- Formats: Xbox One (tested), PS4; Developer: EA Vancouver; Out now
Freed somewhat from the seasonal release schedule that EA Sports follows with its mega-successful FIFA and Madden NFL series, the sporting game giant steps into the octagon once every two years with its digital interpretation of the hyper-violent Ultimate Fighting Championship.
A good thing too, as the ebb and flow of mixed martial arts follows a different pattern to those more mainstream sports, as its trends and competitors morph and innovate. EA has always had a fine way with crunchy pugilism, its Fight Night boxing series is much missed, but succeeded by the excellent multi-limbed combat of UFC.
Such is the variety between its competitors — wrestlers, kickboxers and Brazilian jiu jitsu experts throttling for position — that pulling them altogether into cogent dust-ups is no mean feat. This is where UFC 4 excels most, with a terrific fighting system that allows for different tactics and expression.
By its very nature, the complexities of the combat might initially seem offputting to newcomers. Essentially each limb corresponds to a button in general stand and bang fighting, while modifications on the shoulder buttons allow for clinching, takedowns and more elaborate strikes. But the single-player career mode does a fine job of easing you into the controls, taking you through a cinematic tutorial that layers on different elements of combat before letting you naturally hone your own style.
It is surprising how quickly most of your maneouvres become second nature; an important facet as UFC 4 puts a rightful emphasis on clashing styles. As a kickboxer, knowing how to keep a wrestler on his feet rather than let him take you to the mat is crucial. Individual bouts can take on a life of their own, while the combat at the heart of it is sufficiently brutal. Punches and kicks connect with definable force and the uncomfortable slap of flesh and bone. There is a real thrill when connecting a heavy blow to knock your opponent off their feet, screen tinging red and sparking you into a flurry to finish the fight before they have a chance to recover. MMA, whatever your personal inclination, is a primal sport and UFC 4 does well to capture its moments of blood and thunder.
The revamped submission system, meanwhile, has to deal in the abstraction of a video game with players straining to either cover or escape their opponent’s bar in a stick-twiddling mini-game. But the to and fro it creates makes sense. UFC is better on its feet, for sure, but there is enough flexibility for both experienced top guard players and newbies wrapping their head around ground transitions. For those players the choices are more simple; get up, ground and pound or try to lock in a submission.
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Your natural learning curve comes in that single-player career, which punctuates bouts with training camps that have a focus on sparring and learning new moves. While ‘evolution points’ allow you to boost your created fighters general stats, your sparring sessions have you improving individual moves by repeating them. Find your natural style and the moves you gravitate towards will improve. It’s a neat system that helps mitigate you delving around in menus too much to improve your fighter.
The downside is that UFC 4, perhaps lacking the budget of its stablemates, misses some of the pageantry of its inspiration. The cinematic opening promises something a little grander, but once you have moved from amateur brawls in a parking lot to the UFC itself, the sparring-fight cycle can feel a little perfunctory. There is some attempt at instilling some vim with sponsorship deals, challenges and stirring rivalries on social media but most take place in text-based menu options. Nice enough additions, but not ones that make up for a lack of pizazz in the presentation. Fortunately, the fighting and natural progression holds it all together and becomes satisfyingly compelling in its own right.
Away from career, UFC 4’s online modes offer some interesting twists. The misplaced Ultimate Team mode from UFC 3 has been expunged, focussing more on straight-up tussles you can modify. Stand and Bang mode, for example, pits you in a striking only fight.
The most interesting mode, however, is Blitz. This is a quickfire, 64-player online tournament which introduces different rulesets throughout each round. It’s a lot of fun, asking combatants to mix-up their approaches, keeping things interesting from bout-to-bout.
No doubt there is a lot more that could be done with a mixed martial arts game and, as a biennial release, you wonder if UFC 4 could have moved the needle a bit further on for the genre. Perhaps EA could do with a new contender to keep it on its toes, not so much undisputed as unchallenged. But for all its faults, where it matters most — in the octagon- UFC is a genuine thrill.
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