Its increasing popularity and explosive nature makes the Ultimate Fighting Championship a perfect candidate for a video game. The good news is that the latest effort from EA Sports is probably the best MMA title yet; the bad news is that it remains plagued by a steep learning curve, significant control issues, and some balancing snafus. On the plus side, the die-hard fan might be able to overlook all that, as we get a robust, in-depth Career Mode, and the necessary strategy is indeed reminiscent of the sport in question.
I was expecting a polished, true next-gen visual presentation with UFC and while the details and animations are indeed impressive at times, the overall display isn't refined enough. I mean, I'm seeing arms and legs disappear into bodies when tussling on the mat, and the crowd isn't as lively or dynamic as they often are at UFC events. For an example of a fantastic crowd in a sports game, check MLB 14: The Show for PS4. Anyway, the long and short of it is that while the highlights are obvious, the graphics still needed extra tweaking.
The audio isn't much different. Again, there are plenty of highlights – the sharp, sometimes gut-wrenching impact of flesh-on-flesh strikes, the smack of the mat, the occasional roar of the crowd, etc. – but the general audio isn't especially accomplished. I'm not a fan of the soundtrack, even though that's more of a subjective complaint, and those combat effects are decent but not amazing. We should feel as if we're in the heat of battle, and the technical elements must contribute to immersion with every punch thrown. Unfortunately, the uneven presentation results in an uneven experience; it just never gels, you know?
The UFC experience is uneven throughout, due to a highly questionable and demanding control scheme and some balancing problems that fans will find confusing. But everything begins on a strong note, as UFC president Dana White and a bevy or trainers and fighters assist you with your initial training. As you might expect, these guys aren't above a little hazing and teasing, but they'll quickly become impressed with your effort if you've got the requisite skills. The early stages of character progression is where you'll become the most excited, as the developers clearly put a lot of time into this rewarding system.
You have the freedom to create and customize any type of fighter you wish. You can specialize in a certain technique, try to be a jack-of-all-trades (not recommended), and then test your mettle in the octagon. There are tons of move-sets and various special skills, and they feel mostly authentic and enjoyable to learn. There are certain attacks that deal heavy damage and if you want to upgrade a particular fighting trait – such as hand-to-hand or grappling ability – you can do so. In short, the requisite depth we're so accustomed to seeing from EA Sports is here in spades, and ardent UFC followers will be appreciative.
The submission mechanic is complex but not especially demanding; it just takes practice and timing, and that's fitting. Couple this with the quick-time commands that give you the chance to take advantage of an opponent's mistake, and you've got an involved, challenging gameplay system. All one-on-one fighting comes down to locating your opponent's weakness and exploiting it; either that, or you must simply overpower him with a superior will to win. You do sense this primal element when stepping into the virtual octagon, and I applaud EA Canada for getting the atmosphere right. Yep, it's me vs. you, and I've got to step up.
The problem is that once again, the control just isn't up to snuff. It's a little awkward and a lot frustrating, especially when you're trying to master the grappling and submission mechanics. Using a combination of the trigger buttons and the analog sticks is tricky to say the least, and players with less patience will likely start hammering at the controller to make something happen. However, as this is a simulator at heart, this doesn't work. I don't mind if a game is made exclusively for the hardcore lovers of the sport, but when even those players might end up frustrated with the control scheme, something is wrong.
Sure, it's pretty realistic. I like how the fighters authentically react to various strikes and techniques. Learning them can be interesting and in fact, once you get a grasp on the controls, a win puts a big smile on your face. But the other major issue is that some of the most devastating attacks don't always do what you expect; hence, even if you execute perfectly, the result will still be disappointing. This only causes the frustration to rise. I got knocked out from what would be deemed a freakin' love tap in the world of UFC, and I've viciously pummeled an opponent, only to watch him come at me with magically renewed strength and vigor.
Then there are some bugs that can get in the way, as I had the game crash twice during a bout. This is part of that aforementioned inconsistency, and it makes the game feel a little rushed. Then again, if I take into account the targeted audience, I'd like to think they'd overlook these drawbacks – significant though they may be – and focus on the game's strengths. The strengths are definitely there; you just have to be willing to work and practice. If you've got a thick skin and you're willing to master those complex controls, you will certainly enjoy the fantastic Career Mode and the many customization options. You just have to want it badly enough.
UFC isn't as polished as it needed to be, but I suppose it'll give avid fans a thrill. There's plenty of content and if you've got the requisite diligence and patience, your training can really pay off. The designers do a good job recreating the tension and invigoration one feels when squaring off against an equally powerful opponent, and the freedom to create and build any fighter you wish is intoxicating. It's just too bad that the control can be extremely difficult to grasp, and the lack of balance concerning the damage inflicted by a strike is disappointing. I guess it all depends on your own personal reward/effort quotient. If you're a casual fan, though, it's a definite pass.
The Good: Engaging, involving atmosphere. A fair amount of authenticity. Career Mode is in-depth and rewarding. Total freedom to customize your fighter. Lots of content.
The Bad: Graphical flaws and minor bugs. Control is difficult and the button-layout is questionable. Can be very frustrating. Balancing is off.
The Ugly: "I just have to press way too many buttons at a certain time to be completely successful."