You’ll need a strong stomach, but EA Sports UFC 3 simply feels good. Dana White’s snowballing brand of mixed martial arts is not known for pulling its punches, and the third instalment in EA Sports’ series hits similarly hard, with wince-inducing haymakers breaking noses like they’re breadsticks. Industry leading audiovisual presentation leads to some of the most impressive fighting you’ll find on the PlayStation 4, but repetition and an awkward ground game take the sheen off a touch.

Make no mistake, though, this is an outstandingly produced package. The title opens with a hype-inducing vignette on Octagon ultrastar Conor McGregor, outlining his rise through the ranks from outspoken Irish amateur through to high-powered southpaw stardom. He’s the perfect choice of poster boy because his out-of-the-ring exploits perfectly mimic the game’s Career mode, which see you building a fanbase and mastering your trade.

It’s a satisfying campaign, albeit one that wears out its welcome quite quickly. Prior to each fight you’ll need to manage your fitness, using your time effectively to spar at gyms in order to learn new moves and raise your attributes. You’ll also need to successfully promote your next battle in order to increase your following, but buying into your own hype can lead to a catastrophic fall should you take a pounding in the ring.

The problem is that within the span of ten or so fights you’ll have seen pretty much everything that the Career has to offer, and from there it’s just a case of repeating the same tasks over and over until you reach your desired status as the Greatest of all Time. The title will mix things up occasionally by giving you a short recovery cycle prior to your next fight due to an injury or the like, but it still follows the same pattern and starts to feel like busywork far too quickly.

Fortunately, the fighting itself is superb. A lot of this is down to the outrageous animations, which really sell the connection of every punch and kick. Landing an upper-cut to the chin and watching the sweat and tears of your opponent paint the mat as their neck snaps back feels so satisfying, and you can physically feel through the controller when your adversary is on the ropes. As you’d expect of a sports game, stamina management plays a large part in your success.

It’s the ground game that lets the moment-to-moment brawling down. This is largely unchanged from the previous version, and sees you using the right-stick to gain positional advantage and complete disconnected minigames that lead to submissions. It’s an area of the title you’ll actively want to avoid, partly because the striking is so strong, but also because it’s unsatisfying and cumbersome in its own right.

Similar complaints can be levelled at Ultimate Team, which is obligatory for an EA Sports release but still feels somewhat shoehorned. You essentially collect cards to assemble a team of UFC fighters across four different disciplines, with contract stickers temporarily boosting your earnings and move tokens adding to your roster of abilities. It’s a fine attempt but the formula just doesn’t work as well as it does in a FIFA, and the fact that you can watch commercials to earn coins rubs us the wrong way.

The online play is good, though, whether you’re taking your Ultimate Team online or simply playing with the title’s large cast of professional fighters. The microtransaction aspect does unbalance the former slightly, but the standard matchmaking options employ a divisional system to ensure that you’re always up against players of a similar standing. Elsewhere, you can place wagers on real-world UFC fights in order to win in-game currency to spend on your Ultimate Team.

Conclusion

When two outrageously detailed character models are slugging it out, EA Sports UFC 3 feels sublime. Incredible animations paired with a weighty physics system mean that you feel the thrills and spills of every bout. Unfortunately, the clunky ground game combat fails to hit the same highs, and the campaign – which is a novelty to begin with – loses its lustre after a few rounds. There’s still a lot to like here and more than enough content to sink your fists into, but it still feels like there’s a bit more refinement required before this series achieves G.O.A.T. status.