Jon Jones was one of the most powerful fighters ever to step into the Octagon, Ronda Rousey was the reigning undefeated champion, and the most dangerous fighters on the mat were coming out of the TUF house. That was in 2014, and EA had taken over the UFC fight game after the collapse of THQ. As I wrote in my review of EA Sports UFC, the EA Canada team had perfected the submission mechanics and raised the bar for what the visuals of a fighting came could be. Fast forward to March of 2016 and EA returned to the squared circle for another round with EA UFC 2. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor both graced the cover, and both lost their titles shortly thereafter, continuing the “EA cover curse” tradition from its Madden roots. In my review of this second outing I praised the vastly improved animations, the new Knockout Mode, and the new expanded female roster. I also knocked it for its thin career mode, cheating AI, and raised an eye at the real world money-fueled Ultimate Team. Well…
Iiiiiiits TIIIIIIME! EA Sports UFC 3 fresh off its year and a half long training camp returns to the fight. Can this one break the split decision curse?
Using every bit of the 18 month development cycle, the team at EA Canada has had plenty of time to shore up its previous efforts with new features, as well as delivering a handful of new ones. Since I’m primarily a single-player fighter (though I dabble in the online fight game), I was most interested in the all-new G.O.A.T. Career mode. In addition to that, we see the return of Knockout Mode, a new Submission Showdown, Stand & Bang, and a completely revamped Tournament Mode. Ultimate Team re-enters the ring with a few new tricks up its sleeve such as Ultimate Team Solo Challenges, Ultimate Team Sets, and a vastly expanded combined roster of Create-A-Fighters and real-world brawlers and grapplers. This is a pretty big fight card, so let’s get to the tale of the tape on each of these new features.
With a staggering roster of over 200 fighters, each with motion capture to bring every bad tattoo, ring entry, and celebratory move to life, it’s amazing to think that the developers had time to go back and add even more animations to the mix. Dubbed RPM (Real Player Motion), the team has added over 5000 new motion captured animations that every fighter can use in the ring. It helps alleviate the feeling that every fighter has the same front kick, and rounds out some of the more unique movements of specific scrappers like Yair Rodriguez and his kicking style, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone’s Muay Thai skills, Stephen Thompson’s picture perfect hook kicks, and Champion Conor McGregor’s overall general swagger.
In the ring, these new animations make for smoother movement, far more realistic looking outcomes. The striking feels more authentic, and clashes like two kicks push the fighters back as you would expect. Similarly, getting tangled up on the ground no longer results in obtuse angles and bizarre physics engine freakouts. There are far less flash knockouts, and overall it’s a more clean execution for the physics engine this time around, or at least in my two dozen hours with the game thus far.
Rise of the G.O.A.T. – the new career mode
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about EA’s UFC titles is that it portrays a realistic rendition of the sport. I’ve been in martial arts most of my life, and have even trained several semi-professional fighters. All students start out the same — heavily focused on striking as hard as they can, and with little in the way of focus, stamina, or precision. Over time, their skills round out and they learn to handle their strikes with a bit more finesse, perhaps adding a ground game, or maybe just becoming a devastating striker with a few hand grenades to take out their opponents. The new G.O.A.T. Career Mode follows much of the same path.
Not unlike EA’s other sports titles, UFC 3 now has a fully featured career system. After you build your fighter (as in the second game, there are multiple archetypes — striker, brawler, balanced, grappler, and submission specialist), you’ll start on your journey towards the ultimate prize — a shot at the title. That belt doesn’t come without building a reputation as an exciting fighter, so in between you’ll get the chance to make a few choices to build your hype. Do you become a gym rat or push the hype by talking smack and pushing the excitement? Bigger draws mean bigger contracts, but the higher you rise, the further you fall. As you take out other fighters, you’ll eventually make somebody dislike you to your very soul (Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock anyone?), creating a rivalry that’ll bring in fans. Like any good fighter, you’ll also want to take a moment to try to get into your opponent’s head through the new social media system. The whole system reminds me of games like Fight Night Round 3, which is no surprise as EA Canada was behind the wheel of that product, as well.
In practice, the team made the wide decision to keep the bright lights where they belong — in the ring. Sure, you’ll have to make decisions like balancing fight camps against promotional events to build your personal hype, but overall it’s about how you perform in the ring. You’ll start off scrapping in the fictional WFA, eventually attracting the attention of Dana White in his “Lookin’ for a Fight” YouTube series. You’ll get a chance to impress the big man himself, earning a UFC contract as a reward. A loss, however, doesn’t mean you are done — you’ll be granted other opportunities to punch your way into the UFC by brute forcing your way through enough opponents — nobody can ignore an impressive win streak, even if you didn’t get it with Dana sitting ringside. With a contract in hand, you’ll get to work grinding your way up to the main card.
Making a name for yourself gets you the chances to join gyms from such notables as Rose Namajunas for Jiu Jitsu, Holly Holm for Boxing, Ronda Rousey for Wrestling, and Cris Cyborg for elite level striking for the female fighters, and Volkan Oezdemir, Patrick Cummins, Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou, and Michael Bisping, just to name a few of the all-stars for the male fighters. Joining a gym doesn’t get you face time with the best fighters in the world, though. You’ll start off with basic fighters, who each will give you a chance to learn something new in the ring. Sometimes it’s an improvement to what you have, and other times they’ll teach you a completely new move, or unlock a perk like additional strike damage in the clinch. Keep going to that gym and you’ll get access to plus, premium, and eventually top level as your notoriety rises. Learning new skills requires completing challenges as simple as holding a specific guard for an amount of time, or to score a number of strikes without missing to raise accuracy. It makes the fight camps feel more authentic and worthwhile, instead of just a stat push.
Back at your own gym, you’ll have four options to raise your profile and your skills — Train, Learn, Promote, or Spar. Your fighter has a certain amount of points to spend every week, with each of the four options requiring an amount of spend to move the bar for your would-be champion. The “Training” area improves your attributes, and training with a gym expands the options and results. These will improve specific areas, or your general stats, so you’ll want to be mindful of the type of work you do as injuries before a fight can occur — overlifting and tearing a hamstring will slow you down if you are a kicker, for example. “Learn” lets you pick up new tools for your fighting tool chest, gaining new ways to take your opponents apart with skills learned from the aforementioned fight camps. Sparring will give you specific training for your next opponent, revealing something about how they fight so you can prepare your response. Promote digs into the self-promotion system, allowing you to pick from several responses to your opponents on Twitter. You can be as bad, nice, or neutral as you’d like — it affects the amount of fans you pick up, and could very well get underneath the other fighter’s skin making them self-doubt or pissing them off and making the fight even harder.
There is one aspect that is absolutely infuriating — the voice repetition from your coach. During training sessions, especially extremely short and difficult ones like knocking down your opponent inside of 30 seconds (something that depends almost entirely on luck, not skill). Your useless coach will simply yell “NO!” or “More damage!” or equally as useless bits of advice. The problem isn’t the uselessness, it’s that it has nothing to do with what’s going on in the ring. I’ve got my opponent in rear mount and he’s yelling “Throw more kicks!” — from where, exactly, Captain Useless? Thankfully, there’s a slider to shut him up, just as there is for the profanity-laden soundtrack. Enjoy a quieter time in the ring, and just the curated background music for a less obnoxious experience.
While we are retreading old complaints, the same problem exists in UFC 3 that existed in 2 and 1 — no matter what your stats say, no matter what your opponents stats are, you will always have less stamina recovery, and you will always hit for less damage. Even real-world fighters who gas out after two minutes in the ring have the stamina of Clay Guida and Tito Ortiz combined. It makes for a rush to get a round one finish, whether that be with combined strikes or a quick submission.
Speaking of submissions, the only time I really struggled with UFC 3 was during the submission game. There is a button-mashing alternate mode if you aren’t a fan of the system that has you counter-pressing against the direction the AI (or other player) is trying to crank your arm, but all of it feels entirely too powerful. Especially at the highest levels, the AI was able to take me down and force me to submit almost at will, even despite having 100-rated stats in Grappling Stamina, Takedown Defense, and all other grappling-related areas. It makes for some frustration when you know that some extra dev time could have made it balance nicely with the incredibly strong striking game.
The game isn’t over once you’ve gotten your hand raised and picked up your first belt, however. Much like cover artist Conor McGregor, you can continue on to win and defend your title as the reigning, defending, undisputed Champion of the World in multiple weight classes. As you work through your career, you’ll get a list of challenges to tackle to become the mode namesake — the Greatest Of All Time. These can be a number of knockouts, finishes, submissions, fights of the night, and more. You really don’t have to chase them as they tend to happen organically, but they make the mode feel more real. With your new moniker, you can choose to carry that fighter on to the other single player modes, jump online, or simply retire on top. It’s a far more comprehensive career mode than UFC 2, and a welcome one for folks who enjoy a good underdog story — it can’t always be Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson.
Using a Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone level of pace, your fighter will step into the Octagon every three to six weeks. This makes managing the Fighter Fitness stat all the more important. Every fighter steps into the ring at some level of hurt; the key to success being to make sure it’s not so much as to tip the scales to the point where you lose. You’ll manage this stat by sparring to raise your overall fitness level, then using specific training camp activities to slowly nudge individual substats, as well as your primary main four stats of Strength, Grappling, Stamina, and Health. These affect the overall effectiveness of the individual techniques, so spending your time training is critical to long-term success.
Knockout Mode was introduced last time around, and the commentators were Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg. Now, that job has shifted to Joe Rogan and Jon Anik. While I find Anik a far better commentator than Goldberg ever was, there’s also a strange new addition — Snoop Dogg. No, that’s not a bizarre typo – the game now has the famous rapper as a would-be optional commentator for this mode, offering up some “sage advice”. It’s a strange and occasionally cringe-inducing addition that serves more as hype tie-in than useful feature, but I’m certain there are some who will think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ll pass, but you can judge for yourself.
In addition to Knockout Mode, there are two new modes to reinforce your training without incurring losses for your career fighters — Submission Showdown, and Stand & Bang. Submission Showdown pits two fighters against one another, placing a rule on them that they can only do damage via ground work. Conversely, Stand & Bang demands that you use your melee skills to take out your foes. It’s a great way to study the submission system in an environment that won’t damage your fighter’s record.
One of my biggest complaints with the first EA Sports UFC title was that strikes due to stoppage were nearly impossible to achieve. You could chop a man’s legs out from under him for five rounds and the man standing across from you would continue to charge forward without consequence. Joe and Goldberg would go on ad nauseum about how the fight is going to be stopped any moment due to strikes, but there were no stoppages for damage. In the second game, I had several readers state that they were able to get stoppages due to strikes, but despite turning my difficulty down to easy and concentrating exclusively on a single area, I could never replicate it for myself. In EA Sports UFC 3, leg checks can hurt your fighter, and it is more than possible to chop a fighter’s legs enough to hobble them completely. It’s a welcome additional damage zone that again pushes the realism to the next level.
Ultimate Team, Round 2
Introduced in EA Sports UFC 2, Ultimate Team lets the player pick a fighting team, one for each weight class, and then build them up in interesting ways using card packs. You can turn strikers like Lyoto Machida into master submission artists, and vice versa. It makes each fighter into a template that you can grow and blend as you see fit, but it’s all tied to a luck. You’ll pop open packs containing fighters, strikes, perks, consumables, and more, not unlike Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer. Thankfully, while you can spend real money to buy card packs, you can easily grind out the coins needed to get the items you want. It’ll be interesting to see how well the public receives the system, but in my mind it feels more balanced than other games with similar services.
To earn coins to use in this mode, there is a new set of modes called Single Player Championships, and Solo Challenges. This lets you test out your built fighter, while still cranking out coins to make them stronger.
In a change from last year, you can now introduce your character from create-a-fighter into the Ultimate Mode, letting your carefully crafted ground-and-pound specialist to stand shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful fighters in the real world.
EA Sports UFC 3
EA Sports UFC 3 provides a staggering amount of improvements in nearly every area. EA Canada could have played it safe and iterated, but instead they overhauled major systems, addressing almost every complaint I had about its predecessors. Better striking mechanics, movement, and animations are joined by a fantastic career mode, and a whole host of additional attractions. I’ve still got a few axes to grind on submissions and AI balance, but the rest of the game is an embarrassment of riches.