Games based on real-world sports IP tend to fall under one of two categories – there are those that deliver a purist experience and appeal to the fans, and then there are those that go beyond the simulation to draw in casual players with various accessibility modes and features. Over 20 hours in, I still don’t know which side UFC 4 falls on, and that’s a good thing.
Off the bat, let’s make one thing clear – UFC 4 doesn’t do what Fight Night did for boxing games. For that matter, it doesn’t even do what THQ’s UFC games did to make MMA games appeal to the mainstream. For those who were hoping for this game to take a more arcade, pick-up-and-play approach, you are bound to be disappointed. But stay with me here, because despite this, UFC 4 does do a fine job of easing in casuals and newcomers.
Pretender to contender
The Career mode is the meat of the UFC 4 experience. The first hour is a series of cutscenes and gameplay drills to get you up to speed with basic controls. A big part of the career early on also involves character creation. This is a robust system involving appearance, fighting style, attributes, move sets, and emotes. After that, you’re pretty much left to your own devices. The career is quite a grind – and I don’t mean that in a bad way – focusing primarily around training, building hype for your fights, and the actual fight itself. The ultimate goal is to climb to the top of the UFC and reach G.O.A.T status before your career winds down.
Each fight is preceded by several weeks of preparation, which involves training, promoting your fight and doing the homework on your opponent. You’ll begin each fight prep with low fitness level, so it’s important to balance training and promotions to ensure that the fight is sufficiently hyped and that you reach fight weak in peak fitness. In between, you’ll also take to social media to throw down challenges, antagonise or befriend other fighters, and answer media questions. Maybe its the MMA fan in me, but even though all of this seems quite mundane on paper, it’s actually quite well executed, and it reflects the steady grind of a UFC fighter quite accurately.
Ground and pound
In terms of the actual combat mechanics, this isn’t a big departure from UFC 3, which may disappoint those hoping for UFC 2’s simpler combat. There’s an insane amount of depth, and it’s almost impossible to remember the button combinations for every strike, given the numerous punch and kick types and modifiers available. That said, once you understand the core combat controls – what each face button does and what the modifiers do, the combat becomes quite fluid and intuitive. And learning these basics is vital, because once you’re in the Octagon, your chosen strategy can quickly go out of the window. You’ll constantly have to adapt to your opponent’s play style, which vary based on the four core styles available – boxing, muai thai, ju-jitsu and wrestling.
Like most people who play UFC games, I have usually stayed away from the ground game, partly because stand-up is simply more exciting, but also because UFC games have never got grappling and submissions right. To make things simpler on the ground, there are now straightforward mini-games for submissions. You can still switch to the more complex legacy grappling controls, but I chose to stick with the new QTE-style ground game. I suspect most players will do the same.
There’s plenty to do beyond the Career as well. You can create a UFC PPV with your own custom fight card, and you can also create old-school Pride-like tournament, where damage carries forward onto subsequent matches. In terms of online, the Online World Championship presents a profession system that moves you up through the ranks as you rack up more wins. You can also partake in the more unconventional Blitz Battles, which are tournaments with unique rules like ‘Hands Tied’ where you’re only allowed to use kicks.
In terms of presentation, UFC 4 is pretty much in line with the TV presentation in terms of the use of graphics, sound effects and announcements. But it’s in the moment-to-moment action that the presentation falters. The commentary lacks excitement, and too many times the commentators make wrong calls, like saying you knocked your opponent out with a kick, when in fact it was a punch. Frame rates are also quite inconsistent (on PS4 Pro) during cutscenes and fight entrances. However, UFC 4 excels in its animations and visual impact of combat. Head kicks and haymakers feel weighty and heavy, while jabs and straight hooks have a clean snap to them. Even the post-match highlights look fantastic and are testament to the game’s impressive hit detection, which only falters when fighters are transitioning from the ground to their feet.
UFC 4 seems more like a refinement of UFC 3 than a bold new direction. Given that this is the tail-end of the console life cycle, I don’t blame EA. But those refinements go a long way towards making UFC 4 a more accessible and fun game, without diluting the experience for serious fans. If you found UFC 3 too technical or intimidating, UFC 4 probably won’t convince you otherwise. But if you have even a passing interest in MMA, UFC 4 is well worth your time.