EA Sports has just released its first foray with the UFC license, following their initial crack at developing an MMA simulation in 2010. With their latest venture into Mixed Martial Arts, EA Sports’ UFC has thrust itself firmly into the spotlight thanks to stunning in-game visuals aided by a decision to leave behind the ageing technology of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Following in the footsteps of THQ’s reign with the UFC licence and under the spotlight of a rabid and growing Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) audience, I had hoped EA Sports’ UFC would deliver on its promise to be a contender. I wanted the next big thing. Unfortunately it’s not.
People can be upset with EA Vancouver for being unable to create the perfect MMA game their publisher had promised. However, making the perfect MMA game is a puzzle no other development studio has been able to solve. Ignoring the “arcade” style MMA games from years ago, MMA audiences got their first taste of the UFC game franchise with THQ’s 2009 release, UFC Undisputed. This game was a brilliant first step. It entered a marketplace starved for an MMA game, comparable only to Crave Entertainment’s first offerings almost a decade prior. Straight out of the gate, THQ’s Undisputed became the measuring stick for a simulated MMA experience.
Sure THQ’s Undisputed wasn’t perfect, but with follow-up releases in 2010 and 2012, the combined development studios of THQ Agoura and Yuke’s Osaka tweaked where possible. The franchise slowly improved, addressing things fight fans wanted to see in their game, including a deeper career mode experience and the inclusion of Pride FC.
My feelings about Undisputed’s imperfections saw me argue with friends, nit-picking irksome issues. As someone who has spent years training MMA and Brazilian Jujitsu, I felt I better understood the mechanics of what could make for a better MMA game. Similar frustrations return after spending time with EA Sports UFC. As a fan and practitioner, are my expectations too high? Was I silly in thinking that an established development team known for their sports games, with THQ’s Undisputed to build off, could do better?
For the uneducated, the sport of MMA looks like a mess of punching, kicking and wrestling. However, the truth of the sport is so much deeper and steeped in strategy. It’s the fluidity of movement, raw competition and the chance of flash knock outs, which draws fans. But the finesse is what sets it apart.
Why have MMA games been unable to master seminal aspects of the sport like ground game, transitions and submissions? EA’s failure to translate the finesse of the sport is demonstrated by their decision to forgo an intuitive control system in favour of a steep learning curve. In the process they have turned off new players and lost veteran fans of Undisputed simultaneously. Simulation doesn’t have to mean difficult.
For all their faults, UFC games both past and present retain a core simulation experience, which put fans into a virtual octagon. As simulation experiences deepen and rosters grow, EA Sports UFC includes the Women’s Bantamweight division. While Undisputed offered a robust career experience, features introduced between 2009, 2010 and Undisputed 3 felt like a two steps forward one step back. EA’s MMA and UFC games career modes are eerily similar to those in the Fight Night series, with EA Sports UFC incorporating The Ultimate Fighter show experience. Simulation extends to replicating the real world, which is why we play simulation games in the first place.
The successful emulation of a real-world MMA experience inevitably requires a realistic submission system. Even with Undisputed 2009, THQ had settled on a substandard solution, tweaked but not fixed in the following two releases. EA has similarly been unable to solve the problem despite both companies taking different approaches. THQ’s opted for frantic button mashing and thumbstick gymnastics. Onscreen, the battle looked nice, but from a user perspective, it handled poorly and reduced the experience to bad mini-games ruining the simulation experience. EA looked at how to create a submission mechanic, highlighting the intricacies of the transitions required to lock a move in perfect to get the tap.
The problem here is it takes a submission game that should be fluid and makes it a disjointed mess devoid of fun. Not to mention poorly explained. Again, EA has opted for a series of mini-games complicated and unintuitive control mechanics. Newer players will opt to stand back up after going to ground because the thought of trying your luck at pulling off or defending a submission is well, sort of shit. Youtubing a tutorial video for an integral part of a control system is reflective of a poorly designed simulation game.
I don’t have the answer for how to make a fluid and engaging submission system for an MMA game. Sadly, neither does EA Vancouver. Sure, their current solution is a disjointed mess, but I can see that there is something there; a germination of an idea for a fluid submission mechanic. To use an MMA analogy, it’s as if they have the idea’s back, but aren’t quite sure how to get both hooks in before securing the choke. With a little training, they’ll get there. Or like Yuke’s, get knocked out by the next contender.
– Ben Abbott