EA Sports MMA is EA's debut into the rapidly expanding world of mixed martial arts. Typically a dominant force in sports game licensing, EA has had to settle into the outsider role with MMA, as THQ beat them to the punch by securing the lucrative UFC license. Seeing as most casual mixed martial arts fans associate the sport exclusively with the UFC, MMA has had to differentiate itself in almost every facet of play - control scheme, career mode and online functionality to name a few - in order to overcome its unknown status. The result is a game that feels very distinct compared to UFC Undisputed, but equally as valid of a contender for your money. Some innovative online options are the icing on the cake of a very solid package.
The value of the UFC license can't be understated, as a large portion of Undisputed's appeal and subsequent success came from the thrill of seeing popular fighters going toe-to-toe in the octagon. While MMA can't deliver that particular experience, it does offer a variety of well known fighters and leagues outside the UFC that will likely appeal to avid mixed martial arts followers - fighting as Fedor Emelianenko will surely draw a crowd. One advantage that comes with this diversity is a wide range of rule sets from the varying leagues. For example, playing in Japan's Mystic League allows kicks and knees to the head while on the ground, whereas Strikeforce does not. It's an interesting combination that's sure to satisfy diehard fans of the sport.
The control scheme in EA Sports MMA is very similar to other EA franchises such as Fight Night, NHL and Skate. They use the right analogue stick for the core moves. For instance, striking is almost entirely controlled by simulating different actions with the right stick, as opposed to UFC's use of the face buttons. In fact, the controls in MMA are pretty much the polar opposite of UFC. Another example being the transitions, which are mapped to the face buttons - players tap X to advance their position, circle to counter the advance, and square to perform a submission. Once an advance has been initiated the opposing player's controller will vibrate, which is meant to cue a quick counter. It's a system that rewards precise timing, rather than button mashing.
MMA's unique control scheme feels natural and intuitive, in large part because the core maneuvers remain consistent throughout the fight - from striking to the clinch, ground game and so on. Unfortunately, the learning curve can be needlessly steep, as the tutorial's effectiveness is hit or miss. The MMA 101 arena throws new players into a practice fight, using informative prompts as the player experiments with certain actions. The problem is that prompts only appear once you've initiated an action, so if you never try a submission, or simply aren't aware it's an option, you'll never learn. A UFC-based control scheme is available, but once MMA's scheme is mastered the pace of a fight feels like a much more accurate representation of the real thing.
Career mode actually ends up being a more effective learning tool for beginners. Players can create a personalized fighter with a fairly limited pallet of character modifiers, or by using EA's "Game Face" feature that allows you to import a picture of someone in real-life to model a fighter around. Once character creation is completed, players embark on the round to becoming champion. Between each fight various training sessions occur to teach important fighting techniques and provide a boost to the fighter's stats. These training sessions are implemented in a way that serves as a proper tutorial, opening up new challenges as you progress, as well as a user-friendly way of increasing your stats - completed sessions can be simulated thereafter without penalty. While nothing revolutionary, MMA's career mode is a solid offering that keeps the action moving.
EA Sports MMA's success or failure may ultimately be determined by the ability of its robust and innovative online offerings to foster a vibrant community. The game features customizable tournaments between friends, ongoing ranked belt contests, and much more. At the core of these offerings is the "Live Broadcast" fight system that aims to recreate the experience of a professionally televised match. This unique feature allows players to record hype videos from their fights and submit them for a chance to compete against other popular contenders online. Live Broadcast includes live commentary from EA, is broadcast to spectators via console or the web, and features prizes going to the victor. It's a brilliant idea that truly captures the essence of what made mixed martial arts a mainstream sport, but it's still unclear how successful it will be at building a large following.
The best thing that can be said about MMA's presentation is that the animations look very fluid during a match, the most critical and difficult aspect to get right. The Fight Night engine still holds up well, as the transitions are seamless; blows have weight and the atmosphere is rich. The game does a good job of immersing you in the fighting environment with realistic contender entrance scenes and arenas. While the AI commentary is subject to the usual hiccups and awkwardness found in nearly all sports games, the ability to create your own commentary online is a great solution.
EA Sports MMA is a solid first entry into the mixed martial arts arena, worthy of challenging UFC Undisputed for your attention. The control scheme rewards strategic, thoughtful play over button mashing, and the robust online multiplayer offerings will keep diehard fans coming back for a long time. Changes are needed to make the tutorial more effective, and the career mode, while competent, feels a bit uninspired. However, MMA is a good first step in what's likely the beginning of a long running series.