamic vibration that does a surprisingly effective job of simulating the quick-yet-lasting feeling of getting hit (with fighters realistically getting broken and cut as fights progress). With the impressive physics and visuals as well as effective supplementary details, the game really does put you in the action of MMA.
But while it feels good to punch someone in the face or make someone’s body crumble with a well-timed kick jumping off of the cage, the actual gameplay doesn’t necessarily merit the exact same enthusiasm. Striking opponents with punches and kicks is a matter of pressing the correct shoulder button, the correct direction on the left stick, and/or the right face button, which is simple enough, but the game falls apart a bit when it comes to the grappling system.
Grappling in this game, whether it be through takedowns (nailing someone to the floor) or clinches (holding someone’s standing body in place while you hit them), demands flicking the right stick in a half or quarter circle (the right way at the right time) while pressing the correct shoulder button depending on what you want to do. Now, if you want to actually try to put someone in a submission hold (by trying to break their arm while on the mat or something else that would cause a great deal of pain to make them give up), you have to play through an annoying sequence that makes you block your opponent’s escape with the right stick while tightening your hold with occasional flicks of the left. It’s possible to deal with, but the entire grappling system is just so obtuse that I ended up taking out 95% of the AI opponents using only repetitive punches and kicks to the head.
This is the biggest problem in the game: it’s too appealing to just knock people out without any strategy. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a whole lot of fun to kick and punch people in the head over and over again, and the game’s great base makes it feel realistically great to knock someone out. On the other hand, the strategic elements of the game are so unappealing to use and the striking is so easy (most of my fights on the highest “Pro” difficulty were beaten in a single round using knockout strategies), that most of the fun improvisational nature is lost to unwieldy controls. I can see myself having a lot of fun with my friends playing this game, but it’s a shame that about half of the combat just isn’t practical. If you can guard and throw a Superman Punch, you will be more okay than you should be.
As for content, UFC is a somewhat lean package. You can fight using all main UFC weight classes (including the relatively recent female one) in a basic “fight now” mode. The selection of fighters is good, but I’m disappointed that I can’t stack different weight classes against each other (especially since the super-special unlockable characters Bruce Lee and Royce Gracie are in different classes). There are also tutorial modes, in the form of one basic tutorial that you probably need to play a few times as well as the Challenge Mode that gives you a series of specialized tutorials that rank you and increase in difficulty). Outside of that, there is Career Mode and Online.
Career mode is a fun, 5-7 hour single-player mode where you enter and win The Ultimate Fighter (the league’s American Idol equivalent that guarantees the winner a UFC contract), carry on a career in the UFC that will result in a title match if you’re good enough to rise the ranks, and eventually retirement once you take enough career damage. The character creator is good and I made someone who looked a lot like a buffer version of me, so it was a lot of fun to get a bit immersed in my own character’s rise to fame. You can also use experience points to boost your skills, gained through fights and training (which are repurposed challenges put in-between fights), and the mode is colored through interviews, UFC footage, and “personalized” video messages from Dana White and a bunch of fighters congratulating you and giving advice using some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen.
Regardless, the effort put in is endearing enough to make me play through it twice (on Normal and Pro), and this is coming from someone who doesn’t care much for most single-player sports games. One word of advice though: bite the bullet and play through on Pro if you want to unlock Bruce Lee without paying. The AI is cheap and sometimes seems humanly impossible to recreate, but you can handily beat it with enough experimentation and the right repetitive kick to the head.
The online mode, meanwhile, consists of FighterNet and competitive modes. FighterNet is a social HUB where you can share highlight reels, look at stats, and interact with friends in-game. The online modes are basic quick matches, friend matches, and matches where you can fight other players in Championships to get ranked and fight for the belts in the various divisions. It’s a fancy way of using leaderboards in a new way and it works, but like the rest of the game, the online mode is a lean smattering of the essentials and little else.
I like EA Sports UFC. Despite its flaws and its limited content, the fighting has a great base, the presentation is second-to-none, and the entire package screams potential. On the other hand, the grappling system needs severe work in the streamlining department, and the content needs something more than a good Career Mode to sink my teeth into. EA Sports UFC isn’t quite where it needs to be, but I have high hopes for EA Sports UFC 2.
Note: Every screenshot in this review was captured from our PS4 copy of the game.
PS4 review copy provided by EA. EA Sports UFC is available now for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. If you’re interested, there’s also a decent demo on PSN and Xbox Live that gives a good impression of the fighting system.