Friday, August 19, 2022

EA Sports UFC 4 Review: If It’s Not The Best MMA Game Ever, It’s Close

Mixed martial arts is inherently a difficult sport to transfer over to video games. Most any attempt is going to feel limited in a combat sport that is constantly evolving and being rebalanced by new techniques. Even in a MMA game with incredibly deep, refined striking, we’re still most likely many years away from seeing, for example, calf kicks in a video game setting that resemble calf kicks as they’ve existed in MMA the last few years.

Certain fighters have styles and/or characteristics that make them hard to simulate in a video game: Converting Cain Velasquez‘s cardio into a video game attribute would result in a wildly unbalanced character, for example. There’s no good way to approximate Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw’s weird style in a video game, even if there have been decent attempts. And so on.

That’s before you even get into how grappling is exceedingly tricky to work into video games, both in terms of realistically approximating the action and keeping it from feeling disconnected with the striking.

EA Sports UFC 4, which was released last Friday—EA provided a download code to, although not in advance of release—takes the biggest leap forward on that last problem that MMA games have made to date. With games coming out every two years or so, each entry in the series has had a specific evolution: 2 overhauled the grappling, 3 did the same to the striking (to the point that kickboxing news site Liver Kick declared that UFC 3 had the best video game striking of any combat sports game to date), and 4 saw the reinvention of the clinch and takedown mechanics. And as it turns out, that last part is a big deal.

UFC 4: Pretty Damn Good

If EA Sports UFC 4 isn’t outright the best MMA game to date, it’s absolutely the best at blending the different phases of a fight together. Before, clinching just used modified grappling controls and engaging in a clinch or takedown attempt came down largely to timing. Now? It’s a fully integrated, free-flowing struggle, one that also encourages counterpunching and evasive footwork since there’s no denial command for the clinch proper. Takedown denial, meanwhile, has been changed a using the low block command; depending on your timing—meaning if you didn’t immediately get into a clinch or sprawl—you may also need to move the left stick in the direction your opponent was shooting to ride out the momentum of the shot.

Meanwhile, while the basic clinch entry (hold R1/RB and tap whichever button is the jab for your fighter) is a single collar tie (that switches to a double collar tie when you throw knees), bailing on a double leg shot at the right time gives you double underhooks. And getting out of the clinch is been much simplified: You just press away from you opponent on the left stick. All of these overhauled mechanics use EA’s Real Player Motion (RPM) that helped the striking excel in EA Sports UFC 3, so they smoothly transition in and out of striking.

The result of all this is that on top of clinch attacks and takedowns themselves being overhauled and thus smoother looking, there’s finally room to fight in the transitional spaces themselves. Before, something like Daniel Cormier’s knockout of Stipe Miocic in their first fight wasn’t entirely feasible. Now, pushing for clinches and takedown attempts, breaking, and striking in the transitional space that is the clinch break is an entirely legitimate strategy. Phase shifting and finding openings between the phases feels more like more of an organic, holistic experience than in any other MMA game that came before it.

So, what else is new?

The striking is, at its core, unchanged from UFC 3, but the commands have been simplified to avoid scenarios that required way too much in the way of controller gymnastics, as UFC 3 did moves like front kicks and side kicks. (A patch did assign many of the trickier moves to previously empty, easier to use slots for various fighters, but some moves, like front kicks to the face, remained annoying to pull off.) In UFC 4, the idea is that while the most basic moves (jab/straight/hook/uppercut punches and roundhouse kicks to the legs/body/head) remain unchanged as long as you tap the punch/kick button, advanced moves require holding the punch/kick button down while also holding the other necessary buttons. It takes some getting used to, but it’s an understandable change.

Unfortunately, this also makes it so that some strikes have nonsensical button combinations. Everyone I’ve used that has a switch kick to the body has the command mapped to the opposite leg. Oblique kicks to the legs use that side’s punch button, too. I’m sure there are more examples. It’s the type of thing that, in time, will likely become second nature, but it feels like an unneeded hassle.

Move selection tends to be one of the reasons that UFC Undisputed 3, the 2012 game that finished off THQ and Yuke’s series of UFC games for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, has a small but vocal following of fans saying it’s the best MMA game ever. To a degree, you can see their point: That game was such a massive upgrade from the previous two undisputed games that its release felt more impactful than those of the EA UFC games have, in part because of just how many strikes and ground positions it added. Hell, some of them, like the crucifix (the non-mounted variety, a la Gary Goodridge vs. Paul Herrera) still haven’t made it to the EA games, EA has been weirdly stubborn about rectifying that.

Case in point: The D’Arce choke. Throughout the entire six-plus year existence of the EA Sports UFC franchise, the D’Arce has almost never been available from the positions it’s usually hit from in real life, which are sprawl, back side position, and sometimes—as in Undisputed 3—half guard. (EA did add a “finish the fight” back side position D’Arce choke on rocked opponents in UFC 3.)

Instead, during regular grappling, you can only get it from the bottom of side control, something that’s only happened once in UFC history, when Mitch Clark choked out Al Iaquinta. And that was just three weeks before the first game came out, so it’s unlikely that the scenario was in response to that fight. It sounds like a small thing, but between stuff like that and Undisputed 3’s wider variety of fighter-specific strike animations over eight years ago, you can see why the EA UFC franchise’s development can feel kind of idiosyncratic.

All of that said, the core mechanics in the EA series are tighter and more realistic. THQ’s Undisputed series always felt like it had more robotic striking, especially, without much ability to throw combinations (especially compared to EA UFC 3 and 4), and EA’s ground game has been decidedly better since the second entry in the series. In EA UFC 4, that last part has been tweaked, with “grapple assist” added as the default control scheme (it can be turned off) to simplify the ground game for newer players. It’s not a bad idea, but if you’re not new to the series, you’ll want to immediately switch to “legacy” controls. Ground and pound has been changed up, adding new defensive options to postured strikes, but the current implementation feels disconnected and minigame-ish in a way that’s mostly been solved in the rest of the game.

That also brings us to submissions, as the “gates” mini-game for the first three titles in the series has been dumped in favor of two very similar mini-games (for chokes and joint locks) that evoke the “chase” style used in Undisputed 3, the chokes in 2010’s EA Sports MMA, and some of the games in the WWE 2K series. As weird as the EA UFC “gates” system is at first glance, it made a weird kind of sense and at least felt less mini-game-ish that other submission systems. There’s probably never going to be a submission mini-game that feels authentic, but this does feel like a step backwards, even if EA otherwise made improvements, invoking quick time events that allow fighters to strike during submissions, switch submissions, counter submissions (like turning a guillotine into a Von Flue choke) and defending fighters to slam their way out. I like the additions, and it could be worse, but the elimination of the “gates” feels like a step backwards.

As for modes, career has been slightly improved and includes some legitimately worthwhile tutorials early on, but it still has a lot of the hollowness of past iterations. Ultimate Team is gone, thankfully, with online “Blitz Battles” (short fights with special rules in online tournaments) replacing it. Most frustratingly, though, ranked play online has been tweaked in various ways that diminish the experience, including allowing created fighters (which do have capped attributes, thankfully) and always showing you who your opponent is picking. I get wanting to get offline, career mode-loving fighters to play online and offering the created fighter incentive, but it goes against the spirit of ranked/tournament style play, as does showing who your opponent is picking.

EA Sports UFC 4 has flaws. At least relative to the last game, though, very few of them related to the core gameplay. While EA wanted this game to be more “accessible” than the past titles in the series, the result of that was really just changing some button assignments. At its core, this is still an excellent MMA simulation with especially deep striking. Determining what the best MMA game ever is tricky for various reasons: UFC Undisputed 3 had the best presentation and widest array of moves, EA Sports MMA simulated the pace and feel of an MMA fight best, and EA Sports UFC 3 and 4 have had the best overall striking and grappling mechanics. But if nothing else, EA Sports UFC 4, with its overhauled clinch and takedown mechanics, is easily the best MMA game to date at actually mixing the martial arts.

Your mileage may vary if that makes EA Sports UFC 4 the best game to date in the genre, but it sure helps make that case pretty strongly.

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