With a new partnership, the huge mixed martial arts promotion firm Ultimate Fighting Championship has pressed the reset button on its video game business. THQ, which once had exclusive rights to develop UFC-based games, has gone the way of the dodo, and EA Sports has taken the reins, working on a project for one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is quickly filling the niche that boxing once occupied. The UFC has a large body of hard-core fans, but to expand its base and mind-share, the company needs to lure the casual fan. Video games are one of the ways to do that.
And that seems to be the driving force for "EA Sports UFC." EA Canada has tried to make an accessible mixed martial arts title, one that teaches players the ins and outs of the sport. It does this with some stunning graphics that verge on being photorealistic. Famous fighters such as light heavyweight champ Jon Jones look like their real-life counterparts, and the competitors move fairly convincingly in a fight, even misting drops of sweat when hit with a heavy punch.
Although graphics are a success, the gameplay is hit and miss. "EA Sports UFC" is easy to pick up and play. It's a blast with friends. EA Canada does a great job with the stand-up aspect of combat (the kicking and punching), but where it gets fuzzy is in the other parts of MMA -- the clinching and ground game.
This has always been the stumbling block for the sport and developers. There's a lot of technique in wrestling an opponent to the mat and gaining leverage to execute a submission hold. But pulling off those moves is difficult with a control scheme and system that relies on complex button presses and a confusing minigame meant to mimic the cat-and-mouse struggle on the ground. In theory, it's supposed to work, but the system is so cumbersome that I rarely used it and avoided it as much as I could. That part of "EA Sports UFC" just wasn't fun.
As for the rest of the game, the career mode is solid and lets players create their own male fighter. (Unfortunately, you can't make female ones, but you can use female UFC competitors in exhibition matches.) From there, fans have to train, add skills and work their way up to the championship. Along the way, they'll earn evolution points that levels up their fighter. It's a slick and addictive mode to play.
But perhaps nothing signals the game's effort to bring in a more casual crowd than Bruce Lee. Yes, the famed martial artist is a playable fighter in the game and probably the most recognizable name in a crowded list of fighters. Although he may seem like a gimmick, Lee is a legitimately good fighter and shows off the better parts of the game.
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One