I’m not sure if it’s the same across the globe, but being a UFC fan is a dangerous pastime here in Australia. Both participating in, and watching, the sport pose significant risks to one’s general wellbeing; there’s the obvious peril that would accompany being in the fight, and the danger of a particularly keen fan exerting his enthusiasm unto you.
In short, the major problem with MMA is the looming threat of being punched in the head.
EA Sport’s UFC 2 aims to remove this from the MMA equation by allowing you to participate in the UFC with none of the accompanying head-traumas, exercise or otherwise unsavoury encounters. But the thing about MMA is that it’s complicated. That’s why the UFC is a prestigious organisation. It’s also why the related games face a conundrum. They must represent the sport in a way that is simple enough to be enjoyable but complex enough to properly channel the sport. Historically, studios have landed either side of this line, creating games that were too bland or too complicated to be enjoyable.
UFC 2 combats this issue through the introduction of the HUD based grappling system. Rather than simplifying the ground combat, or creating a massive learning curve, this system gives the player insight into the grappling process. Previously, one would have to learn the various positions and their defences in order to effectively wrestle their opponent. But the introduction of the HUD system allows less diligent players to succeed while still, theoretically, keeping the combat true to its real life manifestation.
Sadly, though, the ground based combat isn’t as fluid as it should be. Transitions between holds look robotic, and the wrestling animations seem very forced. But by no means does this mean it isn’t fun. The game does well in balancing the distribution of power. The threat of submission is very real whether you’re in top or bottom position. And the submission hold mechanics work fantastically. Yes, it is difficult to succeed with a submission but the process is simplified with practice. And the process – which is akin to a mini-game – is enjoyable whether you prevail or not.
For the most part, you’ll want stay on your feet. This is when the game is at its best. The stamina system adds a tactical element to striking combat, forcing the player to conserve energy and plan their attacks. Striking controls are also more accessible this time around. Punches and kicks are mapped to X/Y and A/B buttons respectively. Attacks can be modified using the left trigger, left bumper and the left analogue stick. Furthermore, attacks can be assigned to each of the striking commands; this allows you to map your preferred attacks to your preferred input commands. As far as the feeling of involvement goes, this feature is one of the game’s best; it gives you control over your fighter’s style, allowing you to completely customise their moves.
In terms of the stand-up game, UFC 2 is fantastic. Managing stamina is challenging but totally possible. Once you’re familiar with the controls, you’ll be well equipped to vicariously live out your fighting fantasies. And even if you’re not familiar, UFC 2 caters for you with the new ‘knockout mode’. In this mode, the game essentially becomes Tekken. It removes the takedown option and gives each player a health bar. What ensues is almost always a button mashing slug-fest. Yes, you’d be right in saying that ‘knockout mode’ brings nothing new to the fighting game genre. But, because of its accessibility, it should bring new players to the genre. It also supplies a much needed relief in the hours when UFC’s learning curve is at its steepest.
Now, learning how to fight and learning the tricks of the game is integral to winning – especially against highly ranked opponents. And the training mode gives great instruction. In career mode, before a fight, you’re given a training camp of designated length. In this camp you’re given a number of available exercises. Usually, and if you’re smart, you’ll focus your attention on your opponents weak points. Initially these exercises serve as tutorials, but as you hone your skills, you’ll progress through the difficulty settings and learn your strengths as a player. By adding this element of strategy to the fights, UFC 2 extends beyond the button mashing, mindless combat of the typical fighting game. It also allows you to train your weaknesses and, in doing so, adds a vital element of incentive to the experience.
UFC 2 also includes the Ultimate Team game mode – a variant of the manager mode that is now commonplace in sports games. I’ve never particularly liked these modes – as a uni student, corporate bureaucracy forms too large a part of my everyday life for me to fantasise about asset management – but this one worked rather well. Essentially you manage a team of fighters, and when they win you receive points – these points can also be purchased with real world money in the way that is, again, typical of modern sports games. These points are used to purchase or upgrade fighter skills. While earning a rank 5 heel kick isn’t the same as signing Steph Curry in NBA2k16, watching and orchestrating your fighters success is a voyeuristic privilege – one that is much less intense than fighting the fight yourself.
Speaking of winning, in real time the significant strike animations look amazing. You’ll cringe and celebrate and sometimes even imagine the concussion these hits cause. But the slow motion replays can often undermine the effect. Even Joe Rogan’s commentating is dimmed by watching a clunky punch and its delayed effects. To the game’s credit these animations look fantastic when they work – it’s just that these occasions aren’t as plentiful as they should be.
Since playing UFC 2, I’ve had some brutal punishments – both by AI and online players. I’ve spent three and a half hours in the character creation screen (this, in itself, should be a testimony to the quality of character building mechanics). And I’ve taken Seamus Bailey – the most Irish man in the virtual world – to the top of the UFC’s middleweight division. What I’ve noticed during this time is how drastically fights vary between opponents. Preparation will only take you so far because, with its versatile play-style, UFC 2 forces you to think on your feet. You’ll have to be adaptable and also unpredictable. And in channeling the fighting process, I’d say UFC 2 does a fine job. The purists may criticise the game, but then again, the purists criticise everything.
EA have created a game that is noticeably true to its origins. And more than that, they’ve created a game that’s fun. While UFC 2 has its faults, it’s a step further on the path to perfecting the fighting game.