The UFC has undergone a great deal of change in the last two years since UFC 3 came out. ESPN purchased the exclusive rights to broadcast the UFC, Dana White and crew set up a fight island called “Fight Island” (the creative team was out sick that day, apparently), and every cover athlete has retired or left the UFC entirely. In a COVID world, fighters square off without a crowd, and Jon “Bones” Jones has been suspended, reinstated, won back his belt, and still finds himself embroiled in yet another doping scandal. It’s a strange sport right now. EA has stepped up to the plate with a fresh installment of their fight franchise, UFC 4. Let’s strap on the gloves once again and see what’s new.
I’m a sucker for a campaign mode, so I dove into that section full force. The fight game is serious business, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. Peter Parker (you can find him on the game’s fictitious Twitter at @PeterTingle), the fighter sporting a unicorn horn and a rainbow shimmer ponytail for hair, as well as the most ridiculous mustache you’ve ever seen was born. Starting as a promising amateur, your career starts in an impromptu fight in a gas station parking lot for literally dozens of people — DOZENS! Outclassed and outmatched, you lose this fight, but if you do so with enough panache you’ll be well on your way to a real fight career.
Created fighters work a little differently than they did in UFC 3. The fighter you create is your “avatar,” available in online, offline, and the career mode. You can even use this same fighter across all weight classes. All the gear you unlock can be used across all of the fighters you create, though you can customize your career mode fighters separately if you are inclined.
Picking a fight means it’s time to prepare. You’ll select the person you’d like to square off against, unlocking fight tape on that fighter. You’ll also select how long of a fight camp you’d like, paying a percentage of the win to the gym for your efforts. Here you can also raise the hype of your fight by earning sponsorships or dragging in other fighters to your training efforts. Inviting a fighter to train can teach you a new move or two, and watching tape can give you more information on your opponent. Sparring is the king of prep — there’s no substitute for touching gloves. All of this costs Weekly Points — you get 100 to spend every seven days. Sparring costs 40, inviting a training partner costs 50, watching tape costs 30, and hype costs 10. All of it can also have an effect on your overall fitness level — overtrain or undertrain and you’ll be unprepared. Some of these items are required, such as a sponsorship opportunity or a radio interview, so balance building your career against building your fight game. If you don’t attend these mandatory items, you’ll be fined, so that’s the best place to drop this for you — enjoy.
Growing your skills is accomplished by using Evolution Points. You can earn these in sparring with your boxing, BJJ, Muay Thai, or wrestling coaches, or you can tangle with the heavy bag. Your sparring partner will help you prepare, but you also risk picking up real injuries any time you head into the ring. Each of them help you grow the skills associated with each discipline. They also all come with a unique challenge that’ll net you additional Evolution Points. If you don’t have the requisite move to hit that challenge you can invite a trainer in to teach you, or you can refresh that challenge to a new one, though both eat through your precious training points. Now, if you rough up your sparring partner, they can become injured just like you can — don’t hurt the people there to help you too badly or they’ll remain inaccessible for training for the remainder of your fight prep. You can also use these points to upgrade your health stats (chin, leg, body, etc.) as well as the individual stats on each technique. It lets you take more direct control over your fighter’s progression, and it feels better than the broad paintbrush approach in prior titles.
Injuries play a more important role in UFC 4. Something as simple as catching a kick to an unguarded rib can incur a temporary pain point, or can even cause a permanent breakage. For example, I took a hard shot to my chin and lost half a star. You can recover these with your hard-earned Evolution Points, but that hurts more than the shot to the jaw.
The various tutorials sprinkled throughout the campaign guide you through the various new mechanics in the game. Submissions and joint locks are handled differently in this outing, though the “classic” mode from UFC 3 is available as well. In UFC 4, you’ll try to hold your bar on top of your opponents to submit, or try to keep your bar away to escape. It’s easier to see than describe, so enjoy the first 75 minutes of the game, as well as a look at all of the training modes:
Training feels much more complete in this outing. By the middle of my career in UFC 3 I started just hitting the simulation button, but in UFC 4 I felt like I was truly honing my fighter’s particular skills. With only a seven second loading time, I also didn’t feel like I could read a book between sessions, so that helps. Inviting a fighter to train with you isn’t as simple as picking up the phone — you are, after all, a nobody with weird hair going on. Instead, you’ll have to work on your relationship with that training camp, or possibly satisfy conditions — most won’t bother with you until you actually join the UFC, and I can’t say I blame them.
Once you start working in the gym you’ll need to memorize some tricky button combos to master your craft, and some of them are pretty complex. Examples include leaning in, then whipping out a hook by tilting the R stick forward, then hitting square and circle, or double tapping forward with the left stick, then holding in L1 and hitting O. I found myself in the help menu pretty frequently just trying to remember some of these obscure strike combos. That said, it does explain why stepping online is a rough transition — the foes you’ll face there aren’t looking for the flash knockout. They know the button combos, and they’ve done the work.
There is a new mechanic where your fighter can watch tape on their opponent. Watching tape lets you spend 50 points to unlock information in stages, the first of which being the fighter’s overall star rating — ultimately useless information. The second tape unlocks their primary style (e.g. boxer, grappler), with the third being their top moves they might bring to the fight. The fourth wobbles back to useless, exposing their attributes, and the final being “tendencies”. The problem is that they are so expensive that you’ll likely want to spend that time in the ring rather than unlocking things that’ll tell you how to better prepare. Watching tape is no substitute for blood, sweat, and mat burns, though “Tendencies” could teach you something your opponent doesn’t want to know, like a weakness for a particular submission or an injury.
Beyond the career mode there are also four modes to focus on the different elements of the game. The Fight Now is your traditional 2v2 where you can select from the massive roster of fighters or use your created battler to throw down in the squared circle. Stand and Bang is just what it sounds like, disabling grappling, ground work, or submissions. Knockout mode is all about the highlight reel, pushing up striking damage until you and your opponent can obliterate each other with only a few connections. The last mode allows you to customize your engagement, picking between all of the various options to make the fight your own, minus one mysteriously missing setting — the arena. It’d be great to be able to wrap your hands and head to an underground fight, or crack open cheap beer as you tangle in the backyard, but these are entirely randomized. Speaking of cheap beer, if you find Dana White insufferable you’ll appreciate that you can beat him about the face and ears in every weight class. Enjoy the righteous pummeling I handed him in this trailer park backyard.
As it has been in all UFC games, even the Sterno bums you face seem to have an unlimited gas tank, where it’s clear you’ve never seen the inside of a gym until you max out your Stamina stats. By the end of a third round, you’ll be almost out of gas, and your opponent is ready to run the Boston Marathon. Sure, my guy is a bit of a “Joey Bagadonuts”, but these guys shouldn’t be as fresh as they are. When you move into submissions, the opponent treats them like they are free, and your stamina bar drains faster than a Bud Light (something something, official UFC beer, something) at a real UFC event. It is meant to create a sense of progression, but instead it just makes it obvious that the AI is stacked against you.
Your career progression always goes the same way – fights in the parking lot of a gas station courtesy of the Amateur division, WFA is listed but you seem to sail right past it for the most part, the Dana White Contender Series (equally as brief), and finally the UFC. Signing your first contract means you’ll start putting money in your pocket — $5000 bucks for show, and $5000 for a win.
There are four difficulty levels presented to you after you complete the four Amateur fights to get your feet wet. Easy has “low CPU defensive awareness” and “low CPU grappling aggression”, Moderate (the recommended) carries normal settings for the aforementioned CPU items, and Hard pushes both of those to Advanced. Legendary is no joke as there are no restarts, no health hud, and the settings get pushed to Extreme. Whatever sort of challenge you are looking for, it’s here for you.
Going back to UFC 3, it’s clear that the team has put a lot more work into the textures in this outing. I don’t have numbers of poly counts to go on, but overall there is a general improvement across the board of overall detail. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of janky animations. Thankfully these are mostly outside the ring, but occasionally you’ll see some crazy flail or stuttery animation — I even experienced one momentary T-pose.
Social media is a big part of the UFC. Know how I can tell? It’s a non stop persistent nuisance while I’m trying to watch real fights! Here you can use it to interact with your fans, build relationships or rivalries with other fighters, and talk to the media. Sponsorship is a big part of a fighter’s life — you aren’t feeding your family, paying your gym, replacing your teeth, and maintaining a household on $5000 every three months. Instead, you’ll work with sponsors to help build your hype, funnel fans to your corner, and throw a bonus your way as long as you are showcasing their real estate, chicken and waffles, or whatever else they are shilling through your wins. That will help you pay for training time with other gyms to learn moves or sharpen the ones you have, but it also means you now have an obligation to them, meaning you’ll be spending some of your training time on promotion. Freddy’s Spaghetti isn’t gonna sell itself!
Each fight ends with a series of stats that you won’t manage as much as observe. The hype for your fight, how many fans you’ve picked up, your “longevity” (how long your career lasts until you are too broken and punchy to continue), any injuries you may have sustained (besides messing up your beautiful unicorn mane), move evolutions (do a thing more, you get better at that thing), and any evolution points you can spend on upgrading your fighter.
There is a massive raft of cosmetic microtransactions in this game. Want a bandit mask? That’s 2000 coins. Want that cool mask? 12,000 coins. Want a set of new gloves? Again, 2000 coins. Across more than 30 fights I barely managed to pick up over 5000 coins. Daily challenges like throwing 200 strikes in a single fight, leveling up, or winning a certain amount of online matches are buffered with career challenges like watching tape on opponents, using a recovery item, earning a million fans, or just knocking people the hell out. There are similar online challenges, but there is also an offline challenge mode for those who don’t want to venture into those deep online multiplayer waters. All of these will earn you a solid amount of XP and a completely insufficient amount of coins. You can grind forever, or you can cough up real money for UFC points from the EA store. The point packs are 100 points for $0.99 all the way up to 120,000 points for $99.99. Beyond this, you can also purchase fighters, though none were available at the time of review so I can’t comment on price or content.
I was very happy to see something I’ve been calling for since the first game more accurately captured in UFC 4 — hard fought knowledge. Fighters who spend very little time in the ring, knocking people out in the first round, suddenly find themselves in trouble when they face people who have extensive amounts of time in the ring. You learn more by staying in the squared circle than you do popping somebody in the mouth and heading home. As such, longer fights can lead to better outcomes as you’ll likely practice moves you otherwise would have to wrangle in the gym. There’s no substitute for a real fight, and it shows as the Evolution Points rain in after a hard-fought match. It’s a welcome addition, and it makes it feel less like a rush to be first in the flash knockout.
When you do head online, you’ll enjoy the Call of Duty-esque card customization to go with your character. Accolades let you tag your profile with things like beating the entire game on the various difficulty levels (a.k.a. becoming the GOAT), swap out your background for a number of cooler ones than the default, a ton of profile pics from completing challenges or buying them using in-game currency, and flair which consists of some of the best quotes from the fighters in the UFC. I’m partial to “I just got a boo boo” from Derrick Lewis.
With a nod to the work Sony has done with their premier titles, UFC 4 has a mode for PlayStation 4 Pro, allowing you to select “Favor Performance” or “Favor Resolution”. That said, even when favoring performance I ran into a few framerate hitches. During the walking, during the safety check by the ref, and during the hand raise after a fight there seems to be a persistent framerate wobble into the teens. (Hey EA — put the franchise on PC and you won’t have this problem!) Thankfully none of those affect the game in any meaningful way, but it’s more than a little obvious. I also ran into a bug several times where stamina for my sparring partner and I instantly drained to zero and wouldn’t recover for either of us until the sparring session ended.
Speaking of your sparring partners, I wish there was a mechanic to upgrade their performance or just cut them loose. None of my partners could withstand two shots to the head without being nearly unconscious on their feet. Frankly, it’s not safe for them to be in the ring with me. I should be able to get better trainers, or at least have them wear headgear so I can get more value from my training sessions.
If you’ve read my three previous UFC reviews, then you know what’s coming next — voice repetition. Using real color commentary people like Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik lead to a lot of voice repeats as they tell the same jokes over and over. If I have to hear the “know when to hold em” joke one more time there’s gonna be blood in this ring. Similarly, your coach’s chance to repeat is even more frequent as you’ll be running upwards of 10 training sessions per fight prep. Funny enough, there’s also the problem of picking a nickname for your fighter (Peter’s nickname is “Silky!”) only to never hear it in the game. This is an area that could stand for improvement as we look to a next-gen UFC 5.
With upgraded grappling and submission mechanics, better training and fewer flash knockouts, UFC 4 manages to deliver on the promise of its predecessor. Cosmetic microtransactions come across greedy, but there’s nothing lacking in the main product. Framerate hitches and a few bugs remain at launch, as does persistent voice repetition, but overall if you enjoyed UFC 3, there’s a lot to like about UFC 4.