EA MMA: In the blue corner, the challenger.
Over the last ten or so years, there have actually been several Mixed Martial Arts video games, mostly focused on the lucrative UFC promotion. In 2009, this sub-genre was revolutionized and truly brought to the mainstream in a way that parallels the sports recent rise in popularity with UFC 2009: Undisputed. Undisputed presented the sport with a brutal realism that was far removed from button combos and special moves that developers tried to shoehorn into its predecessors. It was impressive, but it lacked some key elements in the cage. UFC Undisputed 2010 fixed many of these issues, and it was hard to imagine how it could be vastly improved upon at that point.
A little known fact is that Dana White and the UFC went to EA long before THQ and Yukes to make a UFC game. EA dismissed MMA as ‘not a real sport’ and continued to make another Madden. However, the success of Undisputed caught EA’s eye, and deals with the lesser promotion Strikeforce were made immediately, to the complete spite of Dana White, who went so far as to declare any UFC fighters that appear in EA’s MMA game to be fired from the UFC (Of course, this seems to not count for Randy Couture, though this seems to have been allowed because Randy had not signed his likeness over to THQ for undisputed).
And so comes EA MMA, a competitor that I think is needed if MMA video games are going to continue to improve, as I believe competition is the key to improvement. I’ll be transparent here; I’m a UFC fan. I see Strikeforce as a generally lesser promotion with lesser talent and more WWE-style production values. I expected very little out of EA MMA, and that was foolish of me. UFC Needs to step its game up for 2011, because EA is bringing its usual dominance to the proverbial cage.
The Demo for EA MMA just recently came out on XBLA (Yes, you can go play it. Right now!), and I of course had to give it a spin. I want to first note that I like UFC’s soundtrack better. The opening movie for EA being set to Linkin Park’s new song ‘Wretches and Kings’ was a little eye roll worthy, but that’s a very petty complaint. Let’s move, instead, into the important factors: The game’s performance.
EA MMA takes a lot of cues from undisputed, presentation-wise, but veers off in some very significant ways on its own. The biggest difference is of course EA’s ‘Total Striking Control’, which takes more than a small bit of influence from EA’s other hit fighting franchise, Fight Night. It’s the same sort of set up, with the right analog stick controlling your furious fists. However, since this is in fact not boxing, the left trigger serves as a modifier to turn those punches in to kicks controlled via the same fashion. The face buttons serve as one press short cuts to clinch, sprawl, and go for the takedown, while pressing A works to advance your position on the ground, X goes for a submission (Which we’ll get to), and B counters a move or stands you up if you’re in the dominant position. This greatly decreases the complicated nature of the ground game, which is a frustration for many in Undisputed.
However, there is also a control scheme called ‘Classic’ that mirrors Undisputed in an obvious way, with the same sort of striking face buttons and stick-based clinch and grapple. There are a few button variations (A fake-modifier button, which is much more useful against a human opponent who can actually get psyched out), but overall it might be the best choice if you plan to play both EA and UFC.
Submissions are the only thing that, no matter what, are a whole different beast. Instead of the irritating Mario Party submissions like in Undisputed, EA separates its submissions and their mechanics into joint and choke submissions. Joint submissions (Armbar, Kimura, Americana, etc) are a button pressing game in which you try to maintain your stamina while slowly pushing your opponent’s joints (represented in a very cool way by an X Ray view of the bones) to their limit. This isn’t button mashing, though, it requires much more careful timing. Choke submissions require you to rotate the left stick until you find the ‘sweet spot’, which will change periodically and requires a sort of constant twiddling to nail. Your vision tunnels in the closer you get to the choke, narrowing the sweet spot down and simulating actually passing out. Defending submissions works in the same manner.
Fighting in EA MMA feels good. I’ve always found Undisputed to feel a bit mechanical, movement wise, with sounds that don’t quite drive home the impact of every good punch. EA feels organic, and gives you a gratifying smack for every well landed hit. Knockouts are a flurry of punches that never cease to satisfy, and when you clinch, it really feels like these guys are throwing eachother around on your TV. When it comes down to it, I would be happy to sit back and watch people duke it out on EA MMA, while I always found spectating Undisputed matches to be a little boring and methodical. Point: EA.
This isn’t to say EA is absolutely the superior game. UFC seems to present more variable options, and the fights are a bit more spontaneous. EA has a visible torso and head health bar when you begin to really wail on a guy that lets you know when the knockout is coming, and while that’s very helpful for knowing when to back off and play defensive, it also takes a bit of the excitement out of the flash knock out. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a flash KO yet, as every KO becomes your opponent falling to the ground and you engaging in a mad button mashing sequence to finish him off as he tried desperately to defend. That said, you can turn the HUD completely off, but it doesn’t make flash KOs exist in the game.
Take all of this with a pillar of salt, seeing as this is only a demo. The full version of EA MMA will include EA Game Face in the create-a-fighter, which may or may not have terrible results, live broadcasts of fights in a real worldwide ranking, and many more features that I couldn’t explore in the demo. It’s shaping up to be a great game, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dana White making some calls if it does well. Look for a full review when the game comes out later this month.