We suppose the biggest challenge that EA Sports has always faced with its line of officially branded UFC games is that players clearly prefer to box. It’s been almost a decade since the last Fight Night game, as the juggernaut publisher has coveted the more commercially viable MMA crowd. But play new entry EA Sports UFC 4 online and you’ll find no shortage of stand-and-bangers – in fact, the inclusion of real-world boxers Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury is almost a tacit admission from EA Vancouver that it knows this is its fans’ preferred style of play.

To be fair, the developer’s put in some serious legwork to try and make the ground game more appealing. While the complicated legacy controls are available to those who want them, a new assisted grapple system enables you to wrestle by simply pushing in different directions. For example, if you want to blitz your sparring partner with a flurry of punches while you’ve got them pinned, you just need to push to the right and your fighter will automatically assume the optimal position. The same is true of submissions, except you push to the left to perform that.

While it’s a much improved format for those simply looking to pick-up-and-play, we found it difficult to predict defensive manoeuvres without assists on – and these are disabled by default when you play online. Moreover, ground and pound still doesn’t feel quite as brutal as it should, despite the sound effects being cranked up to compensate for the slightly slack animations. To be fair, the new submission mechanics work well, as you chase your opponent’s coloured bar in a minigame that tests your tactical nous – but it’s the on-foot striking gameplay that still undeniably takes centre stage.

Fortunately, this retains the crunchiness of EA Sports UFC 3, and while the presentation hasn’t exactly progressed as much as you may expect in two years, it still feels really good. Faces warp and ripple as they receive stern blows, and combatants visibly bleed and bruise over the course of five brutal rounds. There are a lot of reused animations from the previous game, but kickboxing is still extremely entertaining, as you attempt to read your opponent and break through their guard.

Perhaps more important is the way the release puts an emphasis on personal taste. The rudimentary Fight Now options include tons of toggles to personalise the experience, even going so far as to offer a traditional Street Fighter-esque mode that takes place in an arena surrounded by fire and men in funny hats. The revised Career mode – which is the staple of the title – also allows you to develop your created combatant the way you want to, by levelling up specific moves that you use in the octagon or during training.

This allows you to make a character that’s very much a reflection of your own style; if you use a lot of upper-cuts, for example, then over time they’ll become the deadliest attack in your arsenal. Other parts of your performance, like your chin strength and kick speed, can be upgraded using training points that you accrue over the course of your campaign. But you need to be smart about building hype around your bouts and also ensuring that you’re in the best possible shape before you fight.

There are some very minor storylines that emerge as part of the single player, allowing you to partner with some fighters and convert others into rivals, but we found this element to be undercooked. The onboarding process, however, which sees you lose your first amateur fight before being trained up by a fictional former UFC fighter serves as a satisfying tutorial for the gameplay systems, which can be obtuse if you’ve never played one of these titles before.

The dismal Ultimate Team option from the previous game has been removed from this one, meaning that microtransactions are included for cosmetics only. There are various different rotating challenges that earn you XP and coins as you play the game, and these can be invested into cosmetics that range from licensed gym wear all the way up to crazy wearables like lion masks and animated t-shirts. Of course, you can choose to purchase coins with real money if you need an injection of in-game currency, but it’s not required and we appreciate that.

The online play is actually very well executed, with a ranked option that sees you attempt to earn a championship belt and the more fast-paced Blitz Battles, which rotate objectives throughout the day. In these you’ll need to win five back-to-back matches with varying rule-sets, with our favourite being the one minute bouts that seriously up the tension; one wrong move and you’ll find yourself starting from scratch.

Conclusion

EA Sports UFC 4 is not a massive departure from its predecessor, but it’s a significantly better game. EA Vancouver has successfully recognised the way fans want to play, and with its array of arcade-inspired options and emphasis on Career mode, it will appeal to casual fans of the sport as well as MMA obsessives alike. While the ground game still needs work, it’s much more approachable now, and we really like the fast-paced Blitz Battles as an accompaniment to the more traditional online ranked matches. The presentation has stagnated somewhat, but combat still feels appropriately crunchy, and with rotating challenges to hold your attention, we can see ourselves sticking with this brawler for some time.