Every person who has seen EA Sports UFC in action has stopped and asked whether it was a game or the real thing. That's not a joke. It's like typoglycemia, where words will read corretly
as long as you get a certain degree of factors right. If someone walks past a TV showing football or hockey or MMA that looks real enough they'll believe it's real -- when they see you fumbling with a controller in their hands, only then will they begin to question things.
And EA Sports UFC looks real enough to passer-bys. Visually speaking the game is jaw-droppingly impressive, in fact. The way muscles visibly strain through fighters' skin, their facial animations, the almost insane attention to detail in the lighting all makes the game look brilliant. And if that's what you're looking for in a sports fighter, EA Sports UFC should top your list.
But as it is with so many games, graphics aren't everything. And while EA Sports UFC is the prettiest fighter in the business, it can't fight for shit.
To put it simply, EA Sports UFC is the Kimbo Slice of MMA games. With little knowledge of the intricacies of the systems, when the game is just an all-out brawler for you and your mates to revel in, EA Sports UFC seems unstoppable. It's all highlight reel knockouts and frantic scrambling defence because nobody knows anything beyond punching the other person in the face as hard as possible. But as soon as you test it you start to see significant underlying problems. And just like Kimbo Slice, those problems hinge on fundamentally poor ground defence and poor stamina management.
Once a fight goes to the ground in EA Sports UFC things become a little silly. Any fight on the ground is simply a series of transitions peppered by a few lonesome punches here and there, because everyone fighting on the ground loses stamina during actions, whether they're the ones moving or not. Obviously it's a delicate situation for EA Canada to deal with. The reality of Mixed Martial Arts is that lay-and-pray style of fighting -- where a combatant takes their opponent to the ground and then chips away at their resolve via a homo-erotic war of attrition -- is an incredibly efficient if utterly boring style of fighting. In their attempts to translate the technique to a videogame they've capture very little of the efficiency and all of the boredom.
Against AI a fight is best won by taking the fight to the ground, moving to full mount and then finishing the fight with elbows. There are problems with this process (that I'll detail in a bit) but nine times out of 10 this will work successfully. It works against humans as well, but online players will send you impolite messages and real world opponents will stop playing with you, so it's not worth it.
The reason it works is because there's no real penalty for letting your stamina bar drain the entire way. Certainly your strikes will do less damage, but you're sitting on your opponent's chest driving elbows into their face with impunity, so that's not a real downside. What this means is that it is advantageous for you to transition ad nauseam until you make your way to full mount -- and this is something you can do from both the top and bottom position. This technique is made more effective by the fact that once the transition animation is engaged players can't deliver strikes any longer, which makes transitioning more effective than blocking.
The reason this works from both the top and bottom position is because fighters have easy-to-master reversals in a number of positions. When you are in full guard, transition once and you will roll your opponent over and put them into full mount. Read that again -- by default, if you are in full guard and you transition once you will immediately enter the most dominant position in mixed martial arts. Getting taken down by an opponent is actually my primary strategy in career mode. Not because my fighter is good at submissions but because I can very easily move to full mount to finish the fight.
The problem is exacerbated by a number of issues. The L3 button (engaged by pressing the Left ThumbStick inwards) is the 'get up' button, something you use when you're on the ground and you need to get back to your feet. If EA Sports UFC made any sense at all it would be a move restricted to players in equal or advantageous position -- someone in the dominant position of mount should be able to get up whenever they like, while someone on the bottom should have more trouble. This is not the case, however, as it seems no matter your position a player is able to hit L3 to stand-up. And yes, because getting back on your feet is technically a transition animation, no strikes can be thrown once the stand-up move has been engaged. If you find yourself on the bottom of full mount, you can hit L3 until you get up and render an otherwise typically terrifying ground position worthless.
Once the fight has left the ground, the rigidity of the combat continues. In my last preview for the game I explained that EA Sports UFC focused too heavily on fighters blocking instead of getting them to move out of the way of attacks, and I'm happy to see that they've fixed that issue -- fighters are definitely better off getting the hell out of the way of strikes than they are just trying to soak them up.
The rigidity comes into play when you look at the way the game treats counters. In my experiments, the game will only count a strike as a counter if the fighter does it following a successful dodge, slip or parry -- hitting someone directly after they miss with their wild haymaker is no more efficient than at any other time.
This means players need to deliberately put themselves in harm's way only to dodge out again if they want to successfully counter-strike an opponent, which is ridiculous. A counter isn't a counter because of some ludicrous idea of a successfully engaged dodge -- it's an attack that takes advantage of your opponent being out of position due to their having launched an unsuccessful attack of their own.
Why does someone need to explain that?
Outside of the fights themselves the game leaves something to be desired. The basic modes -- local and online multiplayer as well as fights against AI -- are all functional, and I think the way the game actively tracks your wins and losses against online friends is done very well. But both the career mode and the challenge mode are sub-par. In fact the challenges are contained within the career mode, so we can kill two birds with one stone here.
Career mode is as hollow an experience as you could ever imagine. You create a fighter and then you fight a never-ending series of matches until you're champion. Along the way you earn Evolution points to increase your fighter's abilities but only at the very beginning are you put up against fighters who possess better stats than you. The challenges appear as training that you do in between matches, and they're mandatory -- you can't skip or auto-play your training, so you'll wind up doing a large set of the early challenges repeatedly.
To break things up the game will serve up videos of real world UFC personalities -- Forrest Griffin will send you a video to tell you he's impressed with your streak, Dana White will tell you losing two fights in a row puts you in a precarious position on the roster etc, but the triggers for these videos seem wonky. You'll often get four or five videos in a row from fighters to congratulate you on a win, on winning the title or whatever, but chained together makes them look as phoney as they are. The variable quality of the acting from the fighters doesn't help -- Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones seem comfortable in front of the camera, but fighters like Rory Macdonald and BJ Penn are obviously reading their lines.
Beyond all this, there's no real reason for you to play through any of the career beyond eventually earning and then holding the belt in a mildly organic fashion. Fighter management elements are non-existent -- you gain and lose sponsors depending on how many fans you have, but these sponsors have no impact on your training or the running of your camp making them fairly meaningless.
EA Sports UFC is form over function. It's all show, no go, a pretty fighter without the know-how to back it up in the octagon. The Ignite engine successfully delivers a game which makes casual observers double-take as they attempt to work out if they're watching the real thing or not, but anyone with the controller in their hand will know something is wrong. Like so many early releases in a console's life cycle it's a showcase title -- get it if you want to justify your console purchase to your significant other or if you want to punch-on with your mates without the legal repercussions, but fair warning -- dig at all and you'll realise just how shallow the game really is.
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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