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TVG finds much to be positive about with EA Sports' entry into the mixed martial arts ring...
The (disappointingly one-sided) verbal sparring between UFC president Dana White and EA's Peter Moore has created more than a bit of interest in EA's attempt to break into the MMA business. For once, it seems, EA finds itself in the somewhat unusual position of the underdog in this match-up. While MMA sports an impressive roster of Strikeforce regulars, and legend of the sport Randy Couture, THQ still holds the trump card with the UFC licensing. And, of course, Yukes is already two games into its development odyssey, having released an improved and well-presented sequel in Undisputed 2010. So, how does MMA match up to its main (well, only) rival? The answer is pretty well, trumping UFC in certain areas while falling frustratingly short in others.
So let's start with the stand-up which, let's face it, is everyone's favourite part of mixed martial arts. Come on, we all love to see someone being kicked/punched/elbowed/kneed in the old boat race, don't we? Well stand-up fans will be glad to know it's good news in MMA. Like in the excellent Fight Night Round 4, the analogue striking controls add a welcome level of immersion to the fighting. Strikes are handled by intuitive movements on the right stick, with the LT button acting as a kick modifier, while you can clinch with Y, or attempt a takedown with A. The real beauty of the stand-up, however, lies in the defence. The right trigger is your block button and a flick up or down on the right stick will parry your opponent's strikes, assuming you choose the right direction. A successful parry will give you a brief moment in which to counter and change the momentum of the action. It's a simple, yet elegant, system and, as a result, the stand-up game feels more realistic in one sense - an unanswered flurry of four or five punches will almost certainly put your opponent on his bottom, as it almost always occurs in real life MMA.
It's immensely satisfying to land combos, especially considering the fact that it's not easy. Many potential fans voiced their displeasure at not being able to land strikes in the demo, but while this may not help the game in terms of immediacy, it's a blessing in terms of realism. MMA forces you to fight strategically. While you may be able to run straight in and batter your opponent in the first few seconds on the easier difficulty levels, once you step up into man territory (anything above 'easy', basically) you'll find the same tactic will result in a very tired fighter and brutal counter strikes from your opponents. A one dimensional fight plan will only get you so far in MMA - to advance to the top echelons of the sport, you'll need to start thinking like a fighter. Movement, range, timing, combos, fakes, and varying your attack are crucial to stand-up success in MMA, perhaps more so than in Undisputed. Your opponent will block predictable attacks, but if you vary your strikes, move in and out of range, time your counters and block/parry sensibly, you'll soon find weaknesses in their defence. Or, if that fails, put the big lump on his arse with a takedown.
Once you hit the floor in MMA, you may be surprised by the simplicity in the control scheme. Analogue stick waggling takes a back seat to good old fashioned face button action, with an emphasis on timing and, for the most part, it works very well. Tapping the A button will either move your fighter to a more advantageous position, if you're on top, or to a better defensive posture if you happen to find yourself on the bottom. The Y button allows you to return the action to the standing position, while a tap of X will initiate a submission, assuming of course that you've timed it right.
Like in the stand-up, timing plays a huge part in the ground game, which is built around the MMA principle of 'strike to pass, pass to strike.' You're more likely to achieve a ground transition if you've dealt out a couple of 'softeners' to your opponent and, in a deft move by the developer, stamina is also crucial to success. Blocking a few consecutive strikes while on the ground will deplete your opponent's stamina, giving you a small window in which to make your move and transition to safety. You also have a counter button at your disposal (B) which, if timed right, will prevent your opponent from achieving a transition. The pad will rumble when he's about to make his move on the ground and a (very) well-timed button press will successfully stuff it. Simple, no? Well, the developer has made things just a little trickier by making the pad rumble when your opponent is punching you too, so you're never quite sure whether he's about to attempt a transition or try to jam his elbow in your eye. It's a clever move and adds a refreshing element of the unknown to the ground game and, I imagine, will instil a good bit of tension into online matches (which were sadly unavailable at the time of review).
On the whole, the ground game in MMA seems very carefully-considered, placing a heavier emphasis on timing than stick mashing or 'shining'. Indeed, Undisputed fans will spot a few sly digs at Yukes' game in MMA's tutorial mode, notably when learning the submission system. Rather than reward the player for the speed of their stick-spinning (a la UFC), MMA offers something a little different. Joint submissions (like the arm bar, for instance) again focus on timing, with both players having to tap the X or B buttons (whether attacking or defending, respectively). This is no time for button mashing, however, as your stamina will drop very quickly. Instead you need to tap in controlled bursts, concentrating your efforts when your opponent's stamina is low to succeed.
Choke submissions are handled differently, with a wheel appearing on the screen. Using the left stick, you're tasked with following the coloured spot as it moves around the perimeter of the wheel, frequently changing direction. Matching its movements accurately will tighten or loosen the choke (depending on whether you're attacking or defending) and, in a nice presentational touch, the screen will darken and heartbeats will thud as the choke gets tighter, moving closer to a tap-out. Initially it seems like a smart design choice but, as I advanced through the game's career mode, it became evident that it might just prove to be a 'get out of jail free' feature - even on the higher difficulty levels, it seemed a little too easy to choke out an opponent, even when my fighter's paltry 38 out of 100 submission rating was heavily outmatched by my opponent's. While this is less likely to be an issue when tackling human opponents, it does have the potential to diminish the tension in the single-player game, knowing you can almost always salvage a win if you find yourself struggling in the stand-up.
However, our biggest frustration with MMA is its career mode. That's not because it's bad, per se, but rather that the good ideas are hampered by the same old problems that have plagued the single-player experience in many, many EA Sports games. On the one hand, fighter training is handled brilliantly, with less of the tedious repetition made famous in Fight Night. As your skills progress you'll unlock new, more difficult training games and, in a merciful stroke by the developer, once you've achieved an A grade in a training mini-game, you can sim it from then on, with no stats penalty. You can travel to new training camps - each with a different focus - where you can add up to 16 new special moves to your fighter's repertoire, offering a nice sense of progression. By far the best aspect of the training, however, is perhaps its most simple idea. When training for your next fight, you can spar against a similar fighter as many times as you want, allowing you to research your opponent and adjust to his style before you step into the ring/cage against him. It's something that proves utterly invaluable in the career mode, and no doubt saved us from more than a few shock defeats.
Unfortunately, these good ideas are overshadowed by a noticeable lack of atmosphere in the career mode. Sure, you'll progress from the more modest fighting leagues to the heady heights of Strikeforce, where you'll face the more recognisable names on the game's impressive roster of MMA practitioners (yay for the mighty Fedor!), but it never feels satisfying. There's no context; no feeling that you're part of a bigger MMA world and, as is usually the case in combat sports games, you find yourself grinding from fight to training to fight etc. The badly voiced cut-scenes and voicemail messages from trainer Bas Rutten aren't enough to add atmosphere and it's hard to deny the feeling that, when it came to the career mode, "that'll do" was a popular phrase in the studio. MMA, the sport that is, is defined by its rivalries and there is just no sense that you're taking part in an important fight, despite old Bas' motivational voicemail messages. Indeed, when reading the e-mails from Bas' secretary in the game, you'll wonder why the developer spent time including weird moments of textual melodrama - she'll occasionally divulge details of her personal life that you really couldn't care less about - instead of developing the atmosphere.
Nevertheless, from a gameplay standpoint, you've got to give EA Tiburon props for delivering an MMA experience completely distinct from its main rival, even surpassing it in certain areas. It's not hard to argue that MMA is the superior game in terms of stand-up, with better controls, physics and animation making for a more strategic, realistic experience, even if it doesn't boast as many moves as Undisputed. And, sure, one punch knockouts are far less frequent in EA's game than THQ's, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. It even holds its own on the ground, with a refreshing focus on timing over stick/button mashing. But, with a disappointing career mode and less-than-stellar presentation, it's a less complete package than Undisputed. I should probably drop in a fighting metaphor here, I suppose: with MMA, it seems like EA is finding its range with the jab in the first round, before swinging for the fences in the second. There you go.
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