Unlike most of EA's sports franchises, which routinely adopt an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, there was a lot that needed altering in the bank-rolling studio's approach to EA UFC 3. I've now spent some time with the game's closed beta, and as an admittedly casual fan of MMA, there was still a checklist of new features I wanted to see rolled out in the EA UFC series' next entry. While the beta does hint towards some key improvements, some problems that have plagued its predecessors seem to have been carried over into its latest iteration.
Though it's probably not appropriate to call a game as blood-stained as UFC 3 "beautiful," it's certainly one of the most photorealistic games you'll play on a console. Unlike other sports franchises, in which competitors routinely dive into uncanny valley, mostly everyone featured in the UFC 3 beta's roster looks incredibly similar to their real-life counterpart. Playing on the Xbox One X, if it weren't for the dual stamina meters atop the screen, you could be mistaken for thinking that you were watching the real thing.
UFC 2 featured odd missteps from developer EA Canada, with it replacing the unpredictability of MMA with a more formulaic approach, in which knockouts became a mechanical process that saw most fights follow the same pattern. Either you pummeled away at your opponent, dazed them, then continued pummeling until they collapsed, or you pushed your posture up in the ground game and dazed them from that elevated point. Considering that many of UFC's most talked-about fights have been so short that they can easily be summarized in a GIF, the element of surprise being removed from UFC 2 was an oversight that made it routinely dull to play.
Thankfully, EA has addressed this issue first and foremost in UFC 3. Now there are four variations of knockdown that can each happen dynamically in a match, ranging from a daze that causes your opponent to wobble on their fight, to a straight knockout from out of nowhere. I've found the latter more difficult to pull off than I'd like considering that they're the most exciting facet of MMA, but when you've been on the receiving end of a beating and shut down your opponent with a well-timed knee to the chin as they dive in for a takedown, it feels immensely satisfying.
Additionally, strikes have also received a major overhaul. The best part of the previous two UFC entries, striking still felt a little off compared to how it's utilized in actual MMA, so this time around it's been refined to take better advantage of each fighter's range and improve animations so that the flow of the stand-up game looks more realistic.
Ducking and weaving with the right stick can give you a major tactical advantage, while your ever-depleting stamina meter will cause you to think twice before diving into an uncomplicated slugfest. It's still firmly possible to remain on your feet and never take your opponent to the ground, of course, but stamina management is a must if you wish to succeed. Bowling in with too many strong strikes, accessible via LB/L1 or RB/R1, will leave you weary and give your opponent an opening that you won't want them to have.
For better and for worse, the ground game remains mostly the same as its predecessor's. Assuming different positions is still handled by holding the right stick in a specific direction, and you're still going to want to make your way to top mount if you wish to start raining down the punches on your unfortunate opponent's head. Defending such attacks still lacks appropriate signposting, with it requiring you to push the right stick in the direction your rival's trying to move in along with holding the right trigger, but there are no on-screen prompts to indicate where they're moving and it's difficult to tell from just looking at the on-screen action. This was a problem I never quite got my head around in UFC 2, and little has been done to make this system more intuitive.
Submissions present another difficulty hurdle in UFC 3. In order to wriggle out of a submission hold, you must move the right stick either up, down, left or right to fill up one of four different meters. Your opponent is then required to move their right stick in that same direction, blocking you from progressing, while they're also given prompts to flick the left stick that will reset each of your meters if done correctly. It's a system that naturally favors the aggressor, and can be frustrating to defend as a result. If you're facing an opponent with a higher grappling rating, UFC 3 can be particularly unkind, and while moving into positions in which you aren't able to be locked in a submission hold should obviously be a game plan, it still feels imbalanced.
The beta offers a slice of both online play and Ultimate Team, with the latter adapting EA's hugely popular team-building mode into UFC. This sees you opening card packs containing fighters and abilities, improving your squad of fighters before either taking them through single-player or online tournaments. As this is only a taster of what is offered in the full game, it's difficult to get a feel of how much of an improvement UFC 3's Ultimate Team will be over the last game's offering, though the addition of actual fighters this time around is a welcome change. There are single-player challenges in this mode, too, so those who like to play solo shouldn't feel left out too much.
Unfortunately, Ultimate Team has also been completely inundated with microtransactions, to the point where it's actually difficult to see the game lying beneath them. If the retail release of UFC 3 in February 2018 retains this same system, it's likely set to spark yet more pay-to-win accusations in EA's direction, to the point where I'm genuinely shocked that they decided to go ahead with this beta with Ultimate Team's loot boxes in place. If this mode remains the same at launch, this is almost certainly going to be a new controversy for the publisher to deal with.
In spite of this I enjoyed my time with the EA UFC 3 beta, even though some of the problems I had with the last game haven't been improved to the extent I would have liked. Fights feel much more exciting this time around, which is great, though I'm concerned about the imbalances surrounding its ground game, and I hope that EA uses the information they'll receive from the beta to really focus upon improving upon it. I also hope that these microtransactions are ripped straight out of it, because the last think that this industry needs is yet another loot box controversy.