As one of the fastest growing sports on the planet, you’d think there would be multiple mixed martial arts (MMA) videogames vying for a growing slice of the market. Instead, the last major MMA release was back in 2014, and now, with a near-two year hiatus punctuated by unusual (but welcome) large patches that tweaked gameplay and added several game-changing features behind them, EA and its unheralded Canada team have returned with the second iteration of what’s still the only option if you’ve been aching for some virtual pugilism. And you’d better be a UFC fan while you’re at it – there’s no Bellator or WSOF for you non-conformists.
The extended development cycle was a two-pronged strategic gamble, intended to allow the console install base to grow, and to give what’s probably a tiny-as-heck gaggle of developers enough time to absorb user feedback and build a solid second installment. UFC 2 also comes with in-game feedback surveys and a live event mode that lets you play and predict PPV results to earn in-game rewards. If only all development teams were this involved and open to feedback.
Playing EA Sports UFC 2, you can tell that they’ve worked hard to improve on the first game. Immediately noticeable is the cleaner menu interface that isn’t just smooth to scroll through, but also filled with a lot more options than the first game. Don’t be fooled, though – while there are plenty of modes to dive into, most aren’t deep enough to hook you into repeat playthroughs.
A major complaint with the first game was the lacklustre career mode, which kinda-sorta has been improved here. The cornball FMV video clips featuring Dana White and random fighters who had time to kill at the studio have been junked, and replaced with… not much, really. The create-a-fighter is impressively detailed (with female representation this time round), but everything after could have been so much better. You start off by trying to win UFC’s Ultimate Fighter reality show in order to earn yourself a spot in the UFC proper. Once you do, you’re made to go through the very familiar fight-train-fight routine with very little variation in between.
The pre-fight training camps contain the tried and tested mini-games you’ve come to expect from a game such as this, with the only intricacy being the possibility of pre/post-fight injuries and random interferences with your training camp (all conveyed via boring text boxes). With the UFC increasingly emphasising fighter personalities in order to hard sell those all-important PPVs, it’s a damn shame there isn’t a whiff of character in this mode – no pre/post-fight interviews, no weigh-ins, no rivalries. What’s left is a ladder that you play through until you lose interest, or your fighters’ body just refuses to take any more punishment. I like the fact that you can only keep your career going so long before you’re forced to retire, but there just isn’t enough meat here to get most people that far in.
EA has also transplanted in its popular (and profitable) Ultimate Team, a mode that’s become more an extension of the career mode than what we’ve seen in other EA Sports titles. Unfortunately, the game lacks real fight camps, which is both shocking and disappointing for a premier MMA title coming out in 2016. EA’s own Strikeforce-focussed MMA game from back in 2010 had unique fight camps and trainers, and it’s a real missed opportunity that you can’t join a real camp and build it out with unique fighters and trainers gained via card drops. What you can do instead is the next best thing – create your own roster of five fighters and buff them using move and stat card drops. On the plus side, it does come with full online integration, pitting you against other CAFs and performance tracking via championships and leaderboards.
The presentation has been upped a notch and most of the 250+ fighters on the roster absolutely look the part. There are a few stragglers, but for all intents and purposes, this is the very definition of a visual showcase. Sound design is also a strongpoint. Bruce Buffer bellows, while Goldberg and Rogan are very good on commentary. I could’ve done with more colour from Goldy, but their play by play, especially when there’s a heated exchange ongoing, is infectious. Thanks to a refined physics system, KOs are now truly dynamic and highlight-reel worthy, generating absolutely bonkers-looking knockdowns in a variety of situations.
With 250+ fighters comes that familiar videogame development resource allocation conundrum. You just can’t get each one of them to move or animate like their real-life counterparts. While the stars get special treatment, fighters further down the pecking order are clearly based on prefixed striker/wrestler templates. The pace of movement between them isn’t very different, although the modelling and physics are good enough that fighter reach is important as all heck. Similarities in movesets aside, the fighters are all wonderfully animated, if a bit robotic looking in replays. Some of the incidental animations, such as twitches, grimaces or signature taunts make the action look almost like a real broadcast. Only the awfully animated referees take you out of the experience.
UFC 2’s core gameplay is very, very fun. At its core, the game remains a fun single or couch multiplayer experience that’s enjoyable more in short bursts than in the long-form career or ultimate team modes. The large roster combined with a more intuitive control scheme makes for a great party game. The game scales oddly well, and not always by design. There’s even a standup-only knockout mode that focuses on who gets their opponents health bar down to zero, ending with a spectacular knockout. Playing against the AI isn’t as fun however, prone as it is to flat-out not responding to repeated face pummeling unless you bump up the difficulty significantly.
The MMA ground game has always been convoluted and difficult to translate to an interactive medium. UFC 2 comes with a series of visual indicators that clearly list out your available options to advance your ground or clinch position or lock in a submission. While basic moves can be remembered, it really helps when you have moves listed on screen, and makes the barrier of entry ever so easier to surmount for newcomers. I just wish there was a more intuitive tutorial/practice system built into the game, because flicking through the current flashcards is absolutely infuriating. A better tutorial/practice mode would also get new players up to speed and ready for the absolutely brutal competition that can be found online. There are plenty of people playing as well, which is always a good sign.
None of this makes EA UFC 2 a bad game. It’s more fun than ever, and proves beyond doubt that MMA videogames have a place in the current videogame landscape. That said, it’s heartbreaking that some of the modes from THQ’s under-appreciated UFC Undisputed 3 still haven’t been replicated in the current console generation. Where’s the Pride FC mode, of instance, or customisable rule sets and classic matches, or even a more involved cage game?
The Event mode that’s in UFC 2 lets you set up and play, or watch full PPV cards, but the presentation isn’t anywhere near as detailed as it was in Undisputed 3. We’re also missing a number of other odds and ends – swaying on the ground and while moving, sprinting to pounce on a rocked opponent, any movement when you’re on your back, etc. I could go on.
The game we have now though is still recommended for fans or newcomers looking to dip their feet. There’s a lot of fun just playing one-off matches at the end of a long work day, and couch multiplayer is an absolute riot. We can also expect a slew of patches and gameplay improvements going by how the first game was treated. With more single-player game modes and a more fleshed out career, the next installment could very well become a must-buy. Now how about a new Fight Night, EA?