Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
Punching and kicking people in the face has been a staple of videogames for as long as can be remembered but typically these games transcend what is humanly possibly. From fireballs to fatalities, beat ’em ups have been a dime a dozen, because when there are no real rules to what characters can physically do, you have a certain carte blanche. There have been exceptions however, those that have tread more closely to realism, such as IK+ or the criminally forgotten Bushido Blade. It is in this category that UFC finds itself falling, trying to imitate its explosive, dynamic and tactical real-life counterpart. UFC is the second entry of the franchise to be developed by EA, following up on EA MMA, after securing the rights from the much troubled THQ. In truth this has been a hard act to follow as THQ’s last iteration was a fantastic portrayal of a complex sport and our review praised it for being, “Filled with depth, developed with accessibility in mind and delivering brutality by the bucket-load, Undisputed 3 is the definitive MMA game.”
To the uninitiated, MMA typically involves three main elements, those being stand-up, wrestling and ju-jitsu. Each of these elements are needed to be a great competitor, having a heavy hand is of absolutely no use if you cannot defend yourself while you are on the ground. The best element of EA’s UFC is the striking, it is utterly glorious and it may very well be the most exciting interpretation of throwing a punch in any video game ever. While that may read as hyperbole be assured that it is not, EA have managed to absolutely nail down the striking mechanism to a degree that defies expectation. When a punch is thrown at you there are a number of options, you can flick the left stick in any direction to sidestep or back away from a punch, a useful technique to get you out of a sticky situation but unless you have a long reach you’ll not be landing any strikes from the range that move will leave you at.
If you use the same mechanic while holding L2 you will stay in the pocket but will slip and weave past punches, it leaves you close enough to return punches but the risk is high if you mistime your head movement. Lastly you can block punches, no surprise there, but if you can time it right you can parry the blow. You can block high and low and if you have the reflexes of a cat you can time it to block a strike coming your way at the correct height level. When you do this it gives you a small window to land a counter-punch; typically landing a counter-punch like this will leave more damage on your opponent. It is hard to describe how well this system works, there is a fluidity about the striking that can bring a smile to your face. Getting pummeled by a fighter only for you to start to read their movements and land a succession of parrys and counter-punches is one of the most satisfying experiences to have in a beat ’em up.
The weakest part of the stand-up element of the fighting is when you enter the clinch, which is as bizarre as its real-life counterpart can be one of the most engaging and brutal situations. To initiate the clinch you use the right-stick and then from there it is a series of stick movements to try and improve your position within the clinch. While trying to work for a Muay Thai clinch and deliver some fight-ending knees there is a stark absence of movement. Dynamism and struggle is replaced with a pedestrian back and forth, and for lovers of the sport it will really jar. While it is a minor but noticeable quibble, overall the striking is arguably the one thing that EA have managed to vastly improve on over THQ’s best effort. The rest, however, is a mixed bag.
When the game goes to the ground is when things start to get less impressive. There is always the caveat when it comes to MMA games and that is that it must be nigh on impossible to translate BJJ into something that is both fun and makes sense. You will feel that by this stage this element of the videogame should be progressing but it feels like it isn’t; similar to the THQ games you can advance your position with small quarter turns of your stick and trying to balance that movement with a healthy amount of stamina to achieve the progression in movement. It makes sense but it isn’t as fun, or brutal, as a struggle on the ground should be. Where you should be trying to work your way into a better position to deliver some ground and pound you will find yourself more often than not wanting the referee to stand it up again. And that is a real shame as from the point you initiate a takedown, which in itself if very rigid looking, the whole game changes rather than evolves.
There is a real disconnect between standing up and fighting on the ground, which in a way make sense, but in the real sport every position is an extension of the one that came before it and a fight is one fluid evolution of a strategy. In UFC every element feels different and disjointed, which is something THQ has managed to capture quite well through an amazing array of animation to account for attacks or defence from any position. That’s not to say that the ground game is bad, just obviously different, and in defence of the game there is no real element of the game that is anything less than solid.
One such element that exceeds expectation is the visual representation of the sport - never has the UFC looked so good. All the big names are frighteningly accurate from modelling to movement, and if you’ve ever wanted to dance around the ring as Anderson Silva you’ll never have a better chance than this. There are genuine moments when you will marvel at how good this game looks, from the kineticism of the punches and kicks to the subtle bruising on your opponent from repeated strikes to a particular area. Even the referees and our much beloved Octagon ringmaster Bruce Buffer are recreated in such striking detail that if you squint a bit you’ll think you are watching it live.
Stepping beyond the typical straight-up match against the AI, which is not the most tactically aware AI you will ever encounter, you can choose to make your own path in UFC history with the career mode. There’s nothing particularly new here, character creation is basic yet deep enough to create a wide variety of fighters and you are given a certain number of points to allocate to different dimensions of your fighter such as blocking strength or hand power. However, this career mode is framed within the UFC reality show The Ultimate Fighter as you battle your housemates to a UFC contract. It’s more or less window dressing as there is not much to do but train and fight, but in between matches you will receive encouragement and tips from videos from UFC fighters. It’s a nice touch that never really wears thin and some of the videos are funny in their delivery, yes Forrest Griffin we are looking at you!
The training exercises that you partake in between matches are there for two reasons, to build up points to distribute on stats (either automatically or chosen by yourself) and also to reinforce the mechanisms for successfully completing a fight. Typically these will focus on elements like striking, clinching, takedowns etc but they are all fundamentally flawed. In each of these training exercises you will have a box on the right side of the screen with commands that you must follow in a certain time period and typically, but not always, the more you do the more points you receive to spend on building your character. The issue is that you will focus on the command box and not look at how it translates in terms of what your character is doing on screen. It becomes a game of follow the leader without any real benefit to developing your repertoire of movements and combinations.
The real fun to be had here is in fighting your friends, the way beat ’em ups should be played. What happens here is something more natural and organic, fights become more unpredictable and the possibility of ending a fight with a careful parry and counter-punch leads to some nervous moments that feels absent in most AI battles. There are many moments in any given fight between friends that will have both combatants cheering or swearing in equal measure, and there is a lot of fun to be had here as well as a lot of healthy arguments. In this respect they have captured the drama of UFC fighting, with an almost impossibly battered opponent ending the fight with a well landed punch or kick.
As an entire package UFC is definitely a step forward for the video game representation of the sport, there are obvious missteps but largely everything is progressive. There is a lot for EA to build on here and a lot of positives to take, if striking stays largely the same and the ground game is improved with a wider range of animations then the next entry into the series, and based on sales there will be a next one, then we could be on the cusp of a definitive MMA game. As it is we have a game that doesn’t really help itself with accessibility for newcomers to the sport due to opaque tutorials, but for those who give it time or at least have an understanding of the sport it offers the best, if not perfect, interpretation of the sport. It’s early in the fight for EA and they are a bit bruised and bloodied up after this round but they are wearing the opponent down and in the next round they could very well take the title.