STAFF REVIEW of EA Sports UFC (Xbox One)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014.
by Adam Dileva

EA Sports UFC  Box art When THQ went out of business, the one franchise I was most saddened to see go was their UFC games. Being a huge UFC fan and quite happy with how Undisputed 3 turned out, I was unsure what was going to happen with the UFC games going forward. As it turns out, EA will now be creating the UFC games going forward. At first this somewhat worried me, as their EA MMA game was not anywhere close to the quality as the THQ’s UFC games were and I’ve never been a big fan of their Fight Night boxing titles either, so needless to say, I was cautiously optimistic about them handling the UFC franchise going forward.

I’m happy to report that EA UFC (simply referred to as UFC from here on) looks like it’s in good hands with the developer change, even with some of the drastic changes to mechanics that I’ve become accustomed to with the previous games. Built strictly for next-gen by the team behind Fight Night, UFC boasts roughly 100 fighters across all 9 weight divisions, even the women’s bantamweight. So yes, you can play as Ronda Rousey and armbar her whole division should you wish. With a heap of new mechanics behind the curtains which I’ll get into shortly, every fighter looks and reacts realistically based on what’s happening in the cage.

Having fighters looking as close to their real life counterparts is no doubt important, but having the true UFC experience that we’re used to seeing at live events and on TV is equally just as important for it to feel truly authentic; this is accomplished with a broadcast presentation style. If you’ve seen a UFC event on TV before, that is essentially how it looks in the game as well; from walkouts, fighter introductions, and more. You’ll see Rogan and Goldberg sitting ringside announcing, Octagon girls between rounds, and even the actual cutmen Stich and House repair you between rounds.

A fighter’s walkout is important, from their music choice to their signature moves and walks to the octagon. Some fighters will come out to their actual music, but very few. Instead, you get a likeness version of their song, most likely for cost of music rights. So while it’s not totally authentic with the official song, it’s very similar in style and only the hardcore fans will even notice. The same goes for their actual walk in. Some fighters have a distinct walk in intro to the ring and the majority of fighters in the game will mimic these moves. John Dodson was one that stood out for me, as he’s known to dance with his arms and smile from ear to ear, all of which he does walking to the ring in the game as well. The fighter likeness in their animations are quite impressive and you know that when a specific fighter wins a fight, he’s going to celebrate just the way he does in real life as well.

So before jumping into the core gameplay itself, lets touch on a few of the mechanics that takes place to make UFC feel authentic as possible in new ways. MMAi allows for the actual licensed fighters to not only behave and fight the way they would in real life, but it also allows for the AI to adapt and change their plans if needed. For example, Chael Sonnen is known to take you to the ground and wrestle you. If you can manage to repeatedly stuff his takedown and don’t get taken to the ground, he might change to Plan B, and if that doesn’t work, even possibly Plan C. If he’s down in the final round on the scorecards, he’s probably going to try and knock you out or submit you to get that win. MMAi also plays into the fighters abilities, as playing on a harder difficulty doesn’t make you or them hit harder, it just makes them smarter at fighting rather than upping some sliders to make things more difficult. If you know your MMA, then you’ll have a good blueprint of how you should fight against certain opponents. Expect Dan Henderson to throw the H-Bomb, Rousey to try and armbar you, and Demian Maia to try and submit you.

In previous UFC games it usually looked like the fighters were sliding against the canvas and when they made contact with strikes, it usually never looked too impactful. Now in UFC, when you land a strike against your opponent, there’s no clipping or sliding of the strikes and their body will show impact on their skin in real time. Just like how you see in the ultra slow-motion replays, skin will actually ripple and your opponents face will cringe and wince, or muscles will flex to take the blow. Strikes and submissions feel like they have more weight to them and that they actually hurt because of this body deformation. It’s a small touch but you can see the difference compared to other UFC games.

“So you wanna be a fighter?” Any UFC fan knows that this is the question that Dana White poses to newcomers to the UFC that partake in The Ultimate Fighter. For those that don’t know, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF from here on) is a reality show where new fighters can fight their way through a grueling tournament to earn a shot at a ludicrous UFC contract and a head start on their fight career. For the first time in any UFC game, when you begin your career, you’ll be starting at the bottom by having to win your way into the TUF house and then the contract itself. You’ll train in the famous TUF gym and have famous UFC personalities along the way come and help you get your fight career going.

Incorporating real footage from the show and competing in what the TUF gym actually looks like, it’ll feel like you’re actually partaking in the TUF tournament to win your way into the UFC. You begin your career by creating your fighter in whatever likeness you want, then choosing their abilities and skills. You can choose your base that varies from Jio Jitsu, Judo, Box, Freestyle Wrestler, Greco-Roman Wrestler, Karate, Kick Boxer, Tae Kown Do, Muay Thai, and MMA Fighter. Based on which discipline you choose as your base, stats will go into specific categories to favor that style of fighting. Choose a wrestling base and your ground abilities will start much higher than a striker. As you start winning fights in the UFC, you’ll earn Evolution Points which can be spent on improving any stat you wish or even learning new moves to round out your repertoire.

Once you win your first fight to get into the TUF house, you’ll be drafted onto one of the teams with UFC fighters as the coaches. Having started a career mode twice, it does seem random on who the coaches are which is a nice touch to keep things interesting each time you play with a new fighter. Once you win the coveted TUF tournament and your way into the UFC, you’ll start your career like most do, at the bottom and the opening fight of the night. As you start to put together a winning streak, you’ll start to earn more and more fans, which unlock new abilities for your game plans, unlock new sponsors, and visits from big UFC stars to your gym to train.

Careers in the UFC can vary from fighter to fighter. The more elusive fighters that don’t take as much damage can fight well into their 40’s, whereas the more reckless fighters might have a shorter career due to the damage they’ve taken in the past. The same goes for your career in the game, as taking significant strikes, getting KO’d, or submitted, will drastically lessen your career length in the octagon. I really like this mechanics as opposed to having a set amount of fights before you retire and it makes every fight really mean something, as that one fight that went really badly can weigh in on your longevity.

As you train, win matches, and level up, you’ll rank up which unlocks new abilities that can be assigned to your Game Plan. Game Plans can (eventually) have up to five abilities assigned to them and you can eventually unlock up to 3 Game Plans. So if you’re facing a wrestler, you might want to tailor your Game Plan to either be more ground centric, or play into your strengths as a striker and weigh more heavily on those abilities. As my created fighter was striking centric, I made my Game Plan play into my strengths and I was able to eventually win fights quite quickly as I knew what my plan was going into the fight beforehand. While the abilities range from ground, standup, and physical, you can mix and match abilities between fights at will to tailor it towards your next opponent.

There were a few odd things I did notice while playing through the campaign though that seemed very odd. Firstly, even though I was getting round 1 TKO’s, I was perpetually on the undercard for at least a dozen fights. It wasn’t until about 15 fights in, going 15-0 mind you, until I got to fight an actual licensed UFC fighter, though even that was the opening fight on the main card. At 18-0, all with round 1 TKO’s, I finally got my title shot, but it was against another no-name fighter instead of a real UFC fighter. Even odder, the number one contender fight I was competing in wasn’t even the co-main event on the PPV. Sure, who cares, but it was just really odd as a fighter in the UFC that has an unbeaten streak of almost 20 and still fighting no-names in a non-main event. Not a deal breaker by any means, but definitely something that stood out as inauthentic as to what would actually happen in UFC if a fighter was on a tear like that.

If you’re like me and played the previous UFC games for years, get ready to unlearn everything you know for all those years. Striking has been changed, and while you’ll be able to button mash and throw some hits, to really play properly you’re going to have to learn the way UFC wants you to play. A new dynamic striking system is in place and allows for basic hits all the way up to highlight reel off the cage moves made famous by Anthony Pettis. The first thing I had to quickly get used to was that the main buttons to block and modifiers have changed from the previous games. To block you hold the Right Trigger, and this will block basic damage but you’ll still get slightly injured. Holding block but then tapping high or low buttons at the right time will allow you to block strong and counter, opening up a small window to inflict extra damage. Real physics are also at play during striking and you can easily lose your footing if your legs are kicked out from under you during a leg strike. This does occur for some odd hang ups like my ankle getting stuck on a shoulder for a moment or two, but for the most part the physics feel quite realistic. Also, I learned there are no leg KO’s, even after chopping away at a single leg for 15 minutes with Pat Barry.

Your stamina bar is essentially your gas tank and will dictate how quickly you move, dodge, stack power, and block all your actions. You can’t just button mash or you’ll quickly become tired and won’t even be able to defend properly. The health HUD in the corners gives you an indication of how damaged each body part is during the fight. The redder it gets, the more likely that’s how you’re going to lose the fight. Become critically injured and have a flashing red body part on the HUD and you might not even be able to stand upright or block at all until you recover. Head shots aren’t the only way to finish your opponent, as liver shots and even leg limping can be a great opening to finish them off when their injured.

Undoubtedly the most frustrating part of the previous UFC games was the ground game. Most players didn’t take the time to learn its intricacies to attack or defend properly, so most fights ended up as striking matches. The ground game in UFC has been completely revamped and while not perfect, it is much easier to understand and easier to learn than before. You’ll still be using the quarter circle motions with the right stick to improve your position, but it’s not as convoluted as before. Blocking transitions has also been simplified, and while I’m no ground expert, I can now hold my own after watching and playing the in-game tutorials. Just like a real fight, having full mount or tower guard allows you to inflict some serious damage if it’s not blocked properly, and also opens up positions submissions.

Also heavily flawed in the previous UFC games was the submission game that was more of a cat and mouse like minigame rather than something that felt like a submission. UFC reinvents the submission system, and like the ground game, it’s not perfect, but it is much better than what was in the past games. Just like a real submission, there are multiple stages and nuances to pull off or defend a submission properly. Submissions will range from 3 to 5 stages depending on the position and difficulty. As the attacker, you’re sinking in your submission and waiting for the right opening to advance to the next stage of the submission which will give you an indication. Defending though will have you trying to escape the position by pushing out your ‘gates’ without letting the attacker block you. Manage to defend the submission and you’ll get out of the position, but keep mindful of your stamina, as it will play a large roll on your success or loss in doing so. It’s not a perfect system, and it’s still quite difficult to perform, but it is leaps and bounds better than the minigame from Undisputed.

Want to go online and prove you really are the best? UFC has multiple modes to do this against the world or your friends. Much like other EA games’ Seasons modes, Online Championship is where you’ll want to play to really prove you’re the best in the world. In this mode you’ll play as actual UFC fighters (sorry, no CAF’s allowed), and begin in the lowest divisions, fighting in what’s called seasons. A season lasts 10 fights and keeps track of your win/loss ratio, but also has a points based system to promote finishing fights. Finish a fight and you’ll earn 3 points, whereas if you go to decision, you won’t earn as many. At the end of the season your points are tallied and will determine if you were good enough to move up to a higher division or not. Become the best in your division and you’ll even earn a belt to prove you’re the best in that class. Higher divisions will have a high tally of points needed to remain or move up a division, having only the best of the best in the black belt division. Overall, it’s a much cooler system in place than a simple quick match (which is included, but unranked and nothing to do with the Online Championship mode) and even though I wasn’t winning every fight, I was doing what I could to move up a division.

Have a friend that you constantly play over and over to determine who’s better? Why not make it interesting and make them an online rival to keep track of every win, loss, and finish. Rivalries uses many of the Online Championships’ components such as seasons (though a lesser point cap and only 5 fights per season). The player with the most points at the end of the season is the winner and will now have the belt for bragging rights, though it’s put up for grabs in the following season. Rivalries do allow for your CAF’s to be used, and will track across multiple friends simultaneously. Again, it’s a really cool system in place instead of simply quick match over and over. Having the belt on the line after each season is a great motivator to keep playing but to also get better to finally rob it from your friend.

It took me about a full day to finally get rid of Undisputed’s control scheme out of my head and play UFC properly since I played it for years, and while there are certain aspects I miss from THQ’s iteration of UFC games, EA’s UFC has a very strong start for their first game. While not perfect, as there are some minor clipping issues, goofy looking Clay Guida hair at times, and a lot of small things that only the hardcore fan will notice, it’s a good pickup and play game for anyone, but to become very good you’ll have to learn all of the smaller nuances and mechanics, especially before going online.

The other main issue I had was the roster. Sure the game boasts around 100 fighters, but there are a few glaring holes in the roster and other odd inclusions. I know there are reasons certain fighters aren’t or couldn’t be in the game, or will come with DLC in the future, but the few that stood out for me not included on disc were quite shocking. Sure, Brock Lesnar isn’t fighting anymore, but when you have others that don’t like Forrest Griffin or Chuck Liddell, it seems a little odd to not have a past champion included, especially one as popular as him. Now current bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw is nowhere to be seen, yet Mike Easton and Erik Perez are there. No Stefan Struve, Matt Brown, Pat Healy, or even top 5 contender Tyron Woodley either. Again, I realize there are probably legitimate reasons for many of these and more not being there, and I know DLC fighters will come, but these are some of the bigger names I would have liked to play as.

Once I overcome the change in controls and really started to understand the new way of controlling my fighter properly, I began to have a lot more fun with it. Being able to stuff takedowns, pull off submissions, work an effective ground game, and more, the game really starts to open up and show its strengths as to why things were changed; you just have to want to learn it. Sure it’s not perfect, as one minute your leg might get oddly stuck on your opponent, but then the brutal KO’s will have you cheering out loud. Overall UFC is a fantastic base and a treat for the hardcore fan and I’m excited to see the improvements that will be added come UFC 2.

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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