June 29, 2014
One of the most noteworthy things about EA Sports UFC is its presentation. Menus are reminiscent of Windows 8's Modern design language interface; large windowed icons of information essentially represent the different modes available to you and look sleek, update frequently with UFC spotlight replays, and are simple to navigate. UFC's career mode has you participating in a cliff note's season of The Ultimate Fighter, complete with live action footage of Dana White addressing two fighters. Clearly taken from an actual episode, it still added a good level of immersion as it was deliberately generic so that you can insert yourself or your character of choice into who Dana White was referring to. On top of that, upon every fight completion or certain training sessions you will be greeted, encouraged and congratulated by various fighters through Facetime styled video snippets. Mike Dolce, Urijah Faber, Jon Jones, B.J Penn and Ronda Rousey along with many others offer quick high-fived messages. Some will definitely sound and look phoned in, and cases like Mike Dolce they will seem very repetitious, but others do a convincing enough job and making you believe you're actually a part of the UFC, at least the first time you hear them. In addition, at key points you will also see slick video footages of various UFC matches, all redone to highlight heavy hits through visual cues like showing the X-ray image of a body in the transition of a certain strike.
The presentation's largest drawback lies with its longer than normal load times. Loading actual rounds can take as long as half a minute, and this seems to be a trend with a lot of the newer sports games. Despite being a 1v1 fighting game, there is a lot going on in the game's engine, and on top of that, EA's new FighterNet is always on and tracks your online stats and replays and allows you to compare them against your rivals or other online users. It's also a great feature to see plays, submissions, and knockouts of the day, week or month. So for what it's worth, the lengthy loading times can be forgivable in context, though hopefully a software patch is in the works to at least shave off some of this time. It's worth noting that the mandatory install is only 11GB, compared to 2K's NBA 2K14 taking up close to 50; perhaps it would be wiser to occupy more of the hard drive space to ensure faster loading times.
EA Sports UFC comes with a standard selection of modes that fans would already expect. You have the aforementioned career mode that lets you climb through the ranks of the UFC greats, Challenge mode that has you honing your stand-up, clinch or ground game. Online consists of three modes: Championship, Quick Match, and Rivalries. Championship is essentially their ranked mode where your W-L ratio carries over as you fight. More wins and more experiences increase your belt colour, and there are actual tournaments for you to compete in. Rivalries mode allows you to invite your friends to a round to see who the better fighter is. Matchmaking for the most part seems to be fairly painless, and there seems to be a healthy population of people playing at the moment.
Career mode itself represents a big draw. Here you are able to work your way up through winning The Ultimate Fighter and work your way up through to competing for the belt of your chosen weight class. There's a lot to like, but the whole mode does feel rather half-baked. What starts off with a bang then feels very drawn out before it starts to really lose steam. Part of the problem comes in because you are seen as a complete rookie, therefore, you will have to have 10-15+ wins before you are even considered a Top 10 fighter. Once you then win the belt, there's also nowhere else to go apart from just defending the title. It would have been good to see options revolving around switching weight classes or something to at least keep the experience and the challenge fresh.
The same applies to the non-fighting aspect too. Between fights, you take part in three training exercises that are ripped from the Challenge section of the game, and that's it. It's ironic, because once you start getting a few wins you'll receive videos from Dana White telling you to ignore all the stardom and distractions, but there aren't any. Compared to other sports games on the market and even previous UFC Undisputed titles, this is pretty bare. It does have its good points though, such as all the career statistics and it does the job of getting you prepared for the serious challenge of fighting online.
Those familiar with the Fight Night franchise will know that when it comes to character models, EA Canada loves to give it their all, and UFC is assuredly no exception to this. Their biggest focus of the game is the fighter; how they move, how they react to punches and how the body changes and adapts over time during the course of the round, the match and even the entire career. Every single one of the 97 fighters has been created from high resolution 3D head and body scans for added authenticity. New facial animation technology allows for a variety of human expressions, emotions and it means they show genuine awareness and intelligence in a bout. Adding onto the appearance of intelligence is the opponent's actual AI system. EA cleverly refers to it as MMAi, and it is described as artificial intelligence that have changing goals and plans based on their real life tendencies, but is also dynamically in every fight situation. Passive fighters may turn out to be more aggressive later on, or if your character is lower on stamina, an opponent will take full advantage of that and prioritize injured body parts, or go in for the takedown.
On top of that, EA Canada has included full body deformation, which can be a real treat to see, though it does have its share of hiccups. This system is set so that it moves and displaces the fighter's flesh in real time. Muscles flex and extend as they naturally should. Coupled with this is the inclusion of real-time exertion. Character models will show popping veins, signs of fatigue and even go red in the face as they're working hard to win. It really is an impressive thing to see in motion, though there are odd clipping instances that were observed in the ground game, when a strike clipped through an opponent's trunks. Precision movement makes for believable movement and removes that feel of your character slipping unrealistically across the canvas. And finally, real damage produces a greater variety of cuts and contusions as you wear your player out over the course of each match. In career mode, your damage is accumulated over time, and can actually make you retire earlier if you sustain too many injuries.
For the actual fighting aspect, EA Canada has set out to revolutionize the fighting system for UFC, and they ended up doing a decent job. It's not perfect, but as it, even though it is quite similar to the Undisputed series, it offers the best foundation UFC fighting mechanics. The four face buttons are your standard left/right straights and left/right kicks. The top shoulder buttons are modifiers while the bottom triggers are defensive measures. Advanced moves are done by mixing directional input with either the face buttons or face buttons with modifiers. There is an impressive depth to what you can do in the Octagon, and too top it all off, Dynamic Striking is a mechanic that allows for roundhouse kicks, superman punches, kicks off of the Octagon and more. Clinching and takedowns are done using the right stick. Pressing the two left shoulder buttons along with the flick of the right stick in a quarter circular motion will result in a powerful throw.
Where this system gets dicey is in the ground game. As the dominator, it's quite easy to either ground pound an opponent or switch angles. The dominated unfortunately has a really hard time getting out. The tutorial only helps in a counter roll that has an average probability of actually succeeding. More often than not, your player will just flail and even when in a dominant position, you will often just want to stand the fight up unless you plan on going for a submission - it just ends up being very boring. I'd say it was intentionally done to give you a feel of a struggle, but at the same time I also don't want to invent an excuse that could be covering a flaw that may be fixed later on. It's a problem that previous UFC games encountered, and it doesn't seem as though EA has found a solution yet.
The same can't be said for submissions as the new mechanic in this is quite simply the best mechanic I've seen for submissions. It's equally demanding on both ends, and plays out like a chess match where you are guessing your opponent's next move. Submissions come from almost any angle on the ground and once initiated, a quartered circle will appear on the screen. For the one being tapped out, your goal is to hold the right stick in one of the four possibilities and raise its meter to the outermost part of the circle to escape. Those trying to get the submission will see that attempt to escape as they see the meter rising and counter it by holding the same direction. Should you guess and react correctly to your opponents attempts at escaping; another prompt will flash for a direction on the left stick. This allows you to reset all meters and start over at a higher level. Four or so successive preventative guesses will result in a win-by-submission. On an AI opponent it's fairly simple to get a win, though expect a realistic challenge on the harder difficulties. Getting the 12 consecutive win-by-submission trophy in career mode was a sweat, and highly rewarding. Human reactions are obviously more sporadic though and it will be a tough challenge for you to actually get a submission, though it is incredibly satisfying when you do.
As mentioned, the visual presentation is top notch. Unfortunately, the performance as a whole has its ups and downs. EA Canada made a conscious decision to have a frame rate cap of 30 frames per second. The reasoning was to achieve the "cinematic" feel of live UFC matches. I don't really have much of an issue with this artistic decision, as some games like infamous: Second Son run beautifully at 30 frames. I do have issues when you deliberately reduce the framerate to preserve whatever cinematic intentions you may have, and still end up with frame rate drops. That just shouldn't happen, and in something like fighting games, where moves are observed and studied frame by frame for precise countering and striking, you really should change your focus from looking smooth to performing smooth. Or at the very least make it so your target framerate doesn't stutter if you are locking it at half the frame rate of most traditional fighting games. It's especially troublesome when you consider competitively fighting online. For the most part, it works well and the animations are as fluid as they expressed; it's just a pity that an already sacrificed framerate takes hits that can disrupt a match.
Other aspects of presentation also falter, as the commentary, while very representative of the live shows, doesn't have much variance. It's great to hear reactions to things that are happening, but there just aren't enough dialogue options to the point where you can even hear them say exactly the same things in the same fight.
Overall, EA Sports UFC is a solid debut for the franchise's new publisher. It's a shame that this wasn't the grand slam EA Canada may have wanted, as despite having a deep combat system and phenomenal facial and body animations, certain issues still reside in the ground game and there are performance issues like framerate drops that should be addressed as soon as possible. The result is a game that achieves a TKO, rather than a KO. But a win is still a win, and those who are looking for a next gen fighting game, and those starved for a turn in the Octagon; look no further. EA Sports UFC is definitely the best representation of the mixed martial arts in a video game, it just needs to train a bit harder if it wants to make it into that pound-for-pound sports game list.
EA Sports UFC was reviewed on the PS4. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.