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Fantasy and reality, that is always the big debate when it comes to video games. Especially in sports games, maintaining that balance is always a struggle even for those annual franchises. Trying to make the sport fun while keeping faithful to the real deal is always the challenge. There will be times where fantasy and reality become unbalanced and that is the case with EA Sports’ UFC debut on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Sure, it is a video game and they are about escaping reality to play through fantasies. EA Sports UFC nails some aspects of mixed martial arts right, mainly in the presentation, but when it comes to actually playing it, it is just not as fun and true to what we see in a UFC fight.
Out of the gate when you boot up the game, you’re forced to play through the tutorial that teaches the controls. Except I feel like I didn’t learn anything from it other than just following button prompts. Plus, the tutorial only teaches the basics and not everything else which is where the challenges come in. The challenges are also just button prompts especially dealing with the game’s daunting control scheme, which I’ll talk about more in a bit. Even doing those challenges that show off more of the game’s controls, it is simply not a good teaching tool. EA also has video tutorials available for players to watch if players are having trouble, but accessibility these days is key to a sports game’s success and EA Sports UFC struggles to achieve it with the long list of controls to learn and a steep learning curve.
MMA games especially THQ’s UFC Undisputed games had a deep control scheme to learn and EA’s UFC debut is no exception even though this is not their first MMA game. Surprisingly most of EA Sports UFC’s controls are similar to the Undisputed series with basic strikes with the face buttons, strong and body modifiers with the bumpers and triggers respectively, and blocking with RT (R2 on PS4). The deal with defending in this game is that timing your block with a face button press (depending if it is a head or body strike) allows you an opportunity to parry and counter back. Clinching and ground transitions were done with the right analog stick. Cage strikes can also be executed at certain spots in the octagon.
The submission system is the major difference between the two and takes some time to mess with before grasping it. It is a mini-game war with analog sticks as the one escaping has flick the right sticks around and the one trying to submit the opponent has to match those right stick flicks. A left stick in a certain direction prompt will appear and the one attempting the submission and flick it at that direction to proceed the next step. The process repeats a couple more times for the one trying to make their opponent tap out.
When it comes to the gameplay during an actual fight, the fights themselves don’t pace or flow like a real UFC fight. Sure there are health and stamina meters, but this is my biggest problem with EA Sports UFC as a whole even though it is a video game and you’re allowed to go nuts with no gameplan at all. However, that nuttiness can be a turn off to those that appreciate the real deal like me and wished there is a more intelligent pace to fighting in this game like actually stepping into the octagon where a single moment can change a fight drastically. That has been a motto by the Fight Night series especially in the last console generation where it all can take is one punch to change a fight. EA Sports UFC doesn’t have that sense of urgency that much even though certain strikes at the head, liver, or legs can stun an opponent allowing an opportunity to go for the finish.
Another big flaw I have with EA Sports UFC is that the fighters don’t really fight like their real counterparts. Once again they were able to nail a fighter’s look and stance, but when it comes the gameplay, EA falls short. All of the fighters nearly have an identical move set depending on their weight class, but some of them have their signature moves such as Junior Dos Santos’s spinning heel kick that knocked out Mark Hunt, Lyoto Machida’s crane kick, and the infamous “Showtime Kick” by Anthony Pettis. However, when any fighter can do the Showtime Kick, including heavyweights, or Cain Velasquez doing flying knees, that’s when things don’t feel accurate to the fighter and the actual sport. Other than their intros and stances, I want the fighters’ personalities to shine during the fight as well, but that was another missed mark in EA’s UFC debut.
There were also a lot of weird design decisions when it comes to the gameplay to the point you have no control at all in a certain situation. Even you clinch or take down an opponent to the ground, opponents can simply press the left analog stick to get back on your feet even though you can defend that from happening. Just having that option alone almost makes your ground game useless if you can’t prevent it. Takedown defense is also weird where you can think you’re pressing the right buttons to defend one, you’re still on the bottom because of your timing. Then there’s the situations where you just sit there taking the punishment such as knees in the Muay Thai clinch or being full mounted on the ground. Sure, stamina factors into it but most of my times being kneed or full mounted, I feel like I have no control to get out of those hairy situations and take a loss as a result. All of this goes along to my earlier point that EA Sports UFC doesn’t do a good job teaching you all of the controls.
There is a career mode in EA Sports UFC besides the normal fights and at least it has some interesting ideas, but lacking in the overall package. You take a created male fighter through a UFC career that starts at the Ultimate Fighter show. The presentation of showing off the reality show through FMV cutscenes by Dana White, the intros, and music is spot on. Once you’re able to win the Ultimate Fighter, you’ll proceed to UFC fights climbing up the rankings and eventually fighting for a title. As you win fights and complete random training exercises similar to the challenges, you gain points to improve your stats and abilities that are like perks in Call of Duty. These abilities are in one gameplan where you can buff up damage with certain moves, recover stamina faster in certain situations, improve your ground transition speed, and more. This is the more interesting idea out of this mode where you can dictate your playstyle. The main roster has those perks too in normal fights but couldn’t be customized.
Your career can end fast if you lose fights consistently and take too much damage, but can be lengthened by just doing the opposite. As you progress, you also gain sponsors allowing you to rep them in new shirts and hats. In addition, fellow UFC fighters will congratulate you on your success through short FMV videos. Some of these fighters don’t have shining personalities, but some of the big names like Jon Jones and Georges St. Pierre will come by and train with you. At the end of the day, however, career mode feels like a repetitive grind or numerous fights and training exercises in between those fights.
EA Sports UFC’s online modes are also filled with some good ideas, but it depends on the skill of other players and building up rivalries with friends that also play the game. Ranked matches are done through seasons where you have ten matches to accumulate enough points win a belt and get promoted to the next level. The later belts can get tough to maintain the same level as the point requirement to promote or even staying in the same spot increases. Tournaments and unranked matches are also other online options for players to play through along with rivalries against your XBL/PSN friends. The skill of online players can also deter your experience from fun to frustrating. There will be matches where your opponent just blocks/parries everything and defends your takedowns while others that play nuts spamming certain moves as I mentioned earlier with no sense of strategy at all and praying for the knockout. When fights against higher skill opponents feel a bit closer to a real UFC fight in terms of flow and pacing, it is a refreshing sight to see.
Ever since it was first shown off, EA Sports UFC was the one of the best looking games on this new console generation and still is today. The fighters themselves look amazing being close to their real counterparts and the other character models from the refs (no Herb Dean though), Bruce Buffer, and even the ring girls. Gameplay however stutters at times along with the framerate in certain situations. Animations can also get all wonky especially if you seen glitch videos where fighters mysteriously fly around. The sound effects of the hits don’t sound as impactful as they should in a real fight. Commentary provided by Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan is okay for the most part as well, but expect them repeating lines frequently.
For a first effort with the UFC franchise, EA Sports UFC is a less than average start of this new partnership. EA nailed the presentation aspects exceptionally well along with the looks for the fighters, but graphics alone doesn’t make a game good as the gameplay is less than stellar. The game has a steep learning curve and gamers can be turned off by the lackluster tutorials. Fights don’t tend to have that methodical pacing or flow of a real UFC fight as players usually play nutty with a lack of a gameplan, The fighters themselves don’t fight like their real counterparts with their near identical movesets. There is also a lack of urgency where one strike can change a fight as much as it should too. Career and online modes have some neat ideas like the Call of Duty-esque perk system and the seasons approach to ranked matches. EA needs to go back to the drawing board of improving the gameplay for their next game. Until then, EA Sports UFC relies too much on fantasy than reality, especially for big fans of the sport.