EA Sports UFC is one of the first multiplatform games to be released exclusively on next gen consoles – and boy does it show. If you’ve seen footage of this title you’ll already know that it looks impressive, but experiencing this gorgeous game in person is something else entirely. Featuring some of the most impressive character models I’ve ever seen in a game, the team at EA Sports have managed to produce pain stakingly life-like recreations of real UFC fighters. While fans that haven’t made the leap to next gen were understandably disappointed about the game skipping the older consoles (and even the newer Wii U) , creative director Brian Hayes thinks it was necessary in order to push the franchise forward. Chatting to him, he tells us that ‘We developed EA Sports UFC to take advantage of the hardware available on the Xbox One and PS4 because we wanted to really push the envelope in terms of what the fighters look like.”
And in that regard they have most certainly succeeded. Here, every vein is visible; fighter’s pecks bounce convincingly and you can even see every detail of each athlete’s questionable tattoos. In terms of a next generation UFC game, you can’t really ask for much more visually, but without solid gameplay behind the visuals, its appealing aesthetics would be pointless.
Luckily the gameplay here seems to be as much of a priority to the team as its visuals. Being pretty new to MMA and UFC games, I had assumed that UFC’s combat would be solid but unremarkable, yet after getting hands on I found myself pleasantly surprised by the combat system’s depth and complexity. Each fighter has a stamina bar, and every time you throw a punch or a kick that stamina depletes – making you more vulnerable to a knock out. This has plenty of tactical ramifications of its own, but combined with the great submission system and the intense grappling of the floor sections, there is a surprising amount of depth to each fight. The problem with many fighting games is that an experienced player can often be beaten by their button mashing friend, but UFC’s stamina system remedies this. Merely mashing the punch or kick buttons will deplete your stamina in UFC and result in an easy knockout for your opponent.
The key to capturing the UFC feel was making the game balanced while keeping it as true to the sport as possible, and therefore still allowing the possibility of flash knockouts. Brian continues: “We wanted to make sure that flash knockouts are possible, but we wanted to make sure that they don’t seem completely random as well. So from a striking perspective, while every strike in the game theoretically has the potential to cause enough damage to knock someone out –you can increase the probability of any strike doing enough damage by watching your own stamina and your opponents stamina.”
Give the complexity of the game’s fighting system, such an intricate combat system obviously requires precision when it comes to controller input. So when presented with the option of incorporating Xbox One’s Kinect or other motion controls into the game the answer was clear to Brian. “Really the core experience for UFC fans or fightgame fans is more of a sit down and play the game type of experience. I know from my personal experience and also from a lot of focus testing, that a lot of players are sitting at home playing online or playing career mode and look forward to having upwards of five fights in a row in their career or online – and I don’t think a motion control experience would be conducive to that.”
The hit and miss nature of motion controlled gaming can’t be denied, and images of aching limbs as you flail around your room means that in hindsight, the team probably made the right call. This doesn’t mean that there will never be a motion controlled UFC however: “There may be opportunities to explore motion controls for the franchise in the future, but for UFC number one we just really wanted to make sure that the core gameplay experience with the hands on controller was the priority.”
While the game looks and plays well, it needs a compelling selection of modes and content if it stands any chance of holding a players attention for the long term. Like previous MMA games, this one has a fully-fledged career mode, allowing you to take your fighter from the grimy local gym to sold out stadium matches. This career mode is pretty accessible, and if you’re as inexperienced as I am, then the hand-holding tutorials at the start will be a Godsend at easing you in to the game. When creating your avatar you can use either system’s camera to make an avatar based on your likeness, with EA’s new ‘gameface’ technology. We recommend taking a picture of your cat, and battling as some kind of steroid fueled cat man – but that’s just us.
While using your camera is a nice little feature, thankfully there is more to career mode than just the ability to make a personalized avatar. The actual depth comes from the expected RPG-lite skill trees. After each fight you gain experience, and upon levelling up, you unlock different fighter abilities in order to customize your fighter toward the strengths you want him or her to have. “These come in three categories: standard abilities, ground abilities and physical abilities”, Brian explains, “An ability is essentially a passive boost to your character’s performance. A physical ability might be something where you take less damage to your body from any strike an opponent throws at you.”
While there wasn’t an opportunity to fully explore the upgrade system, the career mode seems fun enough, if fairly unremarkable; delivering the usual progression and cutscenes you would expect to break up the action between fights. Amidst the familiar faces you’d expect to see in the impressively large roster of 98 characters, those who complete the game or pre-order it will get the chance to take a very special fighter into the ring – the legend that is Bruce Lee. But why Bruce? “There are a lot of celebrity martial artists out there, but when you write the names down and draw it down to votes – there is really only one person that gets first place votes – and that was Bruce Lee!” reveals Brian, ‘There was nobody else who came close!”
I’ve owned a PS4 for almost six months now, but it wasn’t until walking into EA’s office to play UFC that I experienced my first wow-moment of the generation. But what’s even more impressive than the visuals is that the team’s attention to detail has also carried over to the gameplay, which has resulted in a surprisingly deep and enjoyable fighting system. As a newcomer to UFC with low expectations I was pleasantly surprised by my time with EA Sports latest, and from what I’ve seen, this is game worth checking out even if you’re not that into the sport. If you are fan however, there’s never been a team that’s more committed to making the truest UFC gaming experience possible – and from the evidence so far it looks likes this is shaping up to be exactly that.
Preview based on time spent with preview code at EA’s UK offices.