From its inception in the early 90s to calls for a ban on what Senator John McCain called ‘human cockfighting’, Ultimate Fighting Championship exploded in popularity in the mid-2000s, and its following shows no signs of diminishing. As such, there have been a number of video game tie-ins over the years, but it is with the latest entry that new license holder EA Sports aims to nail the wow factor that generates the sport’s mass appeal.
As a mixed martial arts promotion, the list of ways to incapacitate a foe is all but endless in the imaginatively named EA Sports UFC, so it should come as no surprise that the controls are rather complicated in order to fully replicate the sport’s diverse nature. Perhaps in recognition of this, the game walks you through a tutorial before you can even make it to a menu.
When facing off against an opponent in the iconic Octagon, using the face buttons will perform basic punches and kicks, and you’ll utilise different variations of these attacks depending on which direction the left analogue stick – which is also used to manoeuvre your combatant – is being pushed. Similarly, by holding down a shoulder button while striking, you’ll attack with an advanced blow – although these drain the stamina bar that’s present at the top of the screen faster than normal attacks.
If you’re on the receiving end, holding R2 will block incoming strikes, and combining that input with square or triangle will promptly you to block high, while circle and cross will block low. If you block high or low at the right time, you’ll parry that incoming attack, which will open your opponent up for a jab or two.
At the risk of trivialising a sport in which men and women regularly risk life and limb, clinching is what that hugging looking action is referred to, and, as the commentators enjoy barking out, whoever controls the clinch controls the match. As such, it’s imperative that you understand how this all works. You can enter a clinch by pushing the right stick towards your opponent, and, upon successfully death embracing, you can unleash savage elbow and knee strikes, as well as turn your foe into a different clinch hold in order to make use of an alternative variety of offensives.
While either in the clinch or facing your opponent, you can perform a take down by rotating the right stick a quarter of the way, or hold L1 to engage a power take down. Similarly to clinching, you will then lock up with your opponent, exchanging blows and alternating holds. However, it’s from ground-based combat that you can employ a series of deadly submission manoeuvres.
Typically focusing on putting grotesque pressure on joints or cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain, submission holds are no laughing matter. While the victim of such a hold, a square-shaped icon will appear on the screen, and, with each side corresponding to a direction, you must push the right stick until a gauge travels from the centre of the square to the edge, at which point you’ll escape.
If you’re the aggressor, holding R1 and rotating the right stick a quarter of the way will engage a submission and bring up the same square. Here you’ll see your opponent trying to escape the same way that you do, and pushing the right stick in the equivalent direction will block this attempt. To force someone to submit, you must not only keep your foe’s attempt to escape at bay, but also keep an eye out for a prompt to flick the left stick in a specific direction, which will tighten the hold. If you successfully tighten the hold a few times without breaking it, you’ll force your opponent to tap out.
Once you’ve wrapped your head around all of this, you’ll realise that UFC’s controls are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they’re generally successful at capturing the sport’s unique nature, but on the other, they’re just far too complicated, and you’re unlikely to ever end up engaging in ground, clinch, or submission combat unless your opponent takes you there.
That’s not to say that the fights aren’t exciting without the layer of complication, as it’s just as stimulating to block, dodge, and punch your way to victory – but the lack of button prompts and sheer number of combinations required to counter the more advanced attacks is simply too much to remember at the best of times.
We also had an issue with keeping track of how well we were performing in a match. There’s a damage model of each fighter at the top of the screen, which will turn red in certain areas the more they’re focused on, but the damage fades after a few seconds, and there’s no way of telling how close you are to defeat or victory. Of course, the tell tale signs like staggering around and bleeding are present, but we won a large number of matches after an opponent inexplicably flopped to the ground following a rather tame punch.
Thankfully, EA Sports has nailed the big fight feel of a UFC match. Fighters make their entrance to their music of choice surrounded by security, and it’s all beautifully rendered on the PlayStation 4’s shiny hardware, with men finally receiving the pectoral jiggle physics that they’ve been missing out on for nearly a decade.
Flashy graphics pop up left, right, and centre, with the commentators excitedly chattering about the impending match. Speaking of which, the commentary really blows its competition out of the water, with the play-by-play men managing to sound like they’re genuinely invested in what’s happening – and not sat in a studio reading their own obituaries.
The main focus of the title, however, is firmly on its fleshed out career mode, where, starting by creating a version of yourself where pizza doesn’t exist and motivation is abundant, you’ll progress through UFC’s reality competition show, The Ultimate Fighter, before punching your way up through the match card until you’re headlining with your weight division’s championship on the line.
The character creation is surprisingly in-depth – although not quite as outrageously so as the WWE titles – and using experience earned from training and competing you can upgrade your attributes and assign abilities – such as increased damage from strikes in clinches – as your overall character level increases.
You’ll also receive messages of encouragement from real UFC competitors and president Dana White, although, irritatingly, a ‘blocked scene’ message – meaning that you’re not allowed to use the share button – pops up during each of these, accompanied by a twinkly noise, which gets very annoying.
Ultimately, the campaign is a bitter sweet effort, as while it’s certainly exciting to see your name up in lights and have your fighter develop and evolve as the matches roll by, you’ll eventually grow weary of engaging in samey skirmishes, which fall foul to the control hiccups discussed above. In particular, this becomes more of a problem when you begin to face tougher opponents that will floor you in the first round; it’s very difficult to stay motivated when you’re experiencing a losing streak – regardless of whether it’s virtual or not.
Besides career mode, there’s also a series of challenges to complete, split into categories focusing on punching, kicking, blocking and parrying, and advanced striking. In addition, there's a par for the course online mode that allows for one-on-one bouts, semi-regular tournaments, and a community feature where you can upload highlight reels of your recent victories.
With a career mode that’s well executed and a presentation style that’s almost without fault, EA Sports UFC comes out swinging on Sony’s newest console. Sadly, the title’s complicated controls make this a difficult title to pick up and play, but with the groundwork well laid, this new challenger hints at plenty of promise for the future.