THQ's UFC Undisputed was a series that respected the ground game of Mixed Martial Arts as much as it did the stand-up game. That respect permeated through the rest of the game, allowing players to strategise, to plan and to change tactics on the fly. It represented the reality of MMA in a way people simply didn't expect games would.
In the Undisputed franchise a player using Forrest Griffin would be well-served to lean heavily on the strategy the former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion used. When fighting for the title against Rampage Jackson, Forrest chopped the champion down with leg kicks and then used superior mobility (and stamina) to eke out an unanimous decision victory.
Similarly, Chael Sonnen's risky decision
to take his fight with Anderson Silva to the ground could have happened a dozen times over in Undisputed. And just as it did in real life, the fight could have ended in a shock submission
-- because to the Undisputed series fighting on the ground and on your feet were both as important as one another.
By contrast, almost every other game which has tried to do MMA has concentrated heavily on the boxing and kickboxing elements of the sport and failed to give Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu the respect it deserves. The most famous example of this is EA Sports MMA, the 2010 game from EA Tiburon. In an effort to appease players who said the Undisputed series was needlessly complicated, EA Sports MMA placed the entire submission game on the face buttons and turned the delicate chess game of BJJ into a stamina management button-tap-athon. Compared to UFC Undisputed 2010 which had released earlier the same year, EA Sports MMA was a pale pretender.
EA Sports UFC, by contrast, is a true all-round contender for the championship.
The face buttons on your controller represent your limbs, allowing you to kick or punch at any time with the press of a button. You can modify strikes by moving in different directions or pressing one of two modifier buttons, a system which quickly becomes second nature as you throw out jab combos only to follow with a hook
. Stepping towards your opponent while kicking might make them attempt a powerful front kick
For the Fight Night team -- the team behind Total Punch Control -- it must have seemed odd to place striking on the face buttons again, but it leaves the right thumbstick available for Wrestling/Jiu-Jitsu moves. In the build we played -- which our host (Creative Director Brian Hayes) stressed was not final so many times I made note of it -- the clinch game wasn't working properly. Nevertheless gaining advantage in the clinch is conceptually the same as fighting on the ground -- you thrust the thumbstick in the direction you want your body parts to move, and to execute the transition you turn it in a circle clockwise.
On paper it's dramatically similar to the system used in the Undisputed games, where you would turn the thumbstick a half or three quarter circle in the direction you wanted to move. If you wanted to complete a major transition to your right (say you wanted to go from Full Guard
to Side Control
) you'd turn the Thumbstick 270 degrees clockwise. If you wanted to then move into the North/South
position, you'd flick the stick just 180 degrees clockwise again.
In practice the games are quite different. When you're on the ground you move your thumbstick in a direction -- the direction you intend to go. So if we put you back in Full Guard
and you decide to go for Side Control
you'd begin by moving your thumbstick right and holding it there until your fighter has set himself up for the transition. Once set up, then you turn the thumbstick around once and you hop into Half Guard
. There are no major transitions (that I could see) in EA Sports UFC, so if you want to keep heading to Side Control
you need to perform the same move again. Here's the thing -- when your opponent sees you setting up the transition all they need to do is move their thumbstick in the same direction to stuff it. So instead of moving into Side Control
, you might want to head for Full Mount
instead, that way they'll see you attempt a transition, figure you're still going for Side Control
and you can make the move to the most dangerous position in MMA.
This is exactly what other MMA games (apart from the Undisputed series) have been missing on the ground -- the delicate chess game that is no-gi grappling. Feinting, advancing position and wearing down an opponent's stamina with Ground 'n' Pound all comes into play in EA Sports UFC, and we haven't even touched on the submission game.
From any position you can attempt to submit your opponent. To do so, you hold the R1 modifier and perform a transition move (hold in a direction and move clockwise). Once it's 'in', four gates appear on the screen in the defending corner's colour. If Blue is defending, they'll have four gates on-screen -- if they move one of those gates (using the right thumbstick) all the way to the edge of the screen, they'll escape the submission. To stuff the escape, the submitter (Red, in this example) simply has to move their right thumbstick in the same direction as the gate Blue is moving. In practice this means Blue will switch rapidly between gates, desperately trying to push one all the way out while Red does their best to keep up. To advance the submission Red has to watch out for a quick indicator underneath one of the four gates -- when this flashes they flick their left thumbstick in that direction, the gates reset and they move to the next stage of the submission.
Once again, it's a mind-game as players try to outwit one another to either lock the submission in or escape it without too much damage. More than that, depending on the stage a player escapes at there's a chance they'll be able to reverse the situation -- maybe the attacking player's Kimura attempt put them off balance, and so the defender is able to escape and get on top and in Side Control
I'm properly in love with the system they've got. You feel the tension of the moment when you're trying to escape from an Armbar, and if they manage to lock it in further just before you can escape, you have to put aside your immediate disappointment to focus on still moving to get out. I practiced Jiu-Jitsu for years and it's rare that you see a game force you into mental acrobatics in a similar way -- though obviously no game can replicate all the subtleties of grappling.
While the ground game is obviously one of the most important elements to any MMA fan, EA Sports UFC doesn't slouch in what casual observers want from a fighting game either. There's an impact to the strikes in the game, especially when a fighter connects flush. The audible thud as Jon Jones spins to put his elbow into Alexander Gustafsson's head
is enough to make you wince, and you can watch fighter bodies bruise in real-time if you continuously damage one particular spot.
Presentation is a huge part of this game. Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg do all their regular commentary, and the walk-in sequences are fully modeled. Brian spoke of how the UFC has all of its lighting pre-programmed -- probably nobody will be able to notice it, but they grabbed the file the UFC uses and converted it for use in the game. This is the attention to detail they've gone to.
The fighter models are stunning, detailing every wrinkle, every muscle and everything down to the way toes splay on the floor. Of course, fighting as Jon Jones I could only think of one particular time when I'd even looked at (Warning: Broken Toe Alert) a fighter's toes
, but there's zero chance of that accident happening. There are no broken bones or dislocations in EA Sports UFC, so there's no chance you'll see the above, or Anderson Silva's leg
or anything like that.
The attention to detail really does go above and beyond though. You can see the reflections in players eyes. That's not a joke. It's one of the ways the team at EA Canada is trying to climb out of the uncanny valley, and it works fairly well. Even if you aren't looking at their eyes you'll notice that they don't look lifeless, like so many do in games, and it's easy to appreciate the effect.
The presentation will carry over to the career mode, which I think most gamers will be hanging out for -- especially considering EA Canada's history with Fight Night Champion. According to Hayes players won't assume the role of a single person as they did in FNC, and they won't be going to jail or anything like that -- but they're still hoping to tell a strong narrative through the medium of fighting. While multiplayer matches will see fighters give it their all with the stats they have at hand, in the Career mode we'll see certain fighters gain enhanced abilities to further the story. The example given was Johny Hendricks -- if a fight with the Champ is coming up you might find that your trainer tells you to watch out for his devastating knockout punches
, and you'll find that his stand-up game is far enhanced beyond what you'd expect in a normal fight.
To aid in telling the story they've recruited the help of "as many UFC fighters as [they] could get access to", so you'll get video messages from the likes of Jon Jones telling you what you need to look out for. It will be interesting to see just how deep this rabbit hole goes -- the extra effort from the next-gen versions of Visual Concept's NBA 2K14 are putting the emphasis back on storytelling in single-player sports games, and it will be up to EA to try to keep up now.
Except when they let Dana White run his mouth (which is often) Zuffa controls its brand with an iron fist, so it should come as no surprise to see the premiere Mixed Martial Arts competition represented by a game which highlights the full MMA experience. I was worried that UFC Undisputed 3 had set the bar too high for other fighting games, but EA Sports UFC seems up for the fight here. The tale of the tape puts it within range of the current champion, but we'll have to wait and see if it cut too much weight to make the bell.
Joab "Joaby" Gilroy is a huge fan of sports games, racing games, first-person shooters and 4X strategy games. He's awful at fighting and real-time strategy games although he'd love to get better. He thinks the Halo universe is hollow and that Arkham City was the real game of the year in 2011 and that AusGamers' managing editor Stephen Farrelly only gave Skyrim the nod because he is a filthy Marvel fan. His top three games of all time are (in no particular order) Deus Ex, GTA: Vice City and DayZ.
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