Let's get ready to give Tom the third-party controller and wail on hhiiiiimmmm!!!

Last week I got a chance to get first hands-on with EA’s much-anticipated fully-licensed UFC game, even if it can feel like EA should have been cranking out UFC games every year for a decade now. While THQ has had the license for quite some time and there were even some nasty words exchanged between UFC President Dana White and the massive sports publisher, things feel right at home now. I visited the EA Redwood Shores offices to play the game and meet Creative Director Brian Hayes.

EA Sports UFC is coming exclusively to the next-gen consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and the demo we played was running on a PlayStation 4 kit under a massive 80” television. The size alone would have shocked me, but seeing fighter entrances and a few dance moves in the octagon left me staggered by realism. I later learned that this early alpha gameplay did not have finished damage modeling or blood, but if it did I probably would have been scarred by the match Brian and I pounded out. EA Sports UFC is shaping up to be the most believable and visceral sports simulation, possibly ever.

When our demo first started, I related to Brian that I’m not all that interested in the UFC brand. Nick Tan has more experience with MMA titles and THQ’s long run of UFC games, but several years ago before I started working at GameRevolution, Fight Night Round 3 had me hooked. For whatever reason, I connected with the idea that my character’s limbs were attached to my thumbs, and body blows and jabs to the face seemed so real and believable. On a macro level there are plenty of sports games that have impressed visually for years, but none of them come close to what I saw in EA Sports UFC.

The animations and movements for Jon Jones—and the rest of the roster, for that matter—seemed so real that I could have been watching the feed from a camera inside the ring. Of course, lighting characters and getting them to interact together perfectly still seemed a little off, but for this alpha state, this UFC title has more than enough visual oomph to deliver the feeling of not just sitting ringside, but actually getting into the ring and dancing around the fighters. The camera swings around to deliver the best angle on clinches and submission holds, but the controls complimented these angles by remaining constantly intuitive.

No matter where you are or what you’re doing in the octagon, two face buttons will control your left and right arms, while the other two will control your left and right legs. You can always put up a defensive posture with R2, while the other shoulder buttons modify your attacks. The right stick will allow you to grab your opponent while takedowns and submissions require finesse between both left and right sticks. All told, I felt like I had a good grasp of the controls, though intricacies will mount as you try to perform more complex moves.

Once you get your opponent into a submission hold, you simply have to match their struggles to escape. A large dial representing the right analog stick appears on screen and the defending player has to push their icon to the outer edge, either up, down, left, or right. The attacking player can push in the same direction to nullify this attempt, but overall the system is balanced towards keeping fights entertaining and even. The attacker also has to pay attention to a “LS” or Left Stick icon to appear. Successfully pushing the left stick in that direction at the right time moves the submission deeper until finally your opponent has no choice but to tap out or black out. If the defending player can get you to miss it with their attempts to escape, they’ll move further out of the submission.

Still, contextual moves and animations play a big part in the kind of artful bouts peak physical performers like those in the UFC are capable of. Successfully defending from a submission at a certain stage can result in a total reversal or a full escape. Getting locked up on the ground means holding an opponent, so the two-punch face buttons get tied to one arm. The same is true of kicks.

Being so disconnected from the label, the brand, the fighters, allowed me to focus in on just how playable and approachable EA Sports UFC seems to be. Fans of the sport will certainly want to invite their friends over to impress with crisp, near photo-realistic visuals, only to put a controller in their hands and work the buddy. It could be a one-two punch, but the team has focused on pick-up-and-play mechanics. You can mash those buttons, but the truly impressive maneuvers will require a keen sense of timing and of your fighter.

Each competitor moves and behaves differently and fights with different styles, so the best EA Sports UFC players will be the ones who connect with their favorite on a gameplay level. I tried playing with bigger reach, but I think better speed and submissions might be more important factors. 

With an enthusiastic development team, the fiercely popular UFC brand, and engaging, layered mechanics, EA Sports UFC should have fans excited. Sports gaming enthusiasts who don’t normally enjoy UFC will absolutely want to round out their season of virtual exploits with a few rounds. The pitch or MetLife stadium might be calling, but you could probably use a little next-gen blood sport.

EA Sports UFC is still without a release date, but Hayes was firm on the platforms. The game will launch exclusively on next-gen consoles.