Be water, my friend.
Like a talented and determined rookie, EA Sports UFC arrives on the fighting scene with raw, aggressive power. With now-defunct publisher THQ and developer Yuke's no longer producing the Undisputed series, the championship for the entire mixed martial arts genre is vacant, and without any suitable competitors, EA Sports UFC may just win by default like so many of the other franchises in the EA Sports lineup. But while this brash upstart wields the force of next-gen and the EA Ignite engine behind its punches, it can't help but reveal its inexperience as the first entry in the series.
Without exaggeration, EA Sports UFC sets a new standard for graphics, character modeling, and animation to which every other title in this console generation that claims to be photorealistic will be compared. Not only does the title retain the broadcast presentation of actual UFC bouts, but fighters strike, grapple, and transition from position to position in the clinch or on the ground with extraordinary clarity. Their muscles twist and contort with forceful fluidity, whether it's the grit of their teeth or a well-placed knee strike into an opponent's solar plexus. Even sweat beads will stain the octagon mat and remain there for the remainder of the match.
Fans of the Undisputed series will be reasonably comfortable with how EA Sports UFC blends stand-up, clinch, and ground combat systems. As usual, new players will stick close to the stand-up game first, throwing punches and kicks to the head, body, or legs along with several elbow strikes, roundhouse head kicks, and superman punches sprinkled throughout for a strong mix-up game. Players will need to master almost every button on the controller, with the face buttons controlling strikes and the shoulder buttons controlling the body and special modifiers. Pressing back or forward on the left analog stick will transform a strike as well; for instance, a standard jab will turn into a hook or uppercut.
From there, combat becomes more complicated with the clinch and ground game. Fighters with solid leg power will shoot for a muay thai clinch where they can throw devastating knees to the mid-section and cranium. Transitioning to the proper clinch (over-under, double underhooks, etc.) will lead to easier takedowns toward the ground, compared to standard takedowns that can be executed in the stand-up. While on the ground, the battle for dominant position (or tricky jiu-jitsu submissive position) begins for the full mount where fighters can finish off a foe with ground and pound or a submission. Though somewhat strange at first, the submission system works brilliantly once you figure out how to mix up the pressure with the right stick and be aware of the prompts on the left stick for offense.
Whether a fighter goes for a knockout or a submission lock, paying attention to both stamina and limb health is vital. Swinging furiously will drain stamina quickly and give the opposition a much higher chance for power takedowns and transitions. Though a fighter unfortunately can't TKO an opponent with a leg kick, a hook or uppercut to a battered head or body indicated red can secure a win. There's little that's more satisfying than tearing down the competition with a gut-wrenching liver shot.
Apart from exhibition mode, where the roster is appropriately separated into the various weight classes and split between female and male fighters, the single-player career mode will challenge you to take a create-a-fighter and climb your way through The Ultimate Fighter television show, numerous undercards, and finally the UFC championship. Winning fights and getting black-belt rankings on training drills will earn the most points for upgrading skills and learning new moves, and earn experience points toward leveling which unlocks perks and sponsors. Peppered along the way will be cameo videos from the likes of Dana White, Uriah Hall, and BJ Penn for encouragement.
EA Sports UFC has satisfying multiplayer options as well, offering a tournament-style mode based on division and that ranks players by belt. Players can check profiles for their competitor's win-loss ratio and DNF percentage if that person rage-quits frequently. Even with the flaws in the combat system, fighting against another person instead of an AI opponent levels the field, so I hope the developers have a string of events and updates that will encourage the community to continue playing online.
However, as polished as the graphics and presentation may be, the lack of options is apparent especially when compared to its MMA predecessor, UFC Undisputed 3. Perhaps that's not a fair comparison, but that's reality. The combat system here doesn't incorporate feint attacks or ground and pound combinations, and defense can be overly complicated having to press R2 and up, down, left, or right depending on vague animation cues.
The more troubling matter is the absence of explanations. Despite the lengthy tutorial at the beginning and the numerous challenges that provide a deeper look into the combat system, there's no instruction on posturing on the ground, cage maneuvers, or what each clinch and ground position actually looks like. Having played all the past UFC titles, I know the difference between a half guard, rubber guard, side control, and north/south, but I doubt many new players will know why they're important. And if they want to know, the game doesn't really explain the various moveset differences between each position.
Even more befuddling is the lack of a practice mode. I bought a second PS4 controller just so I could practice transitions and moves against a stationary opponent, but that doesn't provide any information on the numbers: damage, range, hitboxes, frame recovery—the details that hardcore fighting players care about. On top of that, selecting the manual option in the menu directs players to a URL link. (Couldn't scan the pages into the game, EA?). And while there's a command list available when a player presses pause during an exhibition match, none is available during a career match for some reason.
The customization options are rather thin too, which is more disappointing if we count EA Sports: MMA as a building block for EA Sports UFC. No female fighters are available despite them thankfully being in the game, and the fixed selections for faces and body types can't be tweaked—the customization is as slim as the UFC 2009 Undisputed's. Still, this is an area that will no doubt be improved the longer EA holds the UFC brand, and I was glad to see that my fighter could equip the same pair of Hayabusa shorts that I own too.
The same thinness goes for the audio too, which for some reason can only be adjusted by rotating a wheel of options. I'm not sure why players can't simply be allowed to adjust each knob for sound effects, music, commentary, and the like as they see fit. There's no option to turn off music altogether either, unless every song in the customizable playlist is turned off (which I did). Beyond that, the impact of punches and the sound effects for pain are so flat that they might as well be muted.
A prime example of the potential of next-gen consoles, EA Sports UFC keeps the legacy of solid MMA fighting titles alive and well, though it's still green and rough around the corners. The once tenuous relationship between EA and UFC now seems to be a natural match that is sure to flourish the longer EA Canada works out the kinks. As Bruce Lee, one of the DLC characters for the game, would say: "Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them." Nothing could be truer for the future of EA Sports UFC.