Winning a fight is 90% preparation. Diet, cardio, weights, grappling, hitting the pads, sparring, cuts, bruises, sprains – and that’s just Monday. You get to do it all again tomorrow. When it comes to the day of the fight, all of your hard work will be on display, and your win or loss will depend largely on sheer force of will, and preparation.

After a largely dead-on-arrival first pass at mixed martial arts with EA Sports MMA courtesy of EA Tiberon, it wasn’t a surprise that Electronic Arts would hand off their freshly-acquired UFC contract to their most seasoned fight company – EA Canada. Home of the sweet science of boxing for the better part of a decade, EA Canada’s Brian Hayes and his team has the difficult task of bringing the world’s fastest growing sport to life on the latest generation of consoles, bettering what predecessor THQ had done with their Undisputed series. Could they improve on their initial effort and finally give us the MMA fight simulator we’ve always wanted?

jones EA Sports UFC: Winner by Split Decision

As real as it gets
The team’s first showcase of the game featured a level of graphic fidelity that was hard to believe. Faces contorted with pain as the fighters took hard shots to the gut, bruises with sub-surface scanning (conveys skin translucence), and proprietary technology that allows muscles to flex, bend, and ripple under the power of each strike. Even the small details like the spread of the toes as the fighter presses their feet into the canvas, or the wrinkling in the neck skin as fighters stretch their neck are represented here – these fighters have never looked so alive in a game. The final version features all of these items and more, but at a cost. There are frequent framerate hits, and no real rhyme or reason as to when it’ll occur. Wide shots are a necessity in the UFC, showing the entire ring, members of the press, both fighters, the training crew, and more, so you’d expect to see these framerate hits during these moments. Surprisingly, they occur just as frequently during training sessions with nobody in the background with just the two fighters facing off in the squared circle. These aren’t necessarily a framerate reduction as much as a full hitch, causing the action to pause momentarily. In a game where a split second can have you flat on your back, this causes problems. It has to be a bug, given the random nature and the fact that I saw no such slowdown when I previewed the game in February, so I’m hopeful that EA Canada can iron it out.

Technical hitches aside, each fighter has been captured in more detail than any game we’ve seen thus far. Every pore, scar, tattoo, and cauliflower ear has been scanned. Movement styles have been captured, as well as signature strikes and submissions. To add to the authenticity, the team spent countless hours capturing motivational videos, anecdotes about getting your first win, your first loss, a title shot, and everything in between. Fighters across the spectrum will call you up with encouragement, and there are plenty of fight segments to show off the devastating power each of these fighters wield. Any of the actual footage from the UFC, including interviews and fight highlights, prompts a pop-up message which advises that you can’t record them. Turning off all notifications didn’t make it go away, so you’ll get to enjoy the pop-up several times between every fight. They also tend to repeat; I got three videos in a row from UFC President Dana White. I’ve heard Forest’s speech about my winning streak every 2-3 fights, and I’ve seen the awesome “Refuse to Lose” Belfort / Jones fight several times. Despite the fact that there are quite a few of these interstitials, they do add a great deal of authenticity to the career progression.

ground and pound EA Sports UFC: Winner by Split Decision

TUF
If there is one area I was excited to see, it’s the inclusion of the The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) competition in this year’s product. TUF has introduced us to some of the most dynamic and exciting fighters like Forrest Griffin, Michael Bisping, Rashad Evans, and Matt Serra. EA Sports UFC uses TUF as an entry point for your fledgling fighter, allowing you to run a full career from humble beginnings to title fights and defenses.

After a quick tutorial pitting Jon Jones against Alexander Gustafsson, you’ll have the option to start your own career. Using the robust character creator to choose the look of your fighter, you’ll begin to shape your fighting style. Selecting from 10 archetypes ranging from Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, Boxer, and Mixed Martial Artist, you’ll select your base stats and style. These predefined fighting styles set your stats according to the UFC’s approximation of how your blocking, clinch control and passing, kick and punch speed, submission and ground skills, general health stamina, and much more would all balance out to create a “Stand-up”, “Submission” and “Ground score” which bubbles up to an Overall rating for your fighter. All create-a-fighters start at an overall of 59/100, ensuring that your skills are balanced regardless of your chosen martial style.

As an unknown fighter you don’t know any special attack moves or abilities, nor do you have fight music or sponsors – all of those come with time. That said, you are assigned Mike Dolce as your trainer, one of the best in the UFC – you have some luck, kid! Eventually you’ll get your shot by fighting your way onto The Ultimate Fighter show – success here is your ticket to the Octagon and the big show. What’s awesome here? They modeled the real UFC training center in Las Vegas. If you win the fight, you’ll go through team selection, just like on the show. This year we are split between Team Silva and Team Hunt, and after my poor showing that ended in a split decision, I got picked dead last – not a great start for my fighter.

In my first fight I noticed something a little off with the voice work, occasionally it doesn’t quite match the action. I had teammates yelling things like, “One more elbow like that and the ref will stop the fight!” before I threw a single punch. Additionally, this line (and moreso when Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg say it later) is just for added ‘flavor’ – there are no doctor stoppages no matter how much blood is shed.

Despite my rough start and some fairly difficult fights, I succeeded in earning the “W” in the Ultimate Fighter Tournament, picking up nearly 10,000 fans in the process and earning enough XP to hit level 2. It was time to start that all-important preparation piece I mentioned before.

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The more you bleed in practice, the less you bleed in battle
Training is the cornerstone of forging fighters out of amateurs. With a little motivation from Dolce, you’ll get three random training activities to help you become a more well rounded fighter. Bag work has you hitting 10 combinations in a certain timeframe. Blocking practice has you deflecting incoming strikes to improve your defense. Ground drills improves your transitions, submission attempts, or submission defense. When you complete these drills you’ll receive a rating from white to black belt, and this corresponds with a certain amount of Evolution points (EP). EP allows you to put points into the huge array of various disciplines, your health and stamina, and your striking strength. You’ll also be able to spend these points on signature attacks like a cartwheel kick or a superman punch. These skills and attributes get progressively more expensive as you move into the highest tier of skills or stats; it just takes more work to learn the upper echelon. Similarly, you’ll have some pretty easy sessions early on, but as your coach develops your gameplan you’ll learn more advanced setups and counters, and that means more difficult combinations.

It’s funny, really, considering how difficult it is to reach true martial mastery, that roughly three quarters of the way through my first title attempt I no longer needed to train. I had enough EP from my fight wins to simply skip the training and still max out all skills. Additionally, most of the bugs I found occurred in training. I had one session where I was supposed to defend a submission attempt, but my training partner just laid on top of me gazing lovingly into my eyes for the longest minute and a half ever, never actually attempting the submission. It’s a design decision to let you practice, but your teammate will just lay there for your first few runs at learning your own submissions, not fighting back at all. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, though – let’s step into the octagon and talk about the most important part of this game – combat.

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IIiiiiiiiiittsssss TIIIIIIIME!!!!
With EA Canada at the helm, I had very high hopes for the combat in EA Sports UFC. For the most part, they hit the high mark I’d set in my head. I already mentioned how gorgeous the graphics are in this game, but I have to say that the collision detection and animation are equally top notch. With a close-contact combat sport like MMA, collision detection is essential. Every heel hook, Gogoplata, Kimura, punch, kick, and position advancement worked flawlessly, the fighters moving in a natural and realistic way – I was very impressed.

Squaring off against another fighter, you have several areas of the body you can damage. Legs, head, and torso are all valid target areas, and repeated strikes to the head will cause “health events” like stumbling or holding your stomach and being unable to block to the head. Leg kicks are supposed to make fighters move less effectively, but in practice it doesn’t impact their skills in any meaningful way. I’ve absolutely destroyed both legs of a fighter and they can still throw crazy capoeira, jumping, or big spin kicks without a hitch. Having taken hard strikes to my shins and the pressure points in my legs for real, I can tell you that you can hardly lift them – it breaks immersion for me. There are also no stoppages for leg kicks too, making Edson Barboza’s victory over Rafaello Oliveira in UFC 162 impossible to recreate.

For those fans that enjoyed the parry system in the Fight Night series, you’ll find something very similar here. Holding your block trigger does a weak block, but hitting it at exactly the right time will parry a strike, enabling your fighter to duck the attack and open a counter-strike opportunity. Button mashing is completely normal in the beginning, but as you square off against more veteran (and real-world) fighters later on, you’ll need to master this counter-striking strategy quickly. Unlike Fight Night though, it never feels unfair – UFC has a vastly improved and better balanced blocking system.

100% of fights start standing up (unless you are Jon Jones), but a great many go to the ground. The submission game in EA Sports UFC is a revolutionary upgrade to the ones fielded by previous UFC titles. No longer are you drilling a hole in your palm. When attempting a submission both players are presented with an octagon overlay. Like real submissions you have multiple avenues for escape, so the defender will press in one of four directions with the right stick. The attacker will press in that direction, halting the escape attempt. Real submissions are multi-stage as you slowly improve your position until you can gain pain-compliance through joint manipulation or a choke, and that is perfectly modeled here. As you fight with your opponent’s attempts to escape you’ll see a quick L pop up in one of the directions randomly. If the attacker hits that direction with the left stick they’ll advance to the next ‘stage’ of the lock. If the defender hits it, it’s an opportunity to loosen the lock. Most submissions consist of four stages, creating a very fair cat-and-mouse game that more closely approximates the difficulty of a submission or choke. As a martial artist, I couldn’t be happier with this mechanic – submission victories are fun, satisfying, and it feels right for what it represents on the screen.

tapout EA Sports UFC: Winner by Split Decision

The voice work strangeness persists into the ground game as well. More than once I’ve been in full mount with my fighter above the defender’s hips and heard, “Watch for the upkick!” – something impossible thanks to my superior position. Instant comedy, but again immersion breaking.

Occasionally fights won’t make a lot of sense when things go to decision, just like in the real world. I used an opponent for a punching bag, landing double the strikes, but somehow still lost the bout. It never feels unfair, and flash knockouts are certainly possible, but they don’t feel rampant like they did in other UFC titles. After the TUF sequence, I never had a fight go the distance either due to superior striking or submission victory, so you likely won’t see a judge decision that often. It does go to show, though; never leave it to the judges.

Career progression for my first fighter had me with a belt around my waist and a record of 23-2-0. I went on to four title defenses before catching a hard shot to my chin and taking a nap on the canvas. Roughly 10 matches in I felt like my fighter was becoming a professional, able to act like the Tae Kwon Do archetype I had selected. From that point on, every single fight was a blast. It never felt like I could completely overwhelm my opponents; even with 100 submission skill points, submissions were never assured – every fight was a war. I stopped noticing the occasional framerate hits, I forgot about the mismatched voice work, and I stopped looking for stoppages other than knockouts and locks. EA Sports UFC is a fighting game, and the fight mechanics are awesome.