EA Sports have returned once more with their biennial MMA series based on the global brand, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Unlike the inaugural title though – EA Sports UFC – and even those which followed it, this latest entry emerges at a time when most of the biggest stars in UFC have faded away. As a casual fan, my interest has certainly declined and there’s little doubt I’m not the only one to stray. Could EA Sports UFC 4 bring back the star power and deliver an authentic experience to create a knockout combination?
In many ways, EA Sports UFC 4 is the quintessential UFC game and shows great progress from the previous iterations. There is a slight worry that EA has put all of its eggs in one basket however, which becomes apparent in the sheer lack of game modes.
Upon venturing into EA Sports UFC 4, you’re immediately going to manifest yourself as a created character with an extensive selection of appearance options at hand. Literally hours could be spent sculpting various parts of the head, or you can save time and use something from a pre-made range. There are also a fair few different hairstyles and clothes to go through to find what suits – with tons of pieces of clothing available to unlock as well. Having plenty of choice here means there’s a good chance of creating a fighter that’s exactly how you want.
After fixing your fighter’s hair, body and general attire, the most crucial decision is what type of fighter they’re going to be. There’s Boxer, Kickboxer, Jiu-jitsu, Wrestler or balanced, which determines the kind of stats possessed by the character; in simple terms, Boxers and Kickboxers are better at the stand-up game, while the other two ensure you’re adept at grappling and being on the ground. Granted, it sounds quite limiting on paper, but this is just for starters and there are a vast amount of attributes to enhance, which provides freedom to mould the skills henceforth.
Once character details are finalised, UFC 4 doesn’t mess about and throws you to the wolves via Career mode straight away. Fortunately it includes a well-produced tutorial section, which is seamlessly woven into the narrative. You’re an amateur spotted by an on-looking Coach Davis who wants to show you the ropes, hoping to steer you towards success in WFA and UFC. It’s probably the most believable bit of storytelling across any of EA sports series, featuring natural interactions; credit surely has to go to Scott Manuel Johnson for an acting masterclass as the Coach.
After drip-feeding the controls for different areas of fighting in a series of training sessions, you’ll take part in bouts where those learned skills are useful. The kicks and punches are modified by pressing triggers and bumpers, with the likes of jabs, hooks and targeted kicks easy enough to pull off. In fact, the advanced crane kicks and superman punches, for example, will be grasped without much difficulty too. The trickiest aspect of the UFC games is usually the grappling, but that’s not entirely the case here.
Initiating a clinch won’t be a problem, nor will transitions during these predicaments due to the straightforward nature of the controls. It’s the groundwork however that’ll see difficulties arise if you’re hoping to become a master, as stick movements are complex amidst trying to negotiate a dominant position. Thankfully, there’s a setup that allows the game to perform the ideal manoeuvre based upon a single directional input and enables the less skilled players to get by.
Sadly, once you’ve supposedly nailed basics and the contracts begin to roll in, the cutscenes dry up and that’s a missed opportunity. That doesn’t mean the Career isn’t great fun, it is, but the pre-fight and fight routines would excel to awesome heights with more story – any story – interjected.
Instead you’ll make do with enjoyable training sessions focused on the attributes and styles you wish to improve ahead of the next encounter, while building hype through promotional activities and social media. It’s quite strategic in a way because there’s a limit to what can be done as a fight draws ever closer. Training to keep fitness is just as important as getting eyes on the upcoming match-up and everything you do in the gym, as well as inside the Octagon, will further enhance every aspect of your fighting prowess.
The character you’ve created constantly evolves and so whether you’re pulling off double leg takedowns or throwing head kicks at the opposition, the stats pertaining to those actions level up. Evolution Points are also earned and spent on increasing accuracy, power, recovery and much more. What really impresses though are the brutal adverse effects resulting from injuries, which can decrease attributes. This is a stark reminder to be cautious, but that doesn’t hinder the thrill of a fight in the slightest.
Once you set foot in that eight-sided ring, the intensity and excitement is immediately apparent. A single well-timed hook could have you swaying in an instant, while consistent attacks to the legs over a sustained period will leave you struggling to escape the clutches of the opponent. The AI often picks up on the overusing of moves, so a clever approach is required too. Across the many fights I’ve had on the road to becoming a champ, I have to admit, the quick finishes are just as exhilarating as the multi-round encounters. That’s down to the excellent gameplay.
Every transition, movement and manoeuvre is incredibly fluid and smooth, with different stances leading to relatively realistic physics that play a major part in what your fighter actually does. For example, trying not to land a punch while backing away is futile because it’ll turn out weak. On the contrary, flying in with a crane kick as the opponent tries a takedown leads to a vicious blow – that’s usually when they go night night. It’s satisfying in almost every sense, even a drawn-out submission mini-game attempt leaves you grinning from ear-to-ear upon success.
All of that combined with the Career’s end-goal of becoming the GOAT is great, no doubt about it. The main issue however, is the severe lack of any other game modes to add further substance. UFC’s version of Ultimate Team is long gone, while Fight Now only brings one-off matches that wear thin swiftly. Creating your own PPV card or tournament is possible, but one has to wonder what the point of it is. Sadly, that’s everything for the offline side of things, which puts pressure on the online action to deliver.
In the UFC series, taking on the best players from around the world is a daunting task, and it’s the same here if you’re heading into the Online World Championships. After a few placement matches it’ll decide your ideal ranking for matchmaking; these will be tough but it’s the best way to prove your worth. The Blitz Battles are much more fun because fights are swift in this tournament style mode and the rules change regularly to keep them fresh. Praise must be given for the efficient matchmaking system ensuring you’ll rarely wait long for a scuffle in either of those modes or the simple Quick Fight option.
Although you’re actively encouraged to use the created fighter, there’s still a jam-packed roster in the game. Obviously, a lot of current names are present like Jon Jones, Kamaru Usman, Amanda Nunes, and Weili Zhang, but they’ve absolutely stacked it with legends of the MMA – and CM Punk. I’m talking Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, GSP, Ronda Rousey, Cain Velasquez and tons more. Without those, the roster looks pretty meek, so it’s no wonder really.
Anyway, EA Sports UFC 4 on Xbox One is essentially a one-trick pony on the game mode front – the Career – but what a thing of beauty it is. Especially as it’s complemented by the most enjoyable and fluid gameplay to date, providing a real adrenaline rush. The online modes are fine and will keep the best fighters engaged for a little while, however it really could do with just something else bringing added substance for the sake of longevity. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worth picking up if you’re into MMA or have been before, as it has seldom felt better than this.