MMA (or mixed martial arts) does not get the respect it deserves, and that’s expected when first impressions point to pitting men and women against each other in a cage in a fight to see who can hurt each other the most. While casual viewers stereotype it as a blood-feud, some of the fans themselves are guilty of looking past the strategy and technicality of the ground-game and focusing on the visceral brutality of the sport. That aside, MMA is also more global than your average UFC fan could ever imagine. The good news though, is that unlike its rival, EA has largely succeeded in representing the sport’s global flavour as well as its intricacies.
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With EA being the new kid on the block, reviewing EA Sports MMA would be impossible without a direct comparison to the current undisputed champion – UFC Undisputed 2010. And as EA’s first jab at the sport, you would expect there to be a bunch of kinks that would be ironed out in future releases. First impressions are middling, and that’s being kind to the slapdash approach to presentation. It is a shame that extra effort wasn’t taken to hook customers, especially when you’re the freshman on campus. In contrast, THQ and the UFC’s first entry went the whole hog with a flashy front end, a comprehensive-to-a-fault tutorial, and a classic fights mode, which would unlock clips of the respective fights. Besides being a nice treat for fans, they also served to introduce newcomers to MMA and the UFC. It was cross promotion at its best.
Back to EA Sports MMA, though. Once in a fight, you’ll also notice that the transitions between cutscenes aren’t as smooth as they could be, and that the commentary team of Shamrock and Ranallo are inanely repetitive, calling and re-calling the most basic transitions, and even going AWOL in a couple of fights. The character models look chunky enough and animate fluidly even if some of the animation routines take a bit too long to run their course, forcing you to do quite a bit of watching before making an input. Damage modelling is sadly nowhere near what Fight Night Round 4 achieved, and I had to turn the soundtrack off because it was embarrassingly bad. The stadium effects are also not as pronounced as they should have been, so don’t look for your surround setup to see much of a workout.
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EA MMA’s meagre intro video leads to a menu screen that couldn’t be more bare bones if they tried. Aside from the requisite exhibition mode, there is an MMA 101 mode that is meant to act as a tutorial. In practice, you are dropped into fight with no instructions whatsoever. Instead, the tutorial tells you what each button or combination does only after you have pressed it. This approach leads to a whole lot of button mashing just to see what happens, which then must lead to an ominous mid-review warning:
Explicit advisories are never a good sign in a videogame review (or any review for that matter), but if you do buy EA Sports MMA, be warned that the last thing you should do is start with the exhibition mode. I know it sits invitingly on top of the other options on the menu and is the first mode most people try when they pop in a sports game disc. But I want you to look right past it and click on Career mode instead. As a lot of the negative comments to the pre-release demo have shown, throwing people over the deep end of a new series based on an unfamiliar sport is not the best approach. The problem lies in the fact that EA MMA just isn’t a pick-up-and-play game. Things won’t end well if you button-mash. Submissions, for example, involve strategically timed button presses to keep your stamina levels high. The AI, while mostly competent, tends to nod off and take a needless beating one time too many on the lower difficulty settings.
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The default control scheme is a hand-me-down from the Fight Night series (as is the engine), and uses the right analog stick for strikes, with the face buttons being assigned to counters and clinches. This doesn’t work nearly as well as the classic face-button scheme, which assigns blocks, and move modifiers to the shoulder buttons and uses the right stick for sprawls and transitions. Unlike UFC 2010 and its incessant stick rotating, transitions, clinches and counters, EA Sports MMA follows a very simple principle: strike to pass, pass to strike. What this means is you can move up a position after softening up your opponent with ground strikes or strikes in the clinch. The system is intuitive and takes the guesswork out of the ground game. Striking feels meaty enough that a flash KO will always get you on your feet. The absence of cutmen and corner mini-games is unfortunate, especially since Fight Night had them.
Once you’ve clicked into career mode, you have a very limited selection of user configurable parts to build your custom fighter with. Skewed priorities abound as you’re saddled with a handful of ugly premade heads but have 250 shirts to choose from; shirts that you only see your fighter wear in the pre and post-fight cutaways. Once you’ve created your fighter (and chosen your discipline), you’ll be eased into the fighting system by way of a very workable tutorial hosted by Bas Rutten. This is a much better introduction to the controls than the aforementioned MMA 101 mode. Career progression has you starting in minor fight leagues and then moving to the bigger pastures of Strikeforce and Mystic (they really ought to have licensed DREAM).
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You can also choose to simulate the training mini-games that you partake in to improve your stats once you get a high enough grade in them. This eliminates a lot of repetition and gets you to your fights much quicker. You also have the option of paying a small fee to travel to different gyms around the world and being trained by legends such as Pat Miletich and Rickson Gracie. Sadly, this amounts to no more than a few voice-over clips. Each of these gyms does have a set of special moves you can learn, though. Keep in mind that you only have 16 special move slots, so you’ll have to put some thought into which ones you want to learn. A major drawback to the career mode, however, is the lack of any activities outside training and fighting. There are no weigh-ins or post fight pressers, for instance, and the cutscenes and entrances are shorter than I would have liked them to be. A nice touch is the country-specific referee dialogue, and the commentary team does make references to the moves you’ve picked up while training at different locations.
You always have a choice of what league you want to fight in, which I thought was pretty nifty. This makes more of a difference than just aesthetics, as EA have incorporated pretty much every rule-set in use today. Choose to fight in Brazil and soccer kicks and knees to the head are perfectly legal. Choose Japan and you have the option of fighting in a squared circle with PRIDE-like color schemes, officials and the trademark scream-y announcer lady. The range of rule-sets and rings are a welcome change from playing a UFC-only game. Needless to say, you’ll see different moves depending on where you choose to fight. The roster may be half the size of UFC 2010’s and filled with practically unknown fighters, but it does reflect the game’s global flavour.
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There is also an online multi-player mode to get stuck into. EA is also experimenting with a mode called Live Broadcast, which lets you record custom hype videos and fight an opponent in front of an online audience, with EA’s commentary team calling the bout.
While the content isn’t meaty enough when compared to the competition, there’s no denying that EA Sports MMA’s game mechanics themselves are strong and unique enough to warrant a purchase from die hard MMA fans, or a rental from casual observers. With THQ and the UFC recently extending their alliance well into the next generation of consoles and seeing the lacklustre response this game has seen at retail, it will be interesting to see where EA will take the series next. While it may never be able to match the popularity of the UFC, there’s enough potential here when it comes to the actual gameplay mechanics to make fight fans clamour for a rematch.