Available on Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed)
Pop quiz: which game first set new visual standards for the last console generation? Gears of War? Far too late. Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter? Close, but no cigar. No, the first game that made everyone think "Blimey, that’s what these things can do" was EA’s Fight Night Round 3 in March 2006. Nobody had ever seen human characters so realistic, or a boxing game with such lifelike blood, sweat, muscle and pain. Fight Night Round 3 was the first HD game that looked like it couldn’t have been made for the non-HD consoles.
To some extent, EA Sports UFC repeats the trick for the PS4 and Xbox One. With just an arena, a crowd, the octagon and two fighters, EA’s team has been able to luxuriate in the graphics power of the next-gen consoles. You’ve never seen human beings rendered in such photo realistic detail, with skin, hair and muscle this convincing.
Watch a gameplay demo of EA Sports UFC
We’re no experts in the noble sport of MMA, but a huge number of the fighters have been replicated in lavish detail, down to tattoos, body hair and facial damage, hairstyles and bears. And if you think it looks good in stills, just wait until you see it animated. Watch the replays to see how muscles bunch and relax while in motion, or how face and torso reacts when kicked or punched.
In fact, only two things spoil the impact. One is the facial animation, which takes us straight back on a trip to the uncanny valley. The other is the gameplay. It’s not that EA Sports UFC is a bad game to play, but – unlike Fight Night Round 3 – it’s a much easier game to admire than it is to love.
We say admire, because it’s hard not to feel admiration for the work EA Sports has put into transforming the sport into a game. It has quick punches and rapid strikes with foot, elbow and knee. It has powerful haymakers and nasty roundhouse kicks. It has grappling to drop down your opponent, and grappling on the floor with punching, kneeing and choking moves. It has submissions so painful looking that they’ll make your eyes water. With its mix of martial arts, boxing and wrestling, MMA is arguably the most complex and technically demanding of one-on-one, full-contact combat sports. EA Sports UFC tries to replicate it in all its different forms.
It’s deeply impressive, not just because strikes and grapples are covered without skimping any detail, but also because each fighter – and there are dozens – has their own variations, their own special moves, strengths and weaknesses, which you’ll get to explore as you play. Time and time again as you play it, you’re struck by the sheer amount of effort that’s gone in (though it’s a shame that you can’t unlock the much hyped Bruce Lee without completing the game in hard mode or ponying up extra cash to EA).
The problem is that all this complexity is reflected in the control system. With both sticks, complete with click-down and quarter-circle gestures involved, not to mention all four face buttons handling basic kicks and punches and the four shoulder buttons acting as modifiers, you have to learn a vast quantity of moves and combos just to grasp the very basics of the game. Throw in a complex system of stick moves for grappling (again with modifiers), blocks and dodges, and EA Sports UFC is one of the hardest games we’ve ever had to get to grips with outside of Dark Souls or the strategy genre.
It doesn’t bode well when your first half hour in the game is spent in tutorials, or that these tutorials seem to teach you everything without really teaching you anything, so that you can still wander out into the octagon and get thrashed in under thirty seconds. Create your own fighter and play through the career mode, and the action is still punctuated by tutorials and exercises to keep you developing your skills.
Frankly, it’s a challenge to get your head around it all. Hours into the game, we’re still not entirely sure how the submissions mini-game works, or how to grapple effectively once you’re on the ground.
This isn’t necessarily a failing. Not all games have to be pick-up-and-play, and in a way it’s good to see EA embrace the complexities of a sport rather than dumb it down for mainstream consumption. All the same, you can’t help wishing that EA Sports UFC was just a little more accessible, and just a little more rewarding early on.
Keep playing, and the feeling that you’re engaged in a technical exercise never really leaves. Great fighting games have a sense of flow and momentum, but EA Sports UFC feels weirdly staccato, as you trade blows, try (and often fail) to dodge or block, then grapple. There’s a pleasure in winning a struggle for submission, or hitting hard with that perfect, knockout strike, but it’s all rather dry.
If you do get into it, then there’s a length career mode to get your teeth into, and while it’s not the most thrilling or innovative effort, you again have to admire the way EA has involved favourite fighters and tried to bring the real-life UFC into the game. The AI gets progressively more challenging, meaning cheap knockouts are no longer so effective and you really have to get to grips with grappling and submissions, and you’ll probably be crying ‘mummy’ long before the game does.
Otherwise, it’s not particularly packed with bonuses or modes. You get one of EA’s typically comprehensive online modes, replete with tournaments as well as one-off matches, and the action online is smooth and seemingly lag-free, even playing against players in the US. Meanwhile, you can play the challenge games from the career mode separately, giving you another chance to work on your strikes, advanced techniques, grappling, blocks and dodges.
Overall, there’s a lot here to appeal to UFC fans, and it’s those fans who will have the persistence to work their way up the game’s steep learning curve – or maybe clamber over the game’s learning wall – and make the most of the UFC personalities, the graphics and the slick online play. All the same, you can’t help feeling that, had EA tried to capture the spirit of UFC rather than replicate the action, component by component, it might have ended up with a game that more of us could enjoy.
EA Sports has created a visually stunning, impressively detailed MMA game featuring most of the biggest figures in the sport. However, the complex controls and mechanical feel can make it a difficult game for outsiders, and you’ll face a steep learning curve before you get much satisfaction out of it.