Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Style: 1-Player Fighting (2-Player Online)
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
Release: June 17
Bottom Line: 8
Concept: Craft a number of unique fighting systems in an effort to emulate a highly complex sport
Graphics: The character models look great; skin ripples on impact and heads jostle with every punch, but the audience just sits in the background like a blur
Sound: Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg do an admirable job simulating real commentary, but you might want to prep your own playlist to augment EA’s music selection
Playability: You have to pay attention to the action and be ready to react to your opponent’s strikes, since you can’t dial in your combos too early
Entertainment: The fighting system has a bit of a learning curve to overcome before you can appreciate the combat
Replay Value: High
EA Sports makes a solid first strike in the Octagon
It’s clear that EA’s UFC team bleeds martial arts. Everything about its new title – from the integration of UFC-branded videos to a roster including everyone from Jon “Bones” Jones to Ronda Rousey – has been painstakingly shaped into one of the most realistic depictions of the sport to date. The attention to detail makes the experience feel authentic, though not highly approachable. Don’t expect UFC to be like Fight Night or Mario Golf, transcending its target audience to reach a broad range. Only those with the determination of an athlete can master UFC’s complex fighting systems and enjoy everything this title has to offer.
If your approach to most fighting games is to dial in the strongest combos then block whenever you think your opponent is going to swing for your head, you won’t get far in UFC. Even when both of your feet are firmly on the ground, you have a lot more to think about than life bars. You can come out of the gate swinging, but that gasses your fighter quickly, making it easier for your opponent to slip past your defenses. Advance strikes cause more damage, but they also cost more stamina and are easier for your opponent to counter, and blocking becomes less effective the longer you play turtle. This creates a fighting system that is more about strategizing and reacting to your opponent than it is mastering a combo sheet.
More than with most fighting games, I found that I had to pace myself with UFC, which resulted in slower and more methodical matches. I eventually got into the groove of measuring out my attacks while I blocked incoming strikes, but mixing up your moves to maximize your speed is just as important. Fans of twitchy, hyper-reactive fighters will immediately be turned off by UFC’s footwork, which is as much about positioning and managing stamina as it is button combos. Since there are no on-screen health bars, knowing when your opponent is going down for the count is difficult. This pulled me into the action more and made me think twice about pushing my attack when it left me exposed.
However, even if you master the ground game, you won’t be invincible in the octagon. A good portion of UFC’s action is about grappling your opponents and taking them to the mat to ratchet up the pain with a submission takedown. If you’re weak in any of the areas of the sport, your opponents leverage that against you. Just like a real MMA fighter, you have to know your weaknesses and be prepared to defend against them.
I struggled with the ground game initially, since UFC’s many different systems are overwhelming at first. After a bit of practice, I got a handle on transitioning for better positions so I could pepper my opponents with quick jabs or snake my arms around them for a match-ending armbar or spine-grinding twister submission. It takes a long time to get used to the controls, and even after playing for hours you might still occasionally fumble for the wrong button combo and leave yourself exposed to attack.
Defending against transitions or escapes requires players to counter their opponents’ power plays with well-timed movements of the analog stick. Which positions provide you with the best leverage aren’t always clear, and I was sometimes unsure when I should initiate a submission hold. Once you’re placed in a submission, you’re thrown into a minigame that has you flicking the analog sticks in various directions to twist out of the hold, and escaping someone’s hold is nearly as fun as applying the pressure yourself.
EA has taken all of these different fighting mechanics and packaged them into a career fighter mode that has players working their way through the UFC’s reality television show The Ultimate Fighter in order to win a contract with the UFC and ultimately a shot at the championship belt. I appreciated the added context for why I was fighting, and loved watching my stats slowly tick up as I won match after match. I also loved tinkering with my game plans, which were basically a series of perks that improve your fighter’s abilities, such as increasing your stamina regeneration or improving your striking. Unfortunately, the career story is barebones, and each match is buffered by a series of repetitive training exercises and hollow interactions with real UFC fighters. Players interested in truly testing their mettle on the mat are better off finding breathing opponents or working toward one of the online championship belts.
EA Sports UFC isn’t the easiest fighter to learn – it’s a complex beast that rewards dedicated warriors who are driven to succeed. Each match plays out like a chess match where combatants feel out their opponents’ strategies and exploit openings. EA’s attention to detail might feel unnatural to fighting fans weaned on titles like Street Fighter and Smash Bros., but UFC’s methodical pacing will knock out MMA enthusiasts.